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The Human Touch

Amitabh Pandey from Patna shares his inspiring story of traffic control by engaging design methods with people intervention

Around 1995-96, after graduating from NID, communication designer Amitabh Pandey was selected to join the team of Apple Computers at Cupertino for their recently launched product called the Newton. “It was an early version of a tablet and people were not keen on spending 20,000 rupees those days for a palm held device, an amount for which they could get a desk top model”, recalls Pandey. The project with Apple led to his work in Indian healthcare for auxiliary mid-wives. Since then, there has been no looking back. Pandey has steadfastly continued doing development work with organizations such as Praxis and Action Aid. Since 2000, he is settled in Bihar and is at present a senior consultant with UNICEF in the area of behavioral change communication.  

Pandey’s daughter studies in Notre Dame Academy, a reputed school with a strength of around 3500 students. Aside of vans, autos and buses, at drop off and pick up times, parents land up in big cars and SUVs. Since there are several other important schools in the same neighborhood, both at the assembly and dismissal times, the area witnessed huge traffic jams. “There would be close to 3000 vehicles”, says Pandey. “The school was involved with giving instructions on where to park and what route to take.” The school also had an active PTA and parents participated in managing the traffic. However, this proved to be insufficient on weeks the parents were not present to physically monitor the traffic. For 15 years, the problem had literally been the same with huge jams at rush hours. “People have their own rules”, notes Pandey with a smile, admitting to our lack of common civic sense. When Pandey was elected President of the PTA, he got a fresh chance to tackle the problem. “My idea was to do something sustainable that would remain in place even if parents were not there to monitor.”

His first step was to call in the people he felt were best equipped to give answers. “We parents are outsiders and it is not a good idea to start designing solutions independently as we are not always there.” Pandey decided to involve the auto-drivers, van and bus drivers.  Most of them arrived early and waited outside the school, indulging in card games and clogging up the streets by parking their autos and vans. Housing Co-operatives near the school had lodged several complaints about their behavior. Pandey saw their role differently. “I wanted to utilize this force”, he says. The PTA group approached 120 of the drivers and invited them for a meeting in the school. In the school conference hall, they organized biscuits and tea and gathered about a round table. Pandey wanted them to feel they were an important part of society, saying, “I firmly believed they have better answers than us.” While many parents accused the auto and van drivers of causing hindrance, Pandey recognized that by escorting children in groups of 15 to 40 in minivans and buses, the drivers were contributing to a reduction of traffic, whereas the private vehicles were actually adding to the woes as usually one car came for one child. 

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Mapping the neighborhood at the school hall

At the conference hall, the parents, teachers and drivers had a brain-storming session. Pandey encouraged the drivers to draw a map of the neighborhood with chalk on the floor. The men identified all the bottlenecks, how the jams happened and what streets could be delineated as one-way. Then, together they designed a system. “The drivers also came up with solutions to parking problems. For example, they identified a dumping yard, which if cleaned up, twenty vehicles could be parked there”, says Pandey. They even made a nifty recommendation that 15 minutes intervals be allowed between dismissal times for Montessori, Primary and Secondary sections to reduce the number of waiting vehicles at the gates.

Then, Pandey introduced the methodology of the “Low hanging fruit exercise.” He distributed a set of cards on which they could outline ‘problems’ and another set, which would have corresponding ‘solutions.’ If placed on a tree, the solutions that were simple to execute were the lowest in the order; next came the ones that were reasonably difficult and required intervention. The ones on top were close to impossible to achieve. Zeroing on options that they could carry out quickly, the group approached the school administration and the Principal.  Surprisingly, one of the outcomes of the exercise was that 22 drivers offered to work as traffic volunteers. They called themselves Parivahan Mitr, which literally means Traffic Friend and started to carry out their duties almost immediately.
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“Like any social mobilization activity, we needed some motivation to keep it going”, says Pandey respecting the human need for acknowledgment. On 15th August 2015, the 22 Parivahan Mitr were invited as special guests at the ceremony. After flag-hoisting, they were each gifted a fluorescent jacket and cap and all the children clapped for them. “A person who was earlier not allowed into the school grounds was now a chief guest at an important occasion”, says Pandey, happy for boosting the morale of the volunteers. On Rakhee Bandhan, the school girls tied rakhees on their hands. In a touching gesture, the drivers brought chocolates and a bouquet of flowers for their sisters, declaring, “Hum log zindagi bhar bahan ka raksha karenge.” Pandey is proud that no monetary transaction is involved in the endeavor. When they set up the system, part of the code established was that the volunteers would always assist courteously and never resort to violence of any kind. Despite some parents being aggressive at times, even pushing the volunteers in their anger, the Parivahan Mitr never retaliated or answered back rudely.

When local newspapers have carried the story of successful traffic control by people, Pandey made sure each man’s name was printed. This was a matter of great pride for the volunteers, to have their photographs and names in the paper. Pandey continues to find ways to bring in human interaction rather than provide solutions with devices. When the volunteers asked for a water cooler to be installed, he set up a system wherein schoolgirls would fill up large water bottles from the school cooler at both break times and end of the day and place it at an accessible spot by the gate. This kind of activity brings the human touch and maintains interaction, continuing the chain of give and take. “I personally feel charity and gifting something is not part of a sustainable development solution”, says Pandey. Rather than gift umbrellas to each driver in the hot summer, he organized 10 umbrellas at the school security counter which the volunteers can use any time and place back. 

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Pandey’s approach makes us reflect on what we believe people are willing to do versus what they can really do if the action is shifted to each individual as being at the center. This commendable direction brings in trust, acknowledgement and people involvement, constantly maintaining communication. This communication is the essence of what keeps relationships alive and nurtures them, rising to address new requirements by the human system evolving and adapting to change. 

by Sujatha Shankar Kumar with illustrations by Sumit Roy
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