She’s flipping the bread on the pan for breakfast when the call comes
in: no breakdown. Traffic Inspector Shivani signs off the wireless
conversation, “05 Tango 64, over,” and turns to butter the bread. Later in the
day she’ll be trying to get traffic on Delhi roads flow as smooth as butter.
We are at her Dwarka flat to record a day in her life. Her constable has just called about the traffic situation in her circle. It’s 7 a.m.
That’s early for most of us but she’s been up since 6 a.m. cooking lunch. Now she’s getting her daughter Shirin ready for school. I’d expected a posse of servants to perform these chores—there’s a young maid--but Shivani likes to cook.
The image of cops I had before meeting Shivani came from Bollywood: they inevitably turned out late to scavenge on the scene after the drama was over; they were corrupt; their main job was to create snags for the common people; and above all most were male. Most of these notions were to be deconstructed during the day.
Shivani looks like the cliched next-door neighbor. A closer look shows a resemblance to yesteryear heroine Mala Sinha-gone-plump. At 7 a.m. she’s ready for a party, in blue printed kurta with green slacks, wearing matte brown lipstick and thick eyeliner.
At first sight it’s just another normal household getting ready for the day except for the continuous buzz of Shivani’s wireless. That’s how she keeps tabs on the traffic in her circle 24x7. The city is geographically divided into 43 traffic circles. Each has one inspector in charge of its roads. Shivani is the only female traffic cop in the city; she controls the Palam Airport Circle (PAP), which spans NSG road, Dwarka Underpass and the Tunnel.
Her day is choreographed like her wireless codeword: tango. After seeing her daughter off on the bus, she returns for a quiet breakfast. Then she gets ready to go to office at Palam by 8.30 a.m. Her schedule: 9 a.m.—11 a.m. she has to ensure smooth passage for the Vice-President who is going to Srinagar, between noon-2 p.m. she has to provide security and ensure clean passage for the President’s cavalcade, flying to Kolkata, then she has a couple of meetings that’ll keep her busy until 7 p.m. From 7.30 p.m. to midnight she’s checking on drunken drivers and other offenders. At midnight she can sign off after filing her daily diary.
The shoulder tabs of her uniform carry three stars (the rank of Inspector-- once a drunk driver threatened to have them snatched off because she had dared to paper him). Pink nails and foundation make for a picture in Khaki. “I love makeup!” she exclaims.
On the wall hangs a painting that she’s done; a woman with bent head sitting in front of large rocks. “She’s a wave that’s taken the form of a woman,” says Shivani.
At 8.30 a.m. we drive to her office in a white Maruti gypsy. On the way she fills us in about her efforts to widen the slip road from 20 feet to 35 feet near Dwarka Underpass. Bottlenecks during the monsoon lead to a long traffic tail. She has made detailed notes on the land owning agencies and contacted the DDA which has asked her to present her proposal.
In the office I see stacks of women’s magazines like Femina, Sarita and a cookbook. There’s a spare bed behind curtains. The exacting work hours mean most officers steal 40 winks whenever they can.
After looking through some files for a few minutes, she goes off to the airport. We stay back. Outsiders are not allowed. The protocol for the Vice-President’s movement is clear passage. It is ensured that every traffic signal is green. But the President’s departure is a bigger affair. For two km uniformed officers keep vigil and not a passerby is allowed.
It’s 1 p.m. when she returns from the airport for a quick lunch break. She insists on serving us herself, ripping open the packets of sauce and sugar before handing them to us and coaxing us to eat more, like an affectionate aunt. Does she find it hard, this male-dominated service?
“When my DCP at Parliament circle (where she was posted before PAP) saw me, he said, “Yeh aa toh gayi hai, magar ab iska karen kya?”
After lunch, we insist on going with her for the President’s departure. She agrees to drop at a temple at the intersection outside the airport from where we can see everything.
It’s begun to rain. A few minutes before 3 p.m., the constables on the entire stretch of road stand with their backs turned. One constable says, “When the President moves, we have to ensure not a bird is in sight.” They keep their backs to the cavalcade; they’re not supposed to meet his eye.
It’s a bit like the Raj replayed in the 21st century, rain falling, wet policemen with their backs turned and cars zooming past a surreally empty road. We spot the tiny frame of Pranab Mukherjee pass in a limousine under the grey sky, like a modern day Japanese emperor from an Akira Kurosawa film. And as the constable said, not a bird flew over the sky.
Fifteen minutes later, Shivani arrives in her gypsy. Now we move to Traffic Police Headquarters in PUSA for a meeting to discuss the logistics of the handover of the maintenance of traffic lights from one company to another, from CMS to Inox. Traffic Inspectors of all 43 circles are present. The one woman in the all-male gathering stands out. Her efficiency is reflected in the yearly record of cases she has already reported in her stint as TI in the PAP circle. In six months she has reported 21,159 cases against 19,354 in 2011.
That number represents a lot of hard work. In one of her anecdotes, Shivani tells us that while in Parliament circle, she had to look after the traffic during the at-home parties at Rashtrapati Bhavan every Republic Day and Independence day. At departure time there was a crush of cars at the forecourt. “There was a competition among the drivers of the politicians to reach the forecourt first,” she says. “As you know, everyone is an equal prince in our country.”
It was a puzzle traffic inspectors before her could not solve. But Shivani got permission to use 120 bollards in the shape of the number 8 and the problem was solved. Her arrangement is photographed now and all subsequent traffic inspectors use this design.
Shivani has been in the service for 18 years. She graduated in political science from Miranda House and “in fun” gave the SSC examination after it. As a child she was very aggressive which made her mother declare, “I would become a gangster when I grew up”.
Shivani remembers, “I always had a brick in my hand.” She used it to hit eve teasers and rowdy boys on the street. But her bravado was shaken during training. She almost wanted to quit service but the perquisites of a government job stopped her. Since 1995 she’s beena posted in the Immigration, Visa Department and now the Traffic Department. In between she was in a police station for a year.
It was during her stint as a traffic inspector at the Commonwealth Games that the service took notice of her talents in managing the roads with mathematical precision. “All over the world the traffic time for the opening and closing ceremony of the Commonwealth games was between one and two hours,” she said. “We reduced it to 10 minutes. If there were 10 buses running, we arranged for 10 exits to avoid jams.” The organising committee recommended her for SHO, but she couldn’t take it because she has a teenage daughter (she is a single parent, judicially separated from her husband).
On our way to Dwarka Underpass at 7.30 p.m., her daughter calls. I hear Shivani ask, “Have you had milk?” They talk for a couple of minutes, after which she tells us, “Shirin asked me if I have 10 minutes to spare for her after I reutnr. She wants to talk to me about something. She’ll stay awake for me.”
Soon, we reach the spot ahead of the slip road to catch drunk drivers. The constables are ready with alcometers, blinkers, barricades and light bars. Vehicles are flagged down at random on suspicion. They first smell the breath and if there’s a whiff of alcohol the alcometer comes out. Young men in cars and motorbikes are the main suspects.
Within five minutes a motorcycle is stopped. The meter shows 400 (the maximum on the alcometer is 490). The rider has to file a declaration form stating that he will appear in court next day and his bike is impounded.
Another follows. The driver, Gurpal Singh pleads that he has a train to catch as his vehicle is impounded. Unmoved, Shivani says she can’t let him go given the chances of an accident. From begging he moves to threats, gesticulating and making calls.
Shivani dismisses it with characteristic humour. “The first thing they do is make calls. Everybody is related to a bigwig here.” Suddenly her phone starts ringing. It’s the SHO of Okhla. He keeps calling but she doesn’t pick upl. She explains that Gurpal called the SHO and he’s calling her.
Soon, we see Gurpal offer his phone and say, “Sahib is trying to call you.” Hands in pockets, Shivani retorts, “Tera hoga Sahib,mera nahin hai.”
At 11.30 p.m. we decide to shut shop as it’s drizzling. We drive back to her house in Dwarka. She sees the lights out from the parking area and calls her daughter, “Are you awake? The lights were off... Ok, I’m coming up.”
Another day on the road is over, a day in which she handles bread and breakdowns, her teenager daughter’s whims and grown up drunks’ bawling without a complaint.
Text by Shweta Upadhyay
Traffic Inspector Shivani waiting for her daughter Shirin’s school bus to arrive. This early morning ritual is the only time she gets to spend with Shirin.
Her day starts with a cup of chai and bunch of late night traffic updates from her colleague.
Constable Prem Prakash helps Shivani load her bag as she heads off to office.
Shivani takes interest in creating new plans to reduce traffic congestion. After photographing a road joining a busy underpass, she forwards her suggestions to widen the road to her seniors to include it in their road development proposals.
She is the only woman inspector in Delhi’s 43 traffic circles. ‘I never thought it as particularly challenging. I get along fine with my male colleagues professionally.’
‘My morning papers can wait till late afternoon when I get a breather.’
Friday night traffic has an additional challenge of drunk drivers. She checks the alcohol content with a breath analyser.
After a 16-hour long day at midnight, Shivani is still in the mood to check if her daughter Shirin is awake for a little chat.