15 May

Beacon of hope, repression, efficiency….

Red beacons
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  1. Beacon of hope, repression, efficiency....
  2. Beacon of hope, repression, efficiency….

Red beaconsBeacons have always been an envious bone of contention. The beacon may be many things to many people – a status symbol, a token of having ‘arrived’, a relic of colonialism. What people don’t like about it, they project those feelings onto the beacon. It is a beacon of desire – every one would want to sit in a car with beacon, and just live the experience for once, if possible. It is a beacon of aspiration – most mothers would aspire for their children to have the beacon one day. Of hatred – one hates the beacon-wrapped vehicle that breezes past the red light, or gets that extra edge under the blind gaze of the traffic police. And so we must try to understand what is it about the beacon that touches us so strongly.

Beacons serve two purposes – as a symbol of power, and as a marker of privilege. And they are very close to each other.

As a symbol of power, it tells that the occupant of the vehicle has an important status in public life. Thus, a private citizen – no matter how much revered or powerful – is not entitled for it. Since money is so often a substitute for power, this symbol ensures that when it comes to matters of public life, money does not raze over state power. Hence, an Amitabh Bachchan or a Mukesh Ambani does not have a red beacon. However, an representative of the people – howsoever poor, or a government servant – having risen from the slum, can have the beacon. This beacon does not belong to the person, but to the position the person is holding. The moment the position goes, so does the beacon. It is attached to the state (or situation) – hence it is a status symbol (and status symbol is not a bad word).

The beacon is also a marker of privilege. It has rational reason to exist. The beacon can serve the following purpose:

  1. It can tell the toll booth that the vehicle need not pay a toll, and may pass through the exempted/VIP lane. Public servants should not pay toll, just like a private person on company duty does not pay toll from his pocket – the company bears the toll cost. If public servants, including MPs/MLAs are forced to bear the toll, either they would reduce their journeys required in public service, or they would try to earn extra money to pay the toll.
  2. It can tell those manning a secure area that the occupant of the vehicle need not be checked. It saves time.
  3. It can tell the importance of the occupant, and the vehicle can be directed to the proper place.
  4. With different coloured beacons, the vehicles can be segregated according to importance.
  5. On public roads that are always busy, it provides a smoother and faster passage so that the public servant can reach to a venue earlier. He certainly can leave half an hour earlier, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and one cannot leave half an hour earlier if there are ten meetings in a day.

Consider a Chief Minister on a typical day. A CM is allowed to use a commercial flight, or even a chartered chopper, but not a peon. The opportunity cost to the society for each minute in a peon’s and a CM’s life are vastly different. Based on this logic, the society/state allows greater privileges to the CM so that she can reach a place faster. Extend this logic to the roads. To move from one place to another would take an average of one hour. For a ten minute engagement in one area, a CM may have to spend 2 extra hours on the roads to travel like a normal citizen. With ten different meetings or more in a day, the CM would essentially be spending the whole day on the roads. Or she would sit at home or office and stop moving to the outside locations. Society would be the loser.

Removal of beacons may not be such a problem for those very high dignitaries that are given police escort. However, only the very few dignitaries at the top are entitled for an escort who can clear the traffic for the vehicle. Removal of beacon would mean the difference between efficient time management of a public servant, and its absence. I won’t be surprised if the average distance covered by the public servant is reduced in the aftermath of the beacon removal. The beacon ensures a faster passage when on public duty. In a recent survey of Indian traffic speeds by Ola, it transpired that the average speed of vehicles in Indian roads vary between 19.6 Km/hr (Chennai) and 27.1 Km/hr (Hyderabad). This is slow. And time is money, more so for the high dignitaries. A CM late by one minute is 100 wasted minutes where there are a hundred participants.