A long and winding road

Baje payal chhun chhun, one of the memorable melodies sung by Lata Mangeshkar, is about aspirational love among girls of age sixteen or thereabouts. And it has one line which is so central to the theme of freedom of the road for all from the dominance of the motor car.

The visual in the film Chhalia starring Nutan and Raj Kapoor tells us so much about what mobility on the road meant in the old days. The film is set in 1948. Though it is said to be based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky it focuses on a family estranged in the aftermath of Partition. Then, bullock carts were the main form of transport in much of India. Nutan and other sprightly girls see a row of bullock carts on the road, climb on to them, then jump down, walk with abandon on the road holding, hands. Then comes a car driven by Rahman trying to make its way. Nutan gently but very assertively stops the car, with nice gestures of the hand, and in a teasing way asks him, hujoor, itni jaldi hai kya… (Sir, what is the hurry …..?).

Pedestrians never collide with each other, even if some may be stubborn and not let others hurry ahead. Unlike motorists, unconsciously, pedestrians move with civility. But the invasion of the motor car on a large scale has completely removed the freedom and rhythm of the street.

It is a 1960 film directed by Manmohan Desai. A year later, Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on urban planning came out with her highly cited book ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ in which she emphasised the common people’s right to the road, and opposed the dominance of the space - usurping motor car. More than that, she wrote about the movement of people on the street as a ballet. This movement is not synchronised but there is a natural rhythm about people on the street. Pedestrians never collide with each other, even if some may be stubborn and not let others hurry ahead. Unlike motorists, unconsciously, pedestrians move with civility. But the invasion of the motor car on a large scale has completely removed the freedom and rhythm of the street.

The freedom of the road in the early days is also best expressed in songs on the bicycle, most notably by the joyful ride of Nutan, Shubha Khote and other girls in Bun ke panchi gaye pyar ka taraana in the film Anari directed by Raj Kapoor. The bicycle indeed can give you the feeling of freedom of flying.

Street life can be vibrant and fun.  There is the human longing to mix with other people, for community purposes and freedom.

The bicycle has also been a source of liberation for women more recently in India and for a much longer time in the West.  Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s distribution of free bicycles to school girls has been considerably appreciated.

The scooter on the other hand has been all that and more, providing mobility and freedom with speed. The man whose name is inseparably linked with the scooter, Rahul Bajaj, passed away in Pune on February 12. He was 83. The chairman emeritus of the Bajaj group passed away six days after Lata Mangeshkar who died in Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital at the age of 92. Both are recognised, revered and will always be remembered as legends in their fields. Lata Mangeshkar, the nightingale of India, is synonymous with the country’s music, just as Rahul Bajaj is associated with the scooter. His name was always connected with the scooter from the Bajaj group, and the company’s scooter advertised as “Hamara Bajaj” has become, overtime India’s Bajaj. Since it appeared on Indian roads “Hamara Bajaj” has been a major contributor to the mobility and freedom of the common person. The role of Rahul Bajaj in greatly reducing emissions from scooters has been recalled by Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Envirnoment. Comparatively car manufacturers have resisted pollution reduction technology. The scooter is now also seen as empowering women. Prime Minister Modi launched a scheme in Tamil Nadu in 2018 on the anniversary of former late TN chief minister J. Jayalalitha to give subsidised scooters to working women.

Lata Mangeshkar, the nightingale of India, is synonymous with the country’s music, just as Rahul Bajaj is associated with the scooter.

Then again, nothing immortalises the scooter more than the joyful ride Audrey Hepburn has with Gregory Peck in the classic film Roman Holiday. Again, it shows the joy of freedom that a princess enjoys away from the constraints of the palace.

Street life can be vibrant and fun.  There is the human longing to mix with other people, for community purposes and freedom. We forget that this is also our basic right.

The motor car culture has completely curbed this freedom and its life-threatening role is now passively accepted. But it was not always been so. Under common law practice the street is for all, not just for cars. There was great resistance to the car’s role as a killing machine in the early years of the 20th century in the U.S., as Peter Norton has amply demonstrated in his book Fighting Traffic. The judiciary, the mainstream media, public opinion were strongly against motor cars and people’s right to walk with dignity was widely recognised. In response a massive public relations campaign was launched by the powerful motor car industry in the 1920s, it branded the pedestrian as the intruder and got the traffic rules amended to give the motor car an anti-democratic, almost monopolistic, right to the road.

In India the uses of the car have to be accepted, but more than that a culture has to be created for people’s safe walking, cycling and social mingling on the road. This is essential for democracy.

(The writer is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and author of the book “Traffic in the Era of Climate Change”)

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