Parking in New Delhi: Lessons for Africa

Published on 1st July 2008

As we approached my friend’s car, I knew that it will take a hell of time to trace the owner of a Tata car that was parked right behind his! In Kenya, a security guard will walk round the hotel shouting the car number plate for the owner to show up – not in India. Barun Mitra simply walked towards the car, pushed it out of the way and drove off! ‘How did he do it?’ was the next assignment for him!

On arrival in Nairobi, I bumped it a messy accident on Valley Road; City Council engineers in their wisdom had scrapped off the highway surface and left loose chippings! I counted up to 6 cars involved in the smash up. Driving back from the city center after two hours, another van had rolled… and I witnessed yet another near fatal accident at the same spot. Kenya’s city fathers do not care about motorists, they leave no warning signs, they simply drill highways as if they are digging some pit latrines in the village and leave gaping holes. Innocent Kenyans’ lives and property are ever in the line of danger because of the unscrupulous ‘experts’ who have never taken the ‘bush’ from their heads! Guess right, no one sues authority here…and dead people tell no tales.

In New Delhi, city residents do not wait for city fathers to enact a law. The residents have created their own law; if you park behind someone- obstructing his ability to drive out – you must leave the car in free gear! If not, the obstructed victim may smash up the driver’s seat window and get your car off handbrake and in free gear! After a few impatient guys did it (smashing windows!); its now the unwritten rule that one should never park at the back of another car and put their vehicles on the handbrake.  New Delhi has drivers that will make Kenyan ‘Matatu’ and Tanzanian ‘Dala Dala’ drivers turn green with envy. However one can sense a growing level of appreciating and internalizing the Highway Code as more people join the car ownership bracket.

Another interesting bit about New Delhi is that many vehicles have a sign at the rear that reads ‘Please Honk!’ But I did notice that the level of honking had gone down considerable compared to when I visited Delhi last. ‘What happened to the noisy honks that was a common feature in New Delhi in 2001, did police enact an anti-honking law?’ “Tata has made classy but cheap and efficient cars affordable for the majority; individuals have started appreciating the importance of sound driving because they know how inconveniencing it can be to oneself and others to be a nuisance on the highway,” Barun argued. There could be many other reasons, including the fact that the city has put up (and is still putting up) modern superhighways that have slightly decongested the highways.

I took time to reflect on the New Delhi experience in comparison to the African political and even engineering experience, the similarity is amazing. Why would a trained roads engineer leave loose chippings and put no sign at all at a construction site? Why would politicians disregard rule of law and expose their countries to senseless economic melt down and civil war? Most probably the road engineer has never owned a car, (despite what he learnt in school) and may be attempting to save some little money (by not purchasing road signs) for himself. Assuming he already has the signage, he could be planning to either sell them and or simply doesn’t see the need to protect the lives of others – its up to motorists to figure their way out of a messy highway! We seem to operate under the paradigm that if you never owned an automobile, you ought not to care for safety?

Remember our ‘bush highway code’ in the pre-automobile tracks the simplest; pick on one land mark and literally wade through marshes, bogs, grass, shrubs and you are home! The ‘landmark-target-common-sense’ unfortunately does not work effectively on the highway; it can only lead to fatal accidents! My guess is that our city engineers must have been given a target to re-carpet some parts of the road, and unfortunately the sun went down before they could finish. And or maybe they ran out of fuel, spades, and patience and cared less about the welfare of motorists.    

In Africa, we are yet to figure out how to ‘smash up’ the windows of our political class in order to make them leave their cars parked off-handbrake and free gear! The political class behaves very much like our ‘Matatu’ drivers on the highway; they break every single code as long as it serves their interests. We have as Africans, not reached a level where we can appreciate institutions such as parliament, the judiciary and the executive because they were ‘thrown at us’ by departing colonialists. New Delhi is experiencing a scaled down honking and ‘gentlemanly’ parking manners with each increase in ownership of cars. Africa is experiencing an increased political unpredictability as a few families seek to monopolize power and prevent others from accessing the ‘new instruments of governance.’

According to Barun Mitra, the colonial experience was too short to make Africans appreciate the importance of institutions. We have made it a habit to characterize ethnicity in Africa, and religion to be the main cause of turmoil in Africa – what about India? Can one ever get hold of the number of religious faiths and gods in India? (My simple count reached 120 and still counting!) India has a mix of ethnic, caste system, religion, cultural and extreme weather conditions. Despite this, they have a functioning electoral commission and law courts. Indians change government almost every other quarter of the year and India doesn’t burn!

I pass my sympathy to those who were involved in the smash-up on Valley Road Nairobi; we must definitely sue the City Council Engineers for this. Do we have lawyers around? I urge my African comrades to help build a culture of ‘handbrake-free-parking.’ Africa is tired of yelling around looking for ways to kick out those who obstruct progress.

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