Oddly Enough

Lights turn red for stunned jaywalkers

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Pedestrians don’t cross the Indian capital’s chaotic streets so much as dash across as if their life depends on it, which it very often does.

Pedestrians jaywalk on a busy road in New Delhi December 6, 2007. More than 900 pedestrians a year are killed by the city's lawless drivers. Police decided on Wednesday it was time to start enforcing a 27-year-old rule against jaywalking. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur

More than 900 pedestrians a year fail to make it to the other side, killed by the city’s lawless drivers. So police decided on Wednesday it was time to start enforcing a 27-year-old rule against jaywalking.

The result was puzzlement and sometimes anger from people for whom dicing with traffic death is a fact of Indian urban life.

At six busy New Delhi intersections on Thursday, police officers grabbed jaywalkers by the arm, issued them tickets, and made them pay 20-rupee (50-cent) fines before explaining the idea of waiting patiently for the lights to change.

“We have to run, the lights don’t turn green long enough for us to cross,” said D.K. Bhargav, an angry, 57-year-old office worker, fearlessly confronting an officer with his complaint.

“And in other places there’s no crossing at all.”

“Speak to the government and say, ‘Kindly build us a crossing,’” was the policeman’s advice.

In the city’s Connaught Place commercial district, a troop of men in woolly jumpers, smart shoes and trousers were hastily painting a new zebra crossing.

Then police reinforcements arrived and, for the first time that anyone could remember, made about 50 pedestrians line up and wait patiently on either side of the road while traffic rushed by, smearing the still-drying paint.

People giggled self-consciously, smiling at those on the opposite curb. During a pause in the traffic someone tried to break ranks and dash across, but a whistle-blowing policeman intercepted him, making everyone laugh.

“How would a villager know about these lights? There are no traffic lights in their villages,” said Constable Suresh Sharma, who thought that the widespread rule-breaking was partly due to Delhi’s large population of rural migrants.

“Our aim is not to prosecute people, our aim is to educate them,” police spokesman Rajan Bhagat explained by telephone.

But not everyone who was fined took away the correct message.

“Next time I’ll be watchful,” said Vasant Pant, a 20-year-old courier late making his deliveries. “I’ll look to see if there’s a traffic policeman before crossing.”

Some offenders, like Sachin Chaudry, a young, late-running bank executive, quickly handed over their fine and their details without even interrupting their cellphone calls.

Others were more evasive.

“I don’t have the money,” pleaded Ankita Khurana, a nervous-looking 18-year-old student.

“Then you’ll have to go to jail,” the policeman replied. She suddenly remembered she had change in her bag.

But another jaywalker -- a scrawny man in unwashed clothes -- seemed to be telling the truth.

“This is all I have,” he pleaded, holding out five rupees.

The enraged policeman took this as an insult, waving a finger in his face before pushing him back the way he came.

“Next time don’t cross without a green light,” he snarled.