Saturday, March 27, 2010

The badly managed border (West Bengal / Jharkhand) checkpost at Chichira

I have lost count of the number of times I have crossed the Chichira border checkpost on NH 6. This busy checkpost has to be crossed while travelling from Bahragora in Jharkhand to Lodhasuli (near Jhargram) in W.B. or vice versa.

During my road trips all over India, I have had to cross many state borders. While drivers of commercial vehicles need to show their papers and pay octroi and other taxes at state borders, private vehicles are allowed to simply drive through. However, the actual process of the ‘officials’ dealing with the commercial vehicles is usually cumbersome and corruption being rampant, every truck has to spend several minutes to complete the official paperwork (plus under-the-table activity) and one often sees huge queues (several miles long, on both sides of the border) while approaching a state border.

Despite the massive queue of trucks, usually half a lane is kept clear for small private vehicles to move. But not infrequently, trucks occupy all the lanes and so cars also get stuck. As is quite common in India, traffic police (or any kind of police) are conspicuous by their absence in places where they are most required. One would expect at least half a dozen police constables managing traffic at a border checkpost on a busy National Highway where hundreds (sometimes thousands) of trucks queue up routinely but usually not a single constable is visible. For all I know, there are constables posted there officially, but instead of doing what they are supposed to do they are probably busy in collecting their pound of flesh from the hapless truck drivers. And the police officers who are paid to supervise the constables are themselves corrupt and ineffective.

The Chichira border is below average by Indian standards. There are no lane dividers. The road surface is usually bad with huge craters (road has been repaired recently so right now this is not a problem). I have never seen any constable controlling traffic there and major jams are frequent. But on both sides of the choked highway there are some dusty / muddy tracks which are used by smaller vehicles to bypass the jams. The trick lies in making a timely visual assessment of the jam while approaching the border and descending (the dirt tracks are several feet below the highway level) to the dirt track either to the left or right of the road. There are some convenient spots for descending and ascending back to the road. If one misses such spots, one has no choice but to crawl along with the trucks because the descent from the road to the dirt tracks is very steep and treacherous in most places.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have become reasonably adept at negotiating the Chichira border. I usually try to cross it early in the morning when the traffic is relatively less dense. When I see a jam, I try to use the dirt tracks. The dirt tracks have huge craters which are filled with water / mud during the rainy season and it is great fun to cross them in a small car.

When I recently drove to Kharagpur, I crossed Chichira around 9 AM and it took me just 15 mins to cross the border without getting off the road. However, during my return trip on 25.03.10 I saw a god-awful jam – trucks were lined up at least 5-6 km on each side of the border! I crossed a km or two of the truck line without having to get off the road and then I had to get off the road and travel about 4-5 km on dirt tracks through a couple of villages before getting back on the highway. These dirt tracks have a thick carpet of loose dust and if there is a vehicle just ahead of you, you had it because you won’t be able to see through the thick cloud of dust. So timing is very important and one needs to maintain good speed so that the car behind you cannot overtake you.

To conclude, my advice is :

1) Don’t let these problems in Chichira deter your long drive plans on this route. You will find similar problems in many state borders in India. Also, whenever there is an accident on an Indian highway, similar jams occur. Have a little patience and make allowance for a little extra time to cross the border.

2) Try to cross the border early in the morning if possible.

3) Never queue up behind the last truck in your lane as if you are in a civilized land. If the right hand side lane is available, get into it and move ahead. Though the RHS lane is for traffic moving towards you, small vehicles are ‘allowed’ in India to move in the wrong direction in a jam situation. If you see a truck coming towards you on the RHS lane, look for a suitable spot to get off the road and let the truck pass.

4) If everything fails, try to get off the road and follow the dirt tracks which run parallel to the road or through adjacent fields and villages.

5) If you are faint-hearted, driving in India is strongly contra-indicated.