Dressed in white and khaki attire, he lets the vehicles at the Anna Rotary junction (under the Gemini flyover) pass towards Nungambakkam. It is 1 pm on a weekday and the mercury level is high. Perspiration trickles down the forehead of the serious-faced traffic cop, who stops a two-wheeler and penalises the rider for not wearing a helmet.
Meet C Palani, a stern, dark-skinned, 48-year-old Traffic Sub-Inspector from the E3 Teynampet Police Station who has manned traffic at various spots over a 10-km stretch in Teynampet, a busy area that is in proximity to the AIADMK office and the Chief Minister’s residence. These include congested junctions such as SIET, Teynampet signal and Alwarpet, as directed by the control room. Earlier, he had worked at Pondy Bazaar signal for five years.
Working eight-hour shifts, he spends more time on these roads than anywhere else and misses out on important family gatherings. “It is my sixth year as a traffic cop. I get to take a break of 36 hours after completing three shifts of eight hours each. However, our time off depends on VIP movement and bundobust,” said Palani. For example, he could not avail of his scheduled break the week before due to back-to-back protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the city.
Palani’s story is that of any other traffic cop in Chennai who, willingly or unwillingly, forgo their off days when there is heavy workload. Their work takes a toll on their physical and mental health, as they work rain or shine.
When duty demands, these men in khaki work extra hours. 37-year-old P Manimaran, Sub-Inspector at St Thomas Mount Traffic Police Station, is one such enthusiastic cop. “There are days when I report at duty at 8 am and leave at 11 pm. I find it challenging, but am happy to work long hours, as my presence helps ease traffic,” said Manimaran, who mans the traffic at Kathipara junction of GST Road.
The shortage of traffic cops in the 67 traffic police stations of Chennai has a close connection with the plight of the fraternity. “There are 3091 police personnel — belonging to various cadres like Inspectors, Head Constables, Sub-Inspectors etc — in these police stations, as opposed to the requirement of 4182 cops. The vacancies will soon be filled,” said A Arun, Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Chennai City Police.
According to Palani, at least 4000 vehicles use the Anna Rotary junction in an hour during peak hours, honking and emitting smoke. He coughs, as an auto-rickshaw emits thick black smoke.
The PM 2.5 levels in the US Consulate, a few metres away, stood at 96 — a number that indicates moderate quality of air, according to the Air Quality Index (AQI). It is just a few bars from being unhealthy (101 is unhealthy for sensitive people). “I do have a mask. But I don’t find it comfortable to wear. I know it is important to wear one, as I have seen my seniors suffer from respiratory issues. I guess I should make it a habit,” said the traffic cop.
Apart from these problems, they have to face the wrath of the general public for a multitude of reasons. “It is such a thankless job. Citizens blame us for the decisions of the government. They blame us for the lack of flyovers and congested roads, simply not understanding that we cannot do anything about it,” sighed Palani.
The noisy, polluted roads make for the work spots of the traffic policemen. Though Arun says that the department regularly supplies masks to the cops, there is no drinking water kiosk or restroom for them. There is some respite during summer when the police department provides each cop with two packets of buttermilk a day, to beat the heat. “Those four months are bliss. We are on our own after that,” said Manimaran.
It is an ordeal especially for women cops. “We use restrooms in hotels and marriage halls. The biggest compromise entails working without regular off days or leave, and missing out on family time. I do not ask for leave even when I fall sick, as there is already a notion in the department that women are bad traffic cops,” said a young traffic cop, seeking anonymity.
How about public toilets? The cop says they are either locked or in extremely unhygienic condition. “Also, we do not have public toilets in all localities,” she pointed out.
Besides providing quarters and health insurance, the police department regularly organises sessions to ease stress among traffic cops. “Psychologists teach us ways to deal with stress during the in-service training that is attended by every cop twice a year. I find it helpful for a few days, but then, things get stressful again,” added Manimaran.
The other side
Ask any Chennaiite what she thinks of a traffic cop and the answer will be along these lines: They demand bribe and are harsh with the general public. “I am sure 90 per cent of them are corrupt. If you pay half the fine amount to the cop, he will let the traffic violator go. That’s why I don’t respect them,” says Chikki Solomon, who works in a publishing house.
When asked about this issue, Mailusami, a Traffic Inspector at Teynampet Police Station, said cashless payments could be a permanent solution. “I agree that a few cops are corrupt. Even the most truthful officer gets tempted when offenders offer to pay half the fine amount. But if the public chooses to pay online, corruption can be controlled,” he said.