Ajay’s story – an immigrant to a mega polis

Ajay was in class V, studying in his village school was barely 10 when, one evening he got a sound thrashing from his father for neglecting studies. He was not good at studies and detested the rigmarole of getting educated. Since there is no failing till primary level of education he was getting promoted to the next class every year till he reached class V. The thrashing was a routine since there were complaints of his poor levels in the school. Plainly speaking, he loathed and despised study. Ajay was from Motihari, a backward and poor district in the state of Bihar.

That evening’s thrashing was the last straw in his resolve to flee his village and his home. Ajay could read the letters that reached his village folks from Delhi. There were quite a few immigrant labourers from his village to Delhi who would write letters back home. There were few who could read or write. Ajay was among them and he was helpful in reading the letters. It was early nineties when the cellphone were still in its infancy and STD phone calls were both expensive and non-existent in nondescript villages like Ajay’s. Therefore a postcard or an inland letter was more in vogue than any other mode of communication. The villagers used to get the information of their dear ones at a distant place by these snailmails read by Ajay.

There were two outcomes of these letters. One was the information to the relatives to whom the letters were written. The other one was exclusively for Ajay. Ajay had started forming a fair description of the place, culture, food habits, weather, transportation, accommodation etc. about the place in Delhi where his relatives or his village folks lived. Without ever setting foot in the city he had a sketch ready in his mind and had started planning his escape. He was aware of few basics which would help him escape. He just knew the place where his folks were living in Delhi. He knew that the place could be reached by bus from the Delhi rail station. He knew the landlord’s name. He knew the nearest bus stop from where he would get a bus to reach the rail station, 30 km away from his village. He knew the train timings and he could guess the amount of money he needed to succeed the great escape. He was just a 10-year-old boy but with a meticulous planning of escape as generally expected from an adult person.

The evening he was thrashed badly, he cried to show his pain to others. From within, his resolve was now firm. He took dinner at usual time (it’s always early in villages) and went to sleep. When the whole household became quiet, he stole Rs.700 from his father’s purse. The bus for the rail station was at very early morning. He kept a shoulder bag ready with just couple of his dress. At 3 in the morning in the early winter of 1999, he rolled his blanket and pillow on his cot to fashion a dummy as if someone was asleep, took his shoulder bag and Rs.700 concealed in his body very secretively, left his house and his village for the bus stand. Not a single soul was to be seen around in the darkness. Few dogs chased him whom he thwarted by waving his bag. He told me that he was waving the bag to the dogs just to frustrate their attempt to bite him. He reached the bus stand and soon he boarded the first bus to the station. At the station he bought a half-ticket for Delhi of general compartment and boarded the train. He was free.

After a journey for more than 30 hours, he reached Delhi rail station. He just knew the name of the place where his village mates were staying. It was Dallupura in East Delhi. Ajay was aware that he should go to the nearest bus stand near the station and from there he would get a bus to Dallupura. Taking cues from people, he reached the bus stand and looked for the bus to Dallupura. He found one but got a bit puzzled that the destination was written in the board as Dallupura Extension. ‘Extension’ was a new word for him. Ajay was anything but nervous in a big city like Delhi. He was just a boy of 10 and innocently he asked the bus conductor whether the bus would go to Dallupura. ‘Yes’, replied the conductor. ‘Then what is ‘Dallupura Extension’?’ ‘Never mind, get into the bus if you want to go to Dallupura’, the conductor replied. He boarded the bus and sat beside the conductor as he knew that the best guide would be him only. The conductor took pity at the boy of such a tender age and guided him to the stop at Dallupura an hour later.

Ajay could not believe his luck. He was at Dallupura, finally. It’s three days since he has left his village, his parents, his brothers, his relatives, everyone without their knowledge where he was. Now the most daunting task was to locate the house where his relatives stayed in Dallupura. He knew the landlord’s name and that was the only clue he had. Fortune favours the brave. After asking few people in the locality, he was informed that the landlord was a big man in the area and he had rented out several houses. Soon he reached his relative’s house at Dallupura.

His relatives and acquaintances were very surprised seeing him coming all alone from the distant village. There was a natural affinity and bonhomie among immigrants. He was welcomed with open arms, bathed, clothed and fed. However, that night Ajay wept profusely remembering his home and his parents. He could not sleep properly.

Next day onwards, he observed the routine followed by his countrymen. Most of them were daily labourers working in construction sites. He was just a child so no one offered him a job. A week passed by. His money started slowly dwindling. He was aware that soon he must find some work to sustain his livelihood in the city. The landlady’s wife took pity in him and offered him the work of a labourer at her construction site. Ajay, being the only ‘educated’ among the lot started keeping account of daily expenditure of the household. Soon he was able to shortchange them and managed to earn some money besides managing his contribution to the household expenses.

Within a fortnight of his arrival, Ajay started earning regularly as a labourer. He would do any type of manual work. However, he kept his eyes and ears open to the skilled functions of the construction works. He learnt the electrician work and started taking up such tasks.

After about 6 months of his stay, his father arrived at Dallupura one fine morning. The news of Ajay’s safe arrival at Dallupura had reached his village within a fortnight. His parents were a worried lot till the news reached. Ajay was not at home when his father arrived. In the evening when Ajay returned from his daily work, he could recognize the ‘dhoti’ getting dried in courtyard. At once, he knew that his father had arrived. Both the father and son wept their heart out on seeing each other and hugged tight. That night the duo eat from the same plate and talked till late night. The father wanted to take the son back to village but Ajay was adamant. He assured that he would come later. His father stayed for a week and Ajay saw him off after buying his return ticket and also gave him Rs.3000, savings from his earnings so far and more than 4 times the money he stole from his father’s purse. Ajay was just 11 then.

The lessons of life quickly arrived for Ajay. He understood the power of money. He knew that not being educated has its drawbacks but at the same time hard work, in any form, pays. It’s quite puzzling that he was poor at studies but very sharp in picking up the nuances of construction work. Spending few years in various odd jobs, he attained some skill in electrical works. However, he abruptly left the electrical work. He was bitten by a bug while fixing a ceiling fan and also received electric shock one day and fell from about 12 feet height.

With the help of one of his acquaintances, he learnt the ‘jari’ work on garments and worked till 2006 in a garment factory. He learnt the tailoring work also there and could stitch pants and shirts. He left that job due to ‘computerisation’ of designs. The artwork by hand was affected by computer aided designs and it hit the manual artisans.

In that year, Ajay picked up the ‘karni’, a tool used by masons. Since he had worked in construction sites and helped the masons, he soon, was proficient in masonry works. He has been continuing as mason since then and earning about Rs.20000 a month.

Ajay had visited his native village 18 months after he had escaped. He was kind of ‘hero’ at his village who was not only the only one to make such a ‘brave’ and ‘dangerous’ effort to escape but also a earning member of the family at such a tender age. He had taken gifts for everyone in his family and gave some cash also to his parents. He was at his village for about three weeks and when he boarded the train back to Delhi, he was given a warm send-off by his entire clan. Ajay was just 12.

Now almost 18 years in the city, Ajay has made steady progress both economically and profession-wise. He is a skilled worker now earning at least Rs.800 a day. He takes up petty jobs on contract also to augment his earnings. He is married and has two sons. His family is in the village and he sends his children to ‘private’ schools in the village as there is no education in ‘sarkari’ (govt.) schools. His elder son is in class 5 and like him does not like to study. The only lure which takes the son to school is a daily allowance of Rs 5 or 10 which his mother gives him. For this purpose Ajay saves all the changes he receives during the year and delivers to his wife when he visits them annually, during October-November. Ajay is afraid that his son may follow his path. He is a father and now understands the agony his parents have gone through when he ran away from home.

There are hundreds of such stories of migrant child labourers in every big city. I came to know Ajay just last week when there was some masonry work in my new flat. He found a keen listener in me and narrated his story. I found it amazing and worth blogging.

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My Co-passengers

17.08.2017

Coach B9. Seats 25 28 – not so elderly couple – first said 25 but took 28. On pointing to actual seat, arrogance erupted: 25 & 28 are both ours!

Seat 26 29 – four luggages. Kept on corridor for sometime. Not so Elderly man: where we would keep our luggage? You are taking all! Arrogance in the same level. The young ones were humble enough and adjusted their luggage quickly to the satisfaction of the ‘arrogant’ not so old man.

It seemed to me that the not so elderly gentleman does not give an inch anywhere. Not accommodating at all. May be bitter experiences in life.

In my numerous train travels I have encountered such behaviour often. Passengers would fight over luggage space, choice of berths (everyone wants the lower berth)!

The ‘arrogant’ man returned after probably surveying the coach and facilities. He sat in a peculiar posture beside me, spreading his knees wide enough to compel me to adjust my posture. I have observed rampant use of this very irritating way of seating among many men. Somehow this has become habit for many without realising the negative impression it creates.

The lady of the not so elderly couple was sorry that waitlisted passengers could not board as the train allows only confirmed passengers to board. She was happy that one seat was allotted to one person only🙂!! She was traveling in Rajdhani express for the first time. It was confirmed when she asked her husband if the train was fully airconditioned.

The allotment of berths are difficult for me to decipher. The couple got 25 & 28 both lower berths. The duo in front of me got 26 & 29 both middle berths. It is said that senior citizens and female above 45 years of age are allotted lower berths. But this is not always the case. My 84 year old mother and my 63 year old brother were not allotted lower berths in the May trip. The logic is still not clear to me after so many years of computerised online reservation system. I am pretty sanguine of manual intervention.

In my adjacent coupe, the expected debate on Modi and Kejriwal started. A lady was happy that her electricity bill is halved and there is no water bill under Kejriwal regime. However she is at pain at Kejriwal’s meaningless outbursts against Modi. The debate took a break on arrival of refreshments.

An intercity train passed ahead when our train stopped briefly creating sounds of tabla to our stationary soundproof train.

The two young men sitting opposite to my seat were conversing in the eastern dialect of UP heard in and around Varanasi. I heard the dialect after so many years. Years ago when my aunt stayed at Varanasi I used visit her almost every year. The locals spoke in that dialect and my cousins were quite proficient in the dialect including the tone. The boatmen at the ghats of Ganga spoke in that dialect only, even to foreigners. Very sweet and easy to understand.

True to their natural instinct, one of the young men went out in the corridor and returned with ready ‘khaini’ (a mixture of dry tobacco leaves and edible lime powder) in his palm duly concealed and handed over to his friend. The familiar smell reached my nostrils and I understood the whole sequence.

The not so elderly man was fond of old Hindi film songs. He started playing hit songs from a recording of Binaca Geetmala program in his mobile phone. In the adjacent coupe, the political discussions did not resume. Instead, the ‘Sundarkand paath’ started playing from…. what….mobile phone.

Meanwhile the not so old lady reminded her husband of medicine time.

There was distraction to the ladies listening to ‘Sundarkand Paath’ because our not so old gentleman was listening to the old Hindi Film songs quite loudly. So the ladies started chanting the lines from ‘Sundarkand’. The music stopped all conversations. What a way to stop all kind of conversations (including the ever increasing political debates)!

A little later the not so old lady started viewing some recorded serial. They had carried a Jio network device. They were oblivious to the noise and was not using earphones. Copassengers had to bear with the disturbance. I remembered an old sign in rail coaches prohibiting playing radios if it disturbed other passengers.  No such signs are visible these days. The not so old couple are from the days of that notice but obviously they never noticed neither cared.

Tea and refreshments served. Our not so old elderly couple had all but continued complaining about over-weight and other related ailments.

After dinner the gentleman revealed his age while boasting something about his travels. He was 62. I was right. They were not so elderly. These days person of all ages dye their hair. So it’s difficult to ascertain age these days.

Science played its role while we all were retiring for the night. A gentleman was snoring loud sleeping in the side upper berth. The snoring sound echoed to my ears as if someone was sleeping just beside. The arc of ceiling of the coach brought the sound.  I remembered Gol Gumbad of Bijapur. The earphones came handy. I had to plug my ears to limit the savagery of his snoring.

The quality of tea was a problem for the not so elderly couple. The lady regretted that no other tea hawker with readymade tea was available unlike other trains. They found the tea to be very light. A solution was found by using two tea bags for one cup. The lady was still sceptical.

I parted with them now. The journey for them was another 4 hours. Could only imagine their reaction on the quality of breakfast and further events. They had entertainment ready with the Jio device and it already serving them when I disembarked the train.

Don’t become a bystander

A responsible citizen has many roles to play. One of the roles is to voice concern or act responsibly on an event or incident. His/her role should not be limited to a mute spectator or play victim of circumstances. The citizen needs to rise, react and respond. History is replete with incidents where a lone citizen first voiced a concern and slowly the voice became vociferous. Such vociferous voice was soon joined by the chorus and the combined voices became a movement.

To start this piece of the blog on such a serious note is just a preamble to what I see every day within the confine of my society and at large when I hit the road.

Let us begin with an example. The other day, I saw a taxi having 4 passengers drove dangerously. The driver had no respect for the traffic signal nor did he have any concern for the accompanying traffic. It grazed past my vehicle from the wrong side with a little but noticeable scratch. My concern is not the rash driving habit of the driver. I am concerned about the 4 passengers’ safety. It is my experience (and many would vouch for that) that passengers in a vehicle are least bothered as to how the vehicle is driven. Their only concern is to reach the destination in the shortest possible time. They are least bothered about their own safety. The 4 passengers were totally oblivious to the consequences of the dangerous driving. They did not care to jump the red light by the driver. They did not care that the driver was overtaking vehicles from the wrong side. They did not care that the driver was ignorant about pedestrian traffic. They did not care to admonish or alert the driver about the careless driving which was putting their safety in jeopardy. This is a daily scene in any vehicle you see on the road, especially the commercial vehicles. The passengers remained just bystanders even when their own lives were in danger.

I have also observed the parking habits of various people. They would park their vehicles as if either they own the parking space or there would be no other vehicle. We observe this unbecoming behaviour regularly. But I have not observed anyone objecting to such a behaviour except for the parking attendant in paid parking lots. That too obviously for business reasons. The bystander syndrome affects all of us here too.

The malady has serious consequences. We have seen accidents on roads where people coolly leave the scene (after duly performing the role of a bystander). Seldom anyone offers help. These days some bystanders film the incident in their smartphones just to circulate the same in social media. It does not help in mitigating the suffering. A bystander is of no help. He is rather a hindrance.

Among the many stories emanating from the great epic ‘Mahabharata’, at this point, I remember the story of the ‘Yaksha’ who asked five questions to ‘Yudhishtira’. One of the questions was what the greatest riddle in the earth was. ‘Yudhishtira’ replied that every day people die. We all are witness to this phenomena in our daily lives. Yet, I, as a bystander, believe that I am alive without realising that I would also attain the same fate, for sure. This is the greatest riddle. A bystander neglect incidents on the same reasoning.

The bystander syndrome is all pervasive. We are ‘bystanders’ to the filth, dirt and stench around us. Someone throws garbage on road. We are mute spectators. Someone spits in the open. We are bystanders. Someone defecate openly. We are bystanders. Someone damages public property. We are bystanders. Someone defaces walls. We are bystanders. Someone humiliates. We are bystanders. Someone does not do his/her job. We remain bystanders and don’t protest. Someone show cruelty towards animals. We are bystanders. Someone is taking undue advantage of his/her position. We are bystanders. The list is infinite.

So what one should do? At least, make a beginning with yourself. Even on one occasion if you are voicing your concern, you are not among the ‘bystanders’.

The list is infinite.

Beli

It has occurred to me many a time to write a profile on Beli. She has been our maid for the longest period. A frail lady (not weighing more than 90 pounds at any point of time) helped my wife in cleaning the house, washing clothes and doing the dishes. From an early morning visit to the last visit in the evening, she completed her tasks without any criticism from any of my family members. Her bell in the morning woke up the entire family. Only my wife would get up and open the door while all others would leave their beds depending upon the urgency. Beli’s task in that hour included doing the dishes and broom the Puja room. She would leave for another house thereafter only to return after a couple of hours to clean the house and help in washing clothes. My wife would dutifully provide her with some refreshment before she leaves at that hour. Her last visit for the day would be in the evening. At any given time, Beli would manage such work for at least 4 to 5 households. In between, she would visit her one room tenement to cook for her family, bath herself and come back to resume her jobs. She has been methodical and never gave any opportunity for complaints. Always smiling, she did her job to the best of her ability.

Beli came to this part of the country in search of work in the early part of the last decade. She came from an obscure and nondescript village in another nondescript district in the state of West Bengal. Migrant workers, in search of jobs, came in hordes when the city started developing rapidly in early 2000. The menial jobs were in demand, especially the household jobs. For a housewife, a maid is a blessing and a boon at the same time. The poor from the local populace were not much interested or skilled in such jobs. Mostly peasants, the local populace somehow despised the job of cleaning someone’s house or doing the dishes. The women folk of the migrant labourers took the job rather enthusiastically as the jobs were aplenty and it added to the family income. The rentals were high, cost of living in a town was already a matter of strain to the family and the lowly paid jobs of the men in factories were not sufficient to run the household. Many migrant men took up the jobs of rickshaw puller where the income was not steady and factory jobs were scarce. Hence the women of the house joined their husbands to supplement the income to eke out a moderate standard of living.

Beli came with her husband and three children, two daughters and one son. The couple was landless labourers. Her husband was not trained in any particular skill. So he started with rickshaw puller’s work which fetched him irregular income. Beli had no choice but to start working in nearby houses/flats. They lodged themselves in a one room tenement at an adjoining urban village at an astronomical rent of Rs.1000 in early 2000. Astronomical by their standards! Though rooms with lesser rent were available, Beli preferred paying a little extra since the building had toilet facility. Beli, for herself and also for her two minor daughters, did not like the idea of open defecation, one of the many qualities of Beli. So she agreed to pay a little higher rent. She has enlightened already without realising that such a thing will become a state-sponsored movement much later.

The wages for doing dishes, washing clothes or cleaning/dusting households were mostly fixed by the society managements. In our area, there are no individual houses. Group housing societies have constructed flats for their members and such jobs were available in these households. I remember the rates prevailing in 2003 when we started living in this area. It was Rs.250 per job per month. So for one household, maximum Rs.750 was earned by a maid if she did all the three jobs. Considering the households and the composition of each family, a maid could manage only 4 to maximum 5 households. This was really a backbreaking job. Fortunately, though the rates were fixed, certain households were benevolent. They paid a little extra to the maids with the twin purpose of earning goodwill and ensuring loyalty. The attrition rate was high among the maids. There are various reasons for it. However, the behaviour of the households was the most important reason. The maids came from a poor background. But they did not accept nonsense. Any rude or unbecoming attitude was enough reason for any maid to say good-bye. A little extra amount every month was a boon for the maid. Apart from that, residents like my wife, who gave a little refreshment every morning to Beli, also took care of extra payments or gifts during festivals, arranged for school dresses for their children and took care during illness. My wife lent her advance money at times for some sudden requirement to be repaid at leisure. Beli was at ease in working in our home particularly for two reasons, one she has the liberty to take leave as and when she needed and secondly she could talk to my mother in her mother tongue. My mother, who is also from a remote village in North Bengal liked to talk to her, endlessly.

Beli took special care in educating her children. There were opportunities for her minor daughters to supplement the family income. There was a demand of minor servants at houses who would take care of the aged family members or babysitting by staying either full-time or part-time till the other members return home. But Beli didn’t like it. She was of the firm opinion not to push her children in the same trade. She started educating her children. Both her daughters covered primary school education. The elder one was given vocational training in sewing. A tall girl by her age, her elder daughter was smarter among the lot. She did start working in houses but not as a maid but as a cook. The son’s education was continued till school final. Now he works in a local factory.

Beli was ahead of her age in finance management. She had a bank account (much before the hoopla of ‘financial inclusion’ started) and she saved whatever she could. The household expenses increased over the years. Of course, the remuneration was also hiked but the gap remained. Beli managed within her means. Her husband’s finances never improved. He remained a rickshaw puller and irregular in earnings. A lethargic man who depended heavily on his wife’s earnings.

She had an ambition of having her own pucca house at her village. The family’s only possession was a thatched hut at their village which required repairs every year. Due to floods, the living condition in a mud hut with thatched roof was pathetic. Beli wanted to change. With a trickle every now and then, she saved enough to build the house consisting of just one room. It was her accomplishment. She was now not afraid of floods.

As it happens in villages till date, early marriages are common. Beli withstood the pressure. She married both her daughters after they reached the age of eighteen. This was also an accomplishment for her that on her own she arranged the money for their marriage. She was also instrumental in bringing the son-in-laws to this city to get them suitably employed as there was not much opportunity in their villages.

I have booked her railway tickets online sometimes as the agent who booked tickets charged extra for no reasons. I observed that she liked to travel in reserved compartments, though many of her compatriots travelled in unreserved compartments for the sake of less fare. She continuously aimed at improving her living standards and imparted the same thought among her children.

Beli has now left the job of cleaning the houses or doing dishes. Because of her frail health, it was becoming difficult for her to do those laborious jobs. She was a good cook and started cooking for few households where the money is good and the job was less strenuous. But due to her loyalty to our family, she continued doing the job until last year. She arranged a substitute for us and then she left the job. Even now she is available in case of any need.

Beli now pays a rent of Rs.3200 for the same one-room tenement. Rs. 200 is extra for having an attached bath cum toilet. She cooks lunch and dinner for some houses. In our building, she does it for two houses. One house has 3 girls for whom she buys vegetables and other stuff required for cooking. With her pleasant smile and no-nonsense attitude, she easily becomes a necessity in whichever household she works. Beli has started construction of her house at her village. In fact, she has managed to acquire a small piece of adjoining land to build a two-room house. She is proud of her achievements.

Beli had turned a grandmother before she turned 50. Taking long leave, she went to her daughters’ village to help labour and subsequent care of the mother and child. She has built a reputation of good work and unflinching loyalty which helped her to take back her position once she returned to the city, every time. The households, where she had worked, are always ready to avail her services even she has been absent for long periods, sometimes months together.

I sum up this writing with a bow to Beli who is a symbol of survival instinct in an alien condition. When arrived, she was just unaware of anything and everything about the place. The language was foreign to her, the people were unfriendly and hostile, the customs were opposite to what she has learnt so far when she arrived, women were (and still are) ogled, exploitation by the local villagers of the migrants were in vogue, the households where she was employed were looking for opportunities to get extra work done without paying, there was no fixed timing of work – all at the whims of the household, there were filth and stench where she lived (the landlord has cow and buffalo sheds near their tenement), the husband’s income was not dependable, there were three minor mouths to feed at least twice in a day and there was no future or certainty.

Beli survived and flourished against all odds.

The traffic policemen at Mamura crossing

I need to drive through the Mamura crossing if I am not taking the NH 24 to go to any part of the city. I have gone through the crossing numerous times and at all possible times of the day and night. Most of my drives are during the peak hours. And at these hours one can assess the situation in and around the crossing. Otherwise, during the odd hours like early morning or late night, smooth ride through the crossing is a certainty.

During the peak hours, I need to wait necessarily for 5 to 10 minutes in this crossing. The waiting time for the light green for me is 150 seconds. During these seconds, I can advance only a few yards once the light is green for me. The assorted vehicles ahead of me move at a snail’s pace. So at least after 3 such attempts, I am successful in negotiating the crossing. From any direction, there are at least 50 to 100 vehicles forming a chaotic crowd up to 500 meters (sometimes a kilometer). Then there are pedestrians let loose from all directions. There is no pedestrian movement facility provided at the crossing. So the hapless and hurrying pedestrians take whatever space available to them to cross the roads. This affects the movement of the vehicles and the resultant chaos.

All these explanations above is to make one understand the most disheveled and messy circumstances during peak hours. Still, the site of the traffic policemen is the only succour in the commotion. I have keenly observed that actions of the traffic policemen at the crossing. They are a lot of about 4 people, 2 among them would be actual traffic constables and two would be drawn from the home guard and private guard pool. Private guards are stationed to help in the construction of the metro line that is coming up across the crossing.

There is no traffic island from where the traffic police can direct traffic. As normally expected, the traffic police would stand on an elevated spot in the middle of the junction where from he would manage and guide the traffic. The elevated spot is supposed to be protected and also provide shade to the traffic police for protection from rain and sunlight. Such a luxury is missing at this crossing. The policemen are constantly on move from one corner to the other corner of the crossing. The traffic signals notwithstanding, the commuters pay no heed to the signals. There is also a provision of timer fitted in the signals. Instead of waiting patiently considering the time available to the colour to change, the commuters show all negative reactions. If there is still few seconds left for the colour to change from red to green, the impatient traffic would approach the middle of the junction blocking the way for the oncoming traffic. Same is the case for the traffic who, sensing that the time is running out for them, would step up the gas to cross the junction hurriedly causing a further commotion. The policeman would move from one side to another side sensing the timings of the signal to turn from green to red. He would have to wave to the oncoming traffic to stop. The traffic would not listen. They would continue to surge ahead. After a hectic effort for about 10 to 15 seconds, the traffic would be forcibly stopped by the policemen by abusing, shouting and waving the stick and then the traffic from the side for which the signal is already green would start rolling. Since they have lost few precious seconds, they would also not budge once the light turns red. Thus the vicious circle goes on.

Imagine the plight of the policemen. During the period from 8 am to about 10 am in the morning and about the same period in the evening, the traffic policemen would be thoroughly busy. They are standing throughout. There is no option for them to check the traffic violations during the period. Traffic violations are aplenty. Basic traffic rules such as two-wheeler rider without helmet, 3 or more on a two wheeler in place of the permitted two, auto-rickshaws carrying more than the permitted number of passengers, car drivers without the safety belt on, trucks plying during no entry time zones, vehicles jumping red signal, vehicles violating one-way rules, illegal parking or waiting at the junction, bus drivers not driving in the designated lane etc. are just not possible for the traffic policemen at the crossing to enforce. They are just busy in clearing the crowd. They have to shout, cajole, verbally abuse and pretend to hit the violators all the time during the period. The policeman carries a stick or cane. I feel that the cane or the stick is just an extended part of his arm as nobody is really afraid of the beating. As he cannot extend his hand to waive the crowd to either stop or move, he uses the stick which is visible from a distance in the turmoil at the junction.

I have often seen the visibly upset and heckled policeman drinking water from a plastic bottle at a corner of the crossing looking hapless at the endless flow of unruly traffic from all directions. The stare of his eyes tells all. He knows it is unmanageable. He knows that his efforts are thankless. He knows that the surrounding traffic has no empathy for him. He knows that he is treated more as a traffic hazard than a person who is entrusted with the responsibility of driving out that hazard. He knows that there is no acknowledgement for his efforts. He knows that the superiors will pull him up for even a trivial issue in traffic management. The water in his bottle is hot and hardly quenches his thirst. For many jobs, there is time to visit the loo or to have time off to have a cup of tea or bite a little snack. He has no such luxury. He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders and dutifully resumes his job.

As I said elsewhere that the sight of the policemen is the only succour in the melee, this is the only solace in the whole hullaballoo. There have been quite a few occasions when there is no traffic police in sight (for whatever reason). You won’t be able to realise the commotion unless you are caught in such a situation. I have gone through such a situation a number of times. From my experience, I know that I need to quickly turn back and do it as fast as possible for I know that if I get stuck there, God knows when I would be out of the mess. At times I am not so lucky to turn back for a number of vehicles have already occupied all the space around my vehicle. At all times, a single traffic policeman comes and manages the situation. The general public, many of them are knowledgeable and respectable gentlemen, turn onlookers of the melee and do not venture to loosen the knot, the traffic jam that is. The uniform does all. A skinny or a pot-bellied gentleman, in an attire of traffic police is able to accomplish what a sea of mankind juxtaposed in that commotion could not achieve.

The traffic signals are supposed to replace manual control of traffic movement in a junction. In this crossing, the signals work with a timer device. Traffic should flow effortlessly at this crossing without any hindrance. Disappointingly, that is not the case. Traffic police are needed to enforce the discipline. I have observed at many traffic junctions where the automatic signals with timer are working and no traffic police are posted, commuters give a damn, they just do not follow the signals routinely.

The purpose of this blog is to salute the traffic policemen, to acknowledge their efforts to maintain order and to thank them for a ‘smooth’ passage every time I cross through the junction at peak hours. We are quick at pointing fingers at them charging them with corrupt practices. But we forget that this is we who actually initiate such actions. We are not patient enough to wait for the signal to turn green, we step on the accelerator pedal as the signal is turning yellow instead of slowing down, we are not patient enough to allow the legitimate passer-by’s from other directions, we are not ready to stick to the designated lane, we are not ready to obey the basic traffic rules while, surprisingly, expecting others to emulate the same. In short, we are to take the blame solely on ourselves for the daily rigmarole of commotion at the crossing.

Are you listening?

 

In my daily drive to the office and other sundry places, one particular situation attracts my attention always. I think aloud when I see such situations. Even within the closed compartment of the car where no sound can go out, I murmur, shout, grimace, rebuke, make faces and sometimes (when I am alone in the car) use expletives as if the outside world is listening. The situation is the careless attitude of the passenger in any vehicle, the pedestrians, the cyclist and the standing crowd of men and machine (read vehicles).

Let us check the person who has just hailed a cycle rickshaw puller and after a bit of bargaining on the fare climbs on the seat. Immediately after sitting, he or she, if alone, would pull out the earphone sockets from his/her bag or pocket and after fixing one end to the phone and the other to both the ears, either start a conversation or listen to music. The rickshaw puller just feels the load on his rickshaw and pulls it on in his own way. The passenger does not at all bother as to how the puller is negotiating the crowded, potholed, uneven road. Both are in their different world. The rickshaw puller, however unruly about traffic rules, is at least careful about his own safety. The passenger is totally unmindful, ignorant and oblivious to the threat. He or she has surrendered himself or herself at the hand of the rickshaw-wala. That too without knowing, without realising. The passenger is not bothered at all the way the rickshaw-wala is cycling and negotiating the traffic. Dishonouring all the traffic rules, turning dangerously at curves, riding in the fast lane ignoring the honks of the fast moving traffic behind, sandwiching between the bare (or barely?!) space between two vehicles. The passenger is just indifferent to all these perils though he or she is most vulnerable species under the circumstances if anything goes wrong.

Now let’s check the passenger who has hailed a rickety shared auto rickshaw. In a capacity of just 3 passengers, the driver has taken at least 11 passengers. 4 passengers on the factory fitted seat, 4 are on a six inch wide improvised plank (wooden covered with a layer of resin) with back on the driver, 2 are on the left of the driver and 1 on his right side. The driver’s seat has been modified to accommodate additional two whereas he takes minimum three passengers. Two of them on the extreme right and extreme left, literally remain hung with one of their bums managing to find a place in the seat. The right or left knee (depending on which side the passenger is precariously balancing himself) is protruding out of the periphery of the vehicle and at the mercy of the passing vehicles. The ride will be from 15 minutes to an hour for any passenger depending on the traffic. During this period, the passengers are at God’s mercy (or should I say at the driver’s mercy!). Here also some are just trying to balance themselves all the while during the journey. The fortunate ones sitting in the factory fitted seat of the automobile indulge in either their mobile phones (earphone duly socketed) or chatting with one another. They never mind as to how the vehicle is driven. Among the drivers of the assorted vehicles, I find drivers of the shared auto rickshaw are the most undisciplined, arrogant, quarrelsome, and always ready to pick up fights. I am told that the owners are influential and hence the haughtiness of the drivers. God help the passengers!

Let’s check now a bit fortunate class of passenger who has just hailed an auto rickshaw which is not generally shared. Though these vehicles are supposed to be metered, but fares are negotiated as neither the passenger nor the driver believes in the meter reading. The condition of the vehicle is far better than the rickety shared auto-rickshaw whose loose, sharp and rusty metal is protruding from all directions. The seat is cushioned and there is some protection on the right side. The passenger hops in. The driver starts the vehicle. Now, these two occupants are in their own world. The passenger, like his/her counterparts in other vehicles, either on the mobile phone (earphone duly socketed as usual) or busy in talking if he or she has company. The driver is now focussed on reaching the destination as quickly as possible. He would manoeuvre the vehicle in all possible way (except flying over). He would break the traffic rules left, right and centre. He would also answer calls in between holding the instrument in a deft way between his tilted head and the angled left shoulder. He would enter any service lane, any gully, opposite to one-way roads and even on pavements sometimes to reach the destination as fast as possible. The passenger, meanwhile, is just as indifferent as a sack full of grain. The imminent risks are known to the driver and accordingly, he is mentally prepared to face any eventuality. But the passenger is just casual. He or she would never question the driver as to why he is driving so recklessly. In the event of a mishap, he or she would suffer maximum injury, at time fatal injury.

Last but not the least in this blog post, the hapless pillion rider on two-wheelers, especially bikes. I pity them. Pity them because the biker is just ignorant that he has a pillion rider. The women pillion riders in traditional Indian attire are most vulnerable. Due to the typical dress, the female is compelled to sit in bench style clutching the rider either on the shoulder or around his waistline depending upon the relationship between the biker and the female. If there is only one pillion rider the matter is somewhat manageable. The problem starts when the woman is either holding a baby or the third passenger on the bike. Three on a bike is a normal view. What intrigues me is the indifference of the biker as if he is alone on the bike. He would drive the bike the way the auto rickshaw driver does in the previous para. No wonder, fatalities in bike accidents are highest. I can go on and on and on about the pitiable driving sense of the bikers.

In my childhood days, I have seen people hanging on the door handles of buses or trains. I have seen people travelling on the roof of the bus or even trains. To be honest, I myself have undertaken such risky journeys. Accidents did happen. Sometimes fatal. But I haven’t seen careless passengers. Climbing on the rooftops of buses or trains was purely for the reason that hanging on the door handles was far too dangerous in comparison and there is not even an inch space inside. I used to prefer the bus roof solely for the reason that I could not hang on holding the door handle and I could judge the risk. Rooftop travel was risky at times due to low branches of roadside trees or an occasional overhead electric wire. But the passengers were careful as they negotiated those hazardous moments. They were alert and at times got down to avert any crisis. There were no mobile phones, fortunately.

I don’t find the same alertness among the passengers these days. I fail to understand the triviality. I see pedestrians crossing the roads hurriedly without caring for their own lives. Vehicles are wheezing past as a fast pace, the pedestrian signal at the traffic junction is either dead or showing red, assorted vehicles are on the road, ignorant and careless drivers are manoeuvring their vehicles dangerously with no respect for pedestrian rights, yet my dear pedestrians are just apathetic to the looming threat on their lives.

Hence I become vocal. Vocal to their apathy, vocal to the drivers’ careless attitude, vocal to the helplessness of the traffic police, vocal to the lawlessness of all concerned. But I remain within the cosy confines of my vehicle with the air conditioner running and the audio humming. My voice doesn’t reach out. It wouldn’t help either even it reaches out as the earphones are duly socketed and people are busy in talking to one another.

Careless Passenger

In my daily travels to office and back on the same route, I have observed certain traits of people who perplex me. I wonder how one can be so casual about one’s own safety. No, I am not talking about traffic rules violation or dangerous driving. My concern is here about the passengers sitting in any kind of vehicle.

My wife suffered minor bruises few years back in an accident. She was travelling to her office by a cycle rickshaw. At a certain point, a biker hit the rickshaw. My wife fell from the rickshaw and suffered certain injuries in her head, fingers, hips and shoulder. She had to visit a hospital for first aid, got some stitches done and discharged. It took about a month for complete healing of the injuries.

This incident provoked me to think about the passengers who sit in pillion on a two-wheeler, on the back seat of an auto rickshaw or a cycle rickshaw, in car or in buses.

Never have I come across a passenger who is rebuking his rickshaw puller for jumping the red signal at the traffic light. So is the case with the passenger in an auto rickshaw or for that matter in any kind of vehicle. If I jump a red light and if my daughters are with me, I sure get a rebuke from one of them for not obeying the traffic rules. I even get rebuke from them if I drive a little recklessly. The common refrain from them would be ‘Baba. You are driving like an autowala.”

Why is it so? Why I am not concerned about my own safety? Why have I allowed someone to flout traffic senses and thereby jeopardising my safety? Sometime with fatal consequences?!

The other day a lady sitting on a cycle rickshaw got severely injured. The rickshaw puller was pedalling fast and in race with another one. As habituated, he tried to overtake from the left. The road was uneven. The right rear wheel of the rickshaw suddenly hit a higher patch of the road and the rickshaw was tilted on left. The puller could not balance the rickshaw and both the passengers of the rickshaw fell on road. One of them hit the side grills of a traffic island. The sharp edges of the iron grille pierced through her chin and she started bleeding profusely. It is another story how they were taken to nearest hospital. I was behind the rickshaw in my car and observed the whole incident.

The passengers were totally oblivious to the danger of the reckless pedalling by the puller.

I observe such a conduct by the riders most of the time. The passenger is always in a hurry. S/he sometimes hurries up the rickshaw puller or auto driver. The puller or the auto driver is the most law-disobedient person. For him the red light is a great hindrance. He will make all efforts to pass through the light. If he is trying to jump the red light, the passenger should understand that his/her life is in danger. It is a known fact that the pillion riders suffers maximum injury and at times fatal. The biker is holding the handle bars, his feet and hands are on brake and he is aware of the risk he is taking or the impending danger. The pillion rider is mostly ignorant to this. Especially in case of female pillion rider in Indian traditional attire, the risk is extreme. The bikers are, again, the most undisciplined lot. I have observed that 99.99% of the bikers will try to overtake through left side even if there is space on the right (i.e., the correct) side. In the process the bikers brush through the cars or other vehicles. They do not even care about the safety of the pillion rider while overtaking in such a way. Riding with two additional pillion is the norm whereas it is against law. I have seen a whole family (consisting the man, women and minimum two children) is on the bike risking lives of everyone. Sometimes, the woman is sitting holding a baby precariously on pillion. The rider drives the bike dangerously and fast. He is unmindful that a lady is sitting behind him clutching a baby and is in the most vulnerable position in case of any mishap. This is a daily site for me as I spend 3 hours daily on roads commuting to and from my office. I shudder at the sight and plight of the poor woman pillion rider.

Even in cars, the passengers are not very serious as to how its driver is driving the car. They hardly caution the driver. Rather they encourage the driver to drive fast, in zigzag condition and supports him in case of signalled down for rash driving. They even support in case of any brawl involving the driver and others even though they are aware that the driver is at fault. This encourages reckless driving. The road rage incidents happen due to this indifferent attitude of the passengers. Instead of quelling the dispute, they encourage.

As a passenger I should be cautious about the driving discipline of the driver. When we hire a vehicle during odd hours (say late night or very early hours), we take precaution of not only the vehicle we choose but also the route to be taken for safety. The same principle is to be applied on the driving style of my driver. If he is reckless he should be cautioned. Though not much problem is faced with four wheelers, majority of the problem is faced with small vehicles like auto rickshaw, cycle rickshaw and recent addition – e-rickshaw. In Delhi, I have observed that the DTC bus drivers are also drive their monster looking low floor buses irresponsibly causing danger to other vehicles and pedestrians. The public using such transports are to be alert and cautious. We cannot allow someone to put our lives at peril.

I have been driving on these roads for the last 30 years. Such an unbecoming behaviour from people is often seen and it has been continuing. I don’t know how to spread the awareness among the riders to be alert about the driver’s way of handling his vehicle. But this is a necessity. I don’t have data but I am sure that many accidents, at times fatal, are caused by this reckless driving aided by casual approach of the riders.

Road safety is like personal hygiene. One has to be cautious and self-indulgent about it. No one can teach you this trait forcibly. We have observed traffic police extracting fines from the erring driver. This is a daily sight. But has it deterred people from being reckless? I don’t think so. Roads are being developed user-friendly, widened, marked, dotted with various traffic signs to educate drivers, advisories issued by traffic department, timers installed at traffic signals, one way driving introduced, someone tried the odd-even formula, dividers introduced, flyovers constructed and all these to bring safety and comfort in driving on city roads. We have seen tremendous developments in the last decade. But, alas, the number of accidents, mishaps, road-rage incidents etc. also have gone up at a faster pace. All these due to the fact that we as users of these roads both as driver and user refuse to learn from our mistakes.

You are taught to brush your teeth every morning and take bath daily in your childhood. After few days of instruction no one at your home reminds you to do the activity. You get used to it and you become aware that to maintain personal hygiene this is necessary. It becomes your habit. Driving safe and keeping in mind others’ safety is just like that. It is mental hygiene.

 

Exit from Sector 62, Noida

Since the days the metro work started in Sector 62, exiting from the sector to go to any part of the city is a humongous challenge, daily, especially during office hours. The hurdles start right outside the gate of our society. I take a daily decision which side I should steer my car as I cross my society gate. Right side or left side. It’s a service lane on either side. If I take right side, I would reach the traffic signal at Mamura chowk (more conventionally called ‘lal batti’), where I would need to break all the traffic rules to go to any of the four directions. If I take the left, I would have to circumnavigate the cluster of societies to get to the desired road.

The metro construction work changes the goal posts regularly. The central verge is occupied by the metro company to construct pillars and viaducts. The company occupies the verge by installing portable six feet high steel sheet boundaries on both the sides of the verge covering about 20 feet of space in width. Since there are offices/complexes/shops/residential buildings on both sides of the road, there are certain intersections/passages for smooth movement of both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Due to metro work, these passages have been blocked, causing great traffic jams and inconvenience to all concerned. As and when the construction is completed at a certain stage, an opening is created by metro construction company to give passage. This facility is at their whims and fancies. So the jams are shifting continuously as the goal posts are being changed intermittently.

The mother of all jams is at the Mamura chowk. The crossing is unscientifically planned from the time it has come into existence. The road from the southern side (from Flex crossing) takes a straight line till the chowk. From here, it moves further in a 75% angle. Similar is the plan from the eastern side. The road in any direction from the chowk is not at 180 degrees. The western face of the road from the chowk is particularly narrow and most chaotic. At this part, the problem is aggravated by a lane joining it just at the chowk from the southern side, the wall of a factory, an opening (locally called ‘cut’) 15 meters from the ‘lal batti’ exactly opposite to a petrol station. This particular stretch of the chowk is chaotic any time during the day until late evening. During office hours there is a surge of pedestrians who are already late for their workplaces and just don’t care about traffic rules. Anyways, the vehicles, who are supposed to mind the signals, don’t care about the signals, what to talk about and expect from the pedestrians. These pedestrians block the roads on all four sides. They are constantly on the move, right middle of the road, on alleys between various assorted vehicles and at all possible places. The pedestrian simply raises his/her hand (right or left, whichever is free) showing his/her palm with raised fingers as if some magical force would apply the brakes of the moving vehicles. I always find they are least bothered about their own safety while crossing the road in that fashion. I am apprehensive of a situation when the driver doesn’t or couldn’t care about the raised hand and the sign to stop and hits the pedestrian. The way certain drivers persists ahead (particularly, the bus drivers, 3 wheeler drivers, auto rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers), the pedestrians are always at great risk of losing lives or gravely injured. But I see hardly any such caution by the pedestrians.

The most hapless lot at the chowk are 4 or 5 traffic controllers. A couple of them are actually traffic constables, rest are from home guards or from the private security agency arranged by the metro company. I admire them. Not because they manage the traffic movement efficiently. But because of their tenacity to stand for hours in varying weather (mostly difficult) managing wholesomely unruly stream of pedestrians and vehicles of all types. Their people management is like a parent who has to control a bunch of disorderly kids. Bikers are the most dangerous lot as they never give two hoots for any traffic rules. A typical biker does not ride through the chowk. He always attempts at sneaking in and sneaking out. No traffic rule is valid for them. However, the sight of the traffic controllers is important as it brings some semblance of fear of law among the people using the chowk. Otherwise, we find certain junctions are completely unmanageable where there is no traffic police,

Then comes some vehicles who consider it as a right to stop their vehicles right at the junction either to take in passengers or drop out passengers. They never bother that they are blocking traffic and the time is ticking away for the light to turn from green to red. Any decibel of the horn does not affect them and they don’t even look at the traffic behind. They are focussed on their business completely at that time. They don’t even care for the cane-wielding traffic constable. Such is their arrogance and indifference towards law and plight of others. Mostly autos and three-wheelers are the culprits sometimes joined by local private passenger buses.

The private passenger bus drivers have another annoying habit. They would continuously press the high decibel pressure horn while approaching the chowk, passing through the chowk and getting away from the chowk. I don’t understand the logic behind this. Perhaps this is a kind of signal to intending passengers who are scattered around the chowk (as there is no proper bus stand) and also to such passengers who are at a distance from the chowk and would come running to board the bus. Marketing technique at its best under the given circumstances!

All these were necessary to explain my daily struggle to exit Sector 62. I need to cover just about 2 km to get on the main road to my office which is 25 km from my home. The 2 km expedition takes from minimum 15 minutes to any amount of time. There are several ways to cover this distance. I have tried all. All of them takes the same time more or less. I take a little left from the service lane, get into the main road and then take a U-turn on the central verge opening created by metro company towards Mamura chowk. Here the wait for the ‘lal-batti’ to turn green is anywhere between 2 minutes to 10 minutes. I take right turn here towards that congested and chaotic western road flanked on all sides by standing, waiting, walking, moving, jostling, abusing, hurrying, jumping, running, talking, shouting, quarrelling, ear plugging, spitting, gutka chewing pedestrians. 15 meters further, I negotiate the car among all kinds of traffic peeping out from a ‘cut’ opposite to the petrol pump. 20 meters further, I need to take a left turn for which I have to be smarter than few more cars, buses, bikers, cyclists, and of course, pedestrians. I take the left turn and also the first sigh of relief. Negotiating this far has already taken more than 10 minutes on a normal day and I have travelled only 500 meters so far. This one is a straight road punctured with numerous sewer manholes, covers of some are protruding dangerously up to 4 inches from the road level and some are craters of 4 to 6 inches deep. The road is also punctured by a couple of lanes from where all kinds of traffic barge in without any announcement. I have to be very careful in negotiating the manholes, potholes, sneaking traffic from adjoining lanes and of course, the flowing traffic. After about 200 meters down the road, I need to pass through a crossing. No traffic lights, no traffic controller and dominant indiscipline from all whoever is approaching the crossing. The traffic takes a peculiar turn at this crossing. People move in all direction wherever an opening or a slot is noticed. If two or more detect the slot at the same time, there is a race. Bang! Inevitable! The larger the vehicle, greater is the risk for it as the public sympathy always on the weak or smaller one. Bicycle riders are a special lot. They would not alight come what may. They would march, perching on the rod between the seat and the handle, however precarious it may. One foot on the ground and another is on a pedal. To hell with honking traffic behind, the rider would give side only when he is able to pedal on both the levers sitting pretty at the seat.

This one is the last but one hurdle for me in my two km (seems unending) journey every morning. The last hurdle is in Flex crossing where an underpass is under construction. The road across is closed. It is also the starting point of the half-built flyover which I take. But before reaching the point, I have to negotiate a treacherous spot which is a T-point and due to a certain design fault in road laying, traffic from all the three direction converge here. So I have to be careful from the oncoming traffic which, seemingly moving straight, may take a sudden right turn and come face to face with me. There is a chance of another traffic which is coming from the right side of the T-point and you cannot guess which side it would go, straight or left as it would give an indication only when it is on the verge of the left turn realising it is late though. The bikers, as normal (sic.) to them, would come from left or right depending upon the 12 inches slot they have noticed from 10 meters away. I need to have at least 3 pairs of eyes to safely negotiate the stretch. Obviously, I don’t have 3 pairs of eyes. So I depend heavily on my luck and on the prudence of fellow drivers whichever vehicle they are driving.

Lastly near the T-point where I have to take a U-turn to get into the flyover, a major cacophony is a daily scene. People walk on wrong sides (there is no choice), cycles, bikes, cars, buses, trucks, tractors all jostle in every direction. So getting an opening near the start of the flyover is a tough task. Once I am successful, a great relief flows through my entire self. The car is also happy and shifts to top gear within seconds.

The best and most positive part of my daily struggle to exit from Sector 62 is that I have not seen any major accident in this 2 km. The reason is mainly due to the slowest movement by all kinds of vehicle and pedestrians however they may try to be fast. There is no road that is not taken, no space to move, no manoeuvrability possible and no option left. Everyone tries to outsmart others and in the process everyone simply glee. I have been trying to outsmart other drivers by taking the right lane sometimes, left lane sometimes, middle lane sometimes, following a bus whose sole goal is to outsmart every other person on the road, but all these attempts are futile as I have realised.

Since I am driving on this stretch for quite some time now (metro work started about a year back), I have developed a lot more patience. I switch off the car engine at least twice being aware that each wait is not less than 150 seconds. I don’t try to outsmart others as I have understood its futility. I don’t want to trouble my car by reckless manoeuvring. I am content waiting for my turn. I know that this 2 km is the only strenuous part of my 25 km ride. So why bother?

ATMs and Frauds

I have attended quite a few meetings called by the regulator to discuss and find out ways and means to avert frauds faced by ordinary citizens in their banking transactions. The present piece is on how serious these meetings are and how the problem is approached.

The meetings are conducted on a serious note with the regulator showing due concern on the plight of hapless customers who suffer due to the fraud. But it has been my experience that the regulator expects the banks to do all the pioneering work to prevent the frauds. Very seldom I have experienced a novel approach suggested by the regulator to tackle the problem.

It has been seen that the reactive approach is employed most of the time. The trail left by a trickster is analyzed and measures are devised to prevent leaks which the trickster harnessed successfully. Mostly these are afterthoughts and nobody could really anticipate. Every time a new method of fraud is discovered and the same analysis method is undertaken. By the time the preventive measures are taken, such methods are no longer used by the tricksters. Everyone becomes wiser after the event and scapegoats are searched to blame.

Let’s see one example. A person lost his money at an ATM as someone could trick him to reveal the PIN, a four digit number. Now the search starts for the answer as to how the PIN was revealed, even after the PIN was revealed what were the mechanisms employed by the bank who deployed the ATM to safeguard the interest of the customer, whether the CCTV camera and recording were working, whether any guard was deployed at the ATM, how the machine kept alive even after the customer was gone, what is the time-out limit, etc. etc. These all are the processes which are being followed from the time ATMs are deployed and frauds are taking place. None of these questions ever helped in designing a system where such frauds no longer committed. Frauds of such nature are continued unabated and the numbers are only increasing. CCTV cameras are working, better quality footages are ensured, guards have been deployed, awareness campaigns sustained for NOT to reveal PIN of ATM cards, the software is redesigned to mitigate the time-out situations, hardware of the machine reconfigured so as to not to reveal the PIN while typing, and so on and so forth. But the problem exists even today and it is multiplying.

So what needs to be done? To me the answer is simple. Let’s try to make the attempt by the trickster unattractive, non-remunerative, not worth taking the risk, things like that.

When people used to store their valuables at home, the burglaries were a common problem and a kind of everyday incident. Then safe deposit lockers came into practice. Every bank started offering the service and people literally leaped at the opportunity. Now the thief knows that hardly any valuables in the form of gold or jewelry are kept at home, at least at urban centers. So theft of such type decreased. I am not saying the thefts are not taking place. But thefts for such items definitely decreased. The burglar now knows that most households won’t keep valuables at home. The attempt has become unattractive and non-remunerative for the burglar, not worth the risk.

So how do you employ the same logic in case of ATMs? We as bankers know the various limits for cash withdrawal from ATMs. It starts from Rs.10000 to even Rs.100000 depending upon the type of customer. We all know that one can use one’s ATM card at any bank’s ATM subject to certain limits. I don’t understand the logic behind high cash withdrawal limits. In this age of digital banking, EDC machines everywhere, less-cash campaigns etc., why such high withdrawals are needed. A priority customer gets a high cash withdrawal limit. In practicality, a priority customer hardly withdraws cash for his use. He mostly uses cards for payments, be it at petrol pumps, shopping malls, restaurants, multiplexes etc. I am a priority customer of a bank and at times I carry not even Rs.100 cash with me as I know the cards are sufficient and efficient enough to manage my payments. Even for an ordinary customer carrying a debit card the facilities are same. Why would he need Rs.10000 at one go? Especially in urban places, the EDC machines are almost at all shops. In my locality, even the kirana shop, the pastry shop and the medicine shop maintain EDC machines. This forms a habit and the habit has to be inculcated. Lower cash withdrawal limits would make the attempt unattractive to the trickster. There is no need for fixing various limits. Cash is needed sometimes to buy bus tickets, train tickets, to pay the road side eateries and for petty expenses. The amount needed for these transactions are not enormous. So a limit of Rs.1000 to Rs.5000 would be enough. Lower the cash withdrawal limit and you may see the change.

The matter can be made further unattractive for the trickster if the ATMs are selectively made inoperative depending upon the area. In certain areas the law and order situation is pretty bad. The ATMs in these areas may be made inoperative during the danger hours, say from 10 pm to 6 am. Added to this, if at all some ATMs at these areas are to be kept operative, lowest possible withdrawal limits may be fixed. I have heard that in Brazil, in certain areas the ATMs allow withdrawals for 100 in local currency, barely enough to pay the taxi bill to a nearest busy place. Similar limits can be fixed for the ATMs in such areas where the user would just need minimum cash at that hour.

The low cash withdrawal limit will have a positive effect on spending habits of the user. More EDC machines used means more tax compliance, more revenue for the authorities, more ease in doing business for the shops, less cost on cash management, less crime due to low cash volume at vulnerable points like petrol outlets, shops, higher low cost funds in the bank accounts to the benefit of bankers….so many such positive results. Low cash withdrawal limits also will curb the black money menace.

There is need for some change in rules. Banks typically allow free withdrawals of cash from ATMs upto a certain number of transactions. It is 4 to 5 in a month. The customers tend to withdraw more at one shot to avail the benefit of free withdrawals. If we go for less limits, more number of free withdrawals would be required. So the limits of free withdrawals need to be increased.

The low limit will also be beneficial to banks not only in terms of higher CASA balances maintained by customers but also keeping low cash balances in the ATM machines. From my experience I know a huge amount is cash is kept in ATMs all put together every day. The per ATM cash limit is derived on the basis of usage at a particular area. Cash in ATMs are dead asset for the banks. Less cash in ATMs means less dead asset in the books of the banks and that means more profitability.

In a society, crime and punishment live together. No one can eliminate crime altogether. We as civil society can attempt to minimize the impact and the loss. Making a crime un-remunerative or unattractive is an effort we should try. Lower limits of cash withdrawal facility at ATMs can be one such effort. There could be some inconveniences but as we are all advancing towards a less cash environment, we can forecast a day when there would be no ATMs dispensing cash.

Is anyone listening?

God or an industry

Last week I was on a short trip to Shirdi, a temple town 300 km from Mumbai dedicated to Saint Saibaba. As a personal choice and almost out of habit I go to this place almost every year starting from probably 10 years back. Not out of any religious connotations but an attraction which kind of forceful enough to compel me. The trips are very short, just for a day most of the time. I prefer to go alone though my family has been with me on more than one occasion. If I get a chance to go to Mumbai for any reason, official or otherwise, I make it a point to manage a trip to Shirdi. After so many visits to this not so small town anymore, this time I thought of penning down a typical thought hovering around my mind for quite sometime.

History and statistics about the place can be looked into Google for exact numbers. I am not getting into that. After so many visits starting from 1996 I have been witnessing the mind boggling transformation of the place. In 1996 the temple was in open with no boundary walls, no gates and makeshift structures were erected around the temple for the facilities to pilgrims. There was hardly any hotel worth the name. It was 4 to 5 hours from Mumbai or Pune or Aurangabad (the nearest airport) and 30 minutes from the nearest railway station. Hence most of the people used to take overnight bus and return on the same day. I did the same in my first few visits.

Over the years, building infrastructure in and around the place leaped, literally. The temple complex became a huge mansion complete with massive fortress like boundary walls, waiting halls, cctv systems, admin blocks, museum and sundry facilities. Around the temple complex various kinds of construction started mushrooming. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, convenience stores, government buildings, pucca roads around the temple, widening the highway. ..you name it…all kinds of constructions started and completed in record time. All these facilities were aimed at providing comfort to the pilgrims. And yes..pilgrims continued to swell everyday. Unlike other pilgrim places where the crowd swell during some particular periods, pilgrims visit the Saibaba temple round the year. So the needs for various facilities are also required throughout the year.

Now look from some other angles. The nearest railway station is about 16 km away. If you try to reserve a berth in a train from Delhi for this place, you won’t get a confirmed reservation even two months before. The buses from nearby cities doing overnight trips are always full. Numerous taxis, jeeps, SUVs, private vehicles make trips to this holy place 24 hours. You will be amazed to encounter men thumping your car window offering various facilities including, yes parking of your car. Pilgrims alighting from buses get offers to take bath at Rs.30 if they don’t intend to take hotel accommodation. This is 24 hours. I have arrived at 1.30 am at this place and all facilities are available at that hour too, the cloak room was open, the community bath facilities are available, there is nothing to be afraid of – darkness, availability of arrangements, law and order, whatever.

There are hundreds of hotels, numerous eateries and sundry facilities. Numerous people are employed to cater to the needs of pilgrims and tourists. In fact, I found none unemployed in this place. To my estimate thousands of people are employed here in various services. Thousands are self-employed i.e., doing some kind of business, thousands are in transport business- goods or people. People are in employment not just in this town. Due to this place, many are employed in far flung areas. In Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and nearby semi urban places and villages many are earning their livelihoods directly due to some or other activities relevant to this place. Take for example the never ending construction activities. Besides the materials, you need constant supply of skilled labour force. The hotels need skilled workmen. The restaurants need waiter, cooks and supervisory workmen. All these have generated employment opportunities greatly. This time when I went there, after completing my visit to the temple and to Shani Signapur and back to the town after a hectic schedule I needed a cup of my type of tea. I approached a restaurant which had extended some snacking facilities in the front courtyard. I ordered tea with no sugar. I heard two guys conversing between them in Bangla, my mother tongue. Little intrigued, I enquired how they have landed up in this place thousands of kilometres away from their home. Jobs, pat came the reply. How many of them are here? Plenty enough to celebrate several Durga Pujas. I was astonished. Look at the encashment of opportunity.

I am narrating the above with one motto. Very few industries can match the employment opportunities created by this place. A constant supply of livelihoods to millions of people. A nondescript and sleepy village sprung to life by a midas touch. Faith. Faith in the powers of a saint who died nearly 100 years ago, sleeping in his grave peacefully surrounded by a plethora of constructions, devotees, priests, guards and of course under 24 hour cctv surveillance. And look at the continuance. The stream is ever flowing, never seem to cease or dry up. I am amazed. Apart from the devotional part (or whatever left of it), I always look at the economic side of the whole hullabaloo. Faith brings millions to this place throughout the year. As I said there is no ‘season’ or ‘auspicious period’ for this seat of the Seer. So the streams of devotees are never ending. I have been here numerous times and at all seasons, even at very odd hours (1.30 am!). I have always faced crowd and it has been after a wait for couple of hours the ‘darshan’ is over, every time.

In our country such places are abound. Religion is a seasonal activity in most of the pilgrim places. Shirdi is an exception. Your basic needs are not seasonal. You need round the year employment. The Sai at Shirdi as the revered God has taken care of his people throughout the year, at all seasons. The economic side of the otherwise religious culture is amazing. Perhaps no one takes notice of this. But this is the net effect of all these religious fervours. The Temple earnings are now used for economic activities. The offerings are just not cash but in gold or other precious metals. The town is now directly connected with railroad. And I heard an airport is being planned (the nearest airport at Ahmednagar is 200 km away). Look at the prospects. Isn’t it amazing and mind boggling! An everlasting self-sustained enterprise.

I have a similar story for a temple in Himachal Pradesh, the temple of goddess Jwalaji. But for the present let us wonder at Shirdi. That story is for some other time.