Texts, tolls, traffic, and tweets

I love India, but I hate the traffic. Like any expat, I have my tales of traffic congestion that few back home can comprehend. Going from Powai to BKC takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on time of day, route, and any unforeseen events, like wedding processions. So, when someone in Mumbai threatens to stop traffic, Mumbaikers heave a collective exasperated sigh and try their best to endure the inevitable inconvenience.

Yet, that’s exactly what Raj Thackeray proposed to do. Stop traffic.

While in Idaho, I scan my Twitter feed regularly, mostly to see the latest on the opening of T2, hoping we get to fly into the new terminal on our return trip. I noticed several news outlets reporting that Raj Thackeray was going to protest toll taxes. Initial reports indicated the protest would be isolated to only one or two major junctions.  Then, I received this text message from a friend in my yoga WhatsApp group:

The Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) Chief Raj Thackeray has called for Transport Bandh (shutdown) and road blockades on Wednesday, 12th February 2014 across the state of Maharashtra to protest against toll collection on various highways.  The authorities have deployed additional police personnel across all the booths in the state.  The demonstrations are likely to be focused around toll booths on various highways and expressways.

The routes which are likely to be disrupted:

Mumbai-Pune Expressway

Eastern Express Highway

Western Express Highway

Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link (also known as Bandra-Worli Sea Link)

National Highway (NH)-4, which connects Mumbai with Thane, Pune, Satara and Kolhapur, and onwards to Bangalore (Karnataka state)

Mumbai-Nashik Expressway (NH-3)

Thane-Ghodbandar Road

Thane-Bhiwandi Road

I thought, “Oh wow, this stuff just got serious.” I did a little reading and determined the protest was scheduled to start around 9 am Wednesday morning. The plan was for the protest to reach as far as Pune with Thackeray leading the protestors from Vashi toll plaza. All this activity would happen just in time for everyone to begin traveling to an AWC coffee morning. But, without being physically in Mumbai, I could not take the temperature in the city. Should we cancel or carry on with our plans? So, I pinged our board WhatsApp group, and we decided to cancel the coffee. We weren’t the only ones to make a similar decision. Some schools were cancelled, while others remained in session but canceled special events. Many people stayed home from work. It turns out that the impact of the protest was sporadic throughout the city. BKC, where the coffee was scheduled to be held, experienced higher than normal traffic congestion. According to IBN Live, some areas experienced vandalism, and a few BEST buses were damaged. However, NDTV reported that the protests had limited impact with momentum fizzling after Thackeray’s arrest around 11 am. It’s the nature of life in Mumbai. You can plan all you want, but you can’t plan the outcome.

Raasta roko! Block the way!

In Hindi, this bandh (shutdown) is called a raasta roko (block the way) protest. These protests are meant to block traffic along specific roads and byways. Sometimes, the protestors block access to specific locations. In the case of the MNS raasta roko, the protesters targeted toll booths along major highways throughout Maharashtra. In Mumbai, MNS supporters lined up motorcycles and cars along the Eastern Express Highway so that their vehicles blocked the way completely, cutting off any traffic.

Targeting roads was an apt protest method given that the object of the protest was the toll taxes levied on most of Mumbai’s major roads. Thackeray and his supporters were protesting the tolls as unfairly levied. The primary issues revolve around corruption and transparency.

Thackeray was quoted in The Hindu newspaper as saying,

“I am not against tolls, but the process. I am not that impractical. What happens to the money after it is collected? If it is going to Ministers’ homes, we will not pay the toll. We will not sponsor their election fund.”

In the US, the government contracts the construction of roads to private companies, but the government retains the right to levy tolls on some roads. The tolls help pay for the construction and ongoing maintenance of those roads. The Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Washington, DC Beltway are examples. In Maharashtra, however, tolls are often collected by the private companies responsible for building the roads as a profit incentive tied to the projects. These companies are given this right of collection for a limited time or until a certain revenue limit is achieved. Toll collection is susceptible to corruption, so underreporting is a concern. To reduce corruption, some Indians have suggested automating the tolls, but implementation has been slow.

Like in the US, the toll roads are better maintained than non-toll roads. But, unlike the US, few alternate routes exist for commuters who wish to avoid the tolls. For example, the Bandra-Worli Sealink, one of my favorite roads in Mumbai, is the only way to get from Bandra to Worli, unless you want to swim. At Rs. 182 for a return-journey toll, the Sealink toll is expensive for daily commuters. In contrast, in Houston, I could pay the toll for the smooth ride that Beltway 8 offered, or I could take the parallel feeder road for free, but stop every five minutes at a light and double my commute time.

Tweet! Tweet!

Social media helped mitigate the impact of the protest on those commuters who decided to brave the roads. Mumbaikers used Twitter and Facebook to voice their thoughts about the protests and get the word out about closures and delays. They followed real-time traffic updates on @TrafflineMUM, Mumbai’s traffic feed. The feed even helped quash rumors about riots near Dadar.

Many experienced expats use Skype to stay in touch with friends. In India, WhatsApp is the preferred platform. I texted the AWC board from Idaho without anyone incurring SMS charges. It’s awesome and platform-agnostic! If you haven’t joined WhatsApp, you can do so on their website or by downloading the app to your phone. WhatsApp is available on iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone, and Nokia.

With the Lok Sabha elections approaching, social media can be both a great source of legitimate news and a bad source of ridiculous rumors. I recommend following news channels like Times of India and NDTV on Twitter for the latest updates. While I love my adopted city, I also stay vigilant about current events. Even though protests and large political gatherings are usually peaceful, the sheer volume of people involved can cause disruptions to our daily routines. Stay informed. Stay safe.

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