Nepali Times
Guest Column
First to come, first to go


Kathmandu's chaotic traffic is growing worse by the day and we have our own explanations: exponential growth in the number of vehicles, limited road space, violation of traffic rules, frequent demos and lack of rapid mass transportation.

However, even if all these problems are addressed, traffic would sooner or later become as chaotic as it is now. Better roads, mass transit and enforcement of traffic rules will not solve the problem. We need a better sociological and anthropological understanding of Nepal's urban culture and how this impacts the traffic.

What are the attitudes of drivers and pedestrians concerning both public property in general and public spaces? Is there a meaning attached to driving a vehicle and does it vary according to the type of vehicle? What do official traffic laws and the people's own rules tell us about the Nepali urban social structure?

How do we share space and time on our roads? One way is to treat them as common property to be shared equitably according to some prevalent 'rules' such as first-to-come-first-to-go and pedestrians, especially the four-legged ones, have priority over vehicles. But more commonly, they are treated as what property theorists call an 'open access property regime' in which everyone tries to maximise their interest, trying to get ahead of others, even if everyone else suffers. Every other road-user is a potential rival. This mad, frantic rush to get ahead reveals the individualistic and self-centred nature of the urban Nepali.

Road users have their own hierarchy. The drivers of mammoth SUVs claim superior status. Might is right of way. The swift, swerving motorcyclists are the guerrillas who thumb their noses at the Big Boys in this post-colonial and post-modern age of deconstruction of tradition and status. Blue plated vehicles often get priority because the donors they belong to probably constructed the roads in the first place and demand respect and don't like to be deconstructed.

Pedestrians question and envy the status and rights of vehicles but it doesn't count when they decide to obstruct traffic. They don't have the right to the roads because, as one taxi-driver explained to me, pedestrians do not pay taxes to use the roads. They should walk only on the sidewalks, even if most of Kathmandu does not have them.

When tradition, hierarchy, post-modern individualism, primal antagonism and survival instincts are so entrenched, chaos is to be expected. Readers may argue that enacting better laws and strictly enforcing them will solve these problems. But as legal anthropologists argue, state laws have to compete with rules people make based on various principles or norms.

Except when physically confronted by agents of the state (traffic police), people usually follow their own rules. The people's traffic rules are an uneasy combination of hierarchy based not on caste, but type of vehicle, colour of the number plate and rugged, selfish individualism.

Traffic practices produce and reproduce as well as reflect social relations, social structure and culture of the urban, post-modern Nepal in public spaces, whereas in private and in domestic spaces we are still rural, pre-modern at heart. Until these attitudes, perceptions and rules concerning use of road space and the hierarchy and status of vehicles change, there is little hope for improvement in the capital's traffic situation.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)