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Abstract

That there exists a stereotypical figure of the typical Indian driver is a truism. Most often a working-class male body, this figure – who treats “traffic rules are mere suggestions” – has constituted a source of culturally-intimate humor and international comedy for a long time. In a sense, the chaos on the roads reveals both a citizen who flouts traffic rules and regulations and a state that is unable to elicit obedience to its authority. At the same time, the past decade has witnessed the emergence of more robust discussions around how to fix the problem of traffic indiscipline. With the rapid intensification of vehicle ownership, accompanied by a rising incidence of road crashes, the disobedience of traffic rules and regulations is being framed increasingly as a public health hazard. In response to this depiction, state agencies and local NGOs in the country have been attempting to make people obey traffic rules and regulations using a variety of legislative, persuasive, and infrastructural strategies. And yet, little research has explored how these strategies are implemented, how the low-level state functionaries tasked with implementing these strategies address traffic management, and how drivers themselves navigate both road laws and the traffic such legislation intends to regulate. In this dissertation, I fill this gap. Drawing on multi-sited, ethnographic fieldwork conducted over seventeen months in the southern Indian metropolis of Hyderabad, I explore how efforts at reforming driving habits are being conceptualized and implemented by state agencies like the traffic police and how these attempts resonate with motorists. What follows, in a sense, is an ethnography of an effort, an ongoing project of social disciplining. It captures but a moment in the unfolding of developmental idealism in the country congealed in the particular case of the state’s effort to bring about – or enforce – order on the streets. My intention is not to adjudicate whether the state has “failed” or “succeeded” in imposing its will on the people. Instead of unpacking whether or not driving behavior actually changes, I probe the kinds of narratives, imaginations, and expectations that constitute the relationship between state agencies and motorists in Hyderabad. By ethnographically examining the way motorists interact with the different manifestations of state power and authority – from driving licenses to speedbumps to the figure of the traffic policeman – I trace the emergence of certain “infrastructural aptitudes” and “durable dispositions” towards rules and regulations in the world’s largest democracy. By analyzing how mundane encounters reproduce identities of both citizens and states, how they are validated interactionally, and how they stabilize understandings of social life, I take a relational approach to studying state-citizen relations, without privileging the ontological primacy of either. I argue that the perceived source of the unruliness on the road is itself a moving target – both the state and citizen are co-producing each other as the real problem that needs to be fixed. Ultimately, I show how road safety has become an idiom for relaying particular dilemmas around state authority and legitimacy, conundrums around citizen responsibility, and the seductive fantasies of development, modernity, and progress.

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