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Wardens try to bring order to India’s traffic nightmare

SHARE Wardens try to bring order to India’s traffic nightmare

In the chill, fog and smog of Delhi's coldest winter in living memory, Anil Aggarwal climbs aboard his 4-year-old red motor scooter and circles the streets of the capital.

He pauses now and then, amid the lawless snarl of cars, auto-rickshaws, buses, handcarts and motorcycles - all fighting as if life itself depended on advancing one inch farther down the road than the person beside them - and scribbles down the license plate numbers of traffic offenders.It's a strange way to spend his mornings and evenings, he admits, braving the smoky and cacophonous hell that is Delhi's rush hour. In a city where 2.6 million motorized vehicles jostle for space on roads mapped out by colonial draftsmen whose visions of travel were leisurely and sedate, honking comes as naturally as breathing.

But Aggarwal, a sales representative for a steel manufacturer, is on a mission: to bring an element of order to roads where drivers appear to know no fear and bow before no authority.

More than 50,000 people died in road accidents in India in 1997, 2,200 of them in Delhi - a city so car-crazy that lead emission levels (unleaded gas is virtually unheard of) have doubled over the past eight years.

Far from being a vigilante, Aggarwal is part of a 200-member team of volunteer traffic wardens recently recruited by the government in recognition of the perilous state of India's roads.

In his first weekly report, Aggarwal noted 67 violations: auto-rickshaws without rear lights, plates with the numbers obscured, cars jumping red lights and ignoring no-turn signs, motorcycles zigzagging through traffic. He dutifully turned their names over for prosecution.

And when the summonses eventually arrive, they'll come as a shock to motorists in a country where observance of traffic regulations is more a matter of individual conscience than universal legal obligation.

Some would call Aggarwal's citations against motorcycle passengers without helmets or families of four on a scooter an attack on civil liberties.

"If everybody breaks the law, then how much can that law be enforced?" asks Kiran Bedi, special secretary to Delhi's lieutenant governor and the architect of the project. "That individual indiscipline becomes compounded and leads to collective indiscipline. So long as each individual driver and each individual pedestrian does not respect the laws of the road, there will be no order."

Aggarwal's participation in Bedi's program has a particular poignancy: six years ago, he skidded into the back of a vehicle that had screeched to a halt in the middle of the road without warning. Aggarwal sailed over the car and fractured his left knee; the other driver took off. He claims he harbors no secret lust for revenge, and Bedi promises the volunteer wardens "all come from good families" - whatever that means.

Bedi is India's highest-ranking policewoman and won celebrity as Delhi's traffic commissioner in the 1980s. So determined was she to crack down on parking violators that she is known to this day as "Crane Bedi" after her penchant for calling in tow trucks.

She claims Indians can never learn road safety unless the entire population is involved: individual motorists, bus and truck drivers, shopkeepers who pile their wares up in the street and pedestrians who walk blithely through traffic.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service