Roads or killing fields?

By Vijay D'Souza, UK [ Published Date: January 26, 2010 ]

According to the official figures by International Road Federation, 479, 219 road accidents killed 114, 444 and injured 513, 340 people in India in the year 2007. As per the reports disclosed by the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport & Highways, in 2006 India has overtaken China to top the road accidents. India has been reported to record over 100, 000 deaths every year ever since. Worryingly for India while China has been bringing down its road accident figures by an annual average of 10.8 per cent, India's figures are getting worse. Reports suggest that, these figures translated into one road accident every minute and one road accident death every five minutes for India. As per year 2000 prices, this amounted to a loss of Rs. 55,000 core every year - almost 3% of the GDP (gross domestic product, basic measure of a country's overall economic output). Staggering statistics may be, however, surely not so shocking for an Indian citizen.

Road transport is vital to the economical development and social integration of the country. This is considered to be one of the cost effective and preferred modes of transport both for freight and passengers. It has emerged as the dominant segment in India's transportation sector with a share of 4.5% in India's GDP in comparison to railways that has a mere 1% share of GDP. Over 80% of passenger traffic and over 60% of freight traffic is carried through the road transport.

A super power India' cannot be built with the existing third world infrastructure. It is a tough task for a country as big as India to build this infrastructure both in terms of quality and quantity. Moreover, a country owes its taxpayers a safer transport network to show that it is serious about improving the quality of life of its citizens. As it stands, both in private and public road transport, drivers give scant regard to safety of passengers and that of pedestrians. Rather than emulate him, a safe driver is often mocked as a poor driver. Once on the roads bigger vehicle command more respect and this unwritten law govern our roads. Correcting poor road engineering, years of underinvestment in road infrastructure, lack of concrete signs and arrogant disregard are without doubt the cause of India's traffic menace.  The road safety cannot be enforced by building state of the art roads alone. It has to be complimented by implementing stricter traffic rules and penalties. It is an open secret that in our country driving licences are issued without proper examinations ultimately leading to tragic accidents. Practical driving tests are carried out within minutes, on a road closest to RTO, more likely with the examiners watching from outside the vehicle. The system has reached such a dreadful level, that, it was beyond belief when an optician recently told me that his medically blind patient was flaunting his driving licence. However safe the roads may be the accidents cannot be averted completely. Even so this should not be an excuse for not improving our roads. The conditions of most if not all of our roads are precarious to say the least. Along the costal belt the asphalt roads are damaged every year during the rainy season and the commuters and pedestrians have to bear the brunt of the situation. It is highly unlikely that at this day and age proper roads that can withstand pouring rain cannot be built. Sadly, there is no debate about this in our political circle and focus groups as to how the condition of roads could be improved so as to withstand damage by rain. Moreover, the newly laid roads are dug up as and when required for work related to telecom, electricity, drainage and other departments without repairing the caused damage. Why the involved departments cannot coordinate so as to minimise the expenses to the exchequer? It would be interesting statistics as to how much money is spent every year on patching up self inflicted damage. Are there any measures or suggestions to check this spiralling cost? Why can't the road and transport ministry be transparent in their dealings? If the state of national highways are so bad what hope one has for rural roads which are the lifelines of our rural economy? Authorities should clearly explain their plan and objectives so that they can be held accountable if the situation repeats year after year.

Furthermore, the wrangling between centre and state governments over who should take responsibility for the road safety is quite laughable when this delay is continuing to maim and kill people by thousands. Although the ministry is setting up driver training schools, launching publicity campaigns, roping in NGOs and providing ambulances along highways, the overall nature of the process is slow and ill implemented. The new measures such as including safety equipment like airbags and anti-braking system in all cars and installation of speed governors in all commercial vehicles to bring down the fatalities would not be able to control rogue tendencies.

On the other hand, the public transport system needs urgent attention in India. The rapid expansion of personalized modes of transport has resulted in a large unmet demand for public transport. The passenger road transport service has not achieved the desired growth both in terms of quality and numbers, despite growing demand; it has resulted in an exponential growth of personalized mode of transport leading to enormous problems of traffic congestion, pollution, etc. The central government has proposed to help the state governments to improve their public transport system on the condition that certain reforms to be undertaken by the State Governments. Furthermore, authorities should be ruthless in maintaining the standards in bus transport services run by the State road transport undertakings and private operators.

In a country as vast as India laying roads to meet to safety standards all at once would be difficult and would take some time. However, enforcement of good driving practices forcing drivers to adhere to standard safety measures should be implemented immediately. Unless there is a system to inculcate standard driving practices amongst the drivers this menace will continue for some more time.

A Committee headed by Mr. S. Sundar, Former Secretary, Ministry of Surface Transport, was set up to deliberate and recommend creation of a separate body on Road Safety and Traffic Management. The draft national road safety policy as recommended by Sundar committee suggests strengthening the system of driver licensing and training to improve the competence and capability of drivers. The State Governments have endorsed the report of Sundar Committee which envisage enabling provision to create similar State Level Road Safety and Traffic Management Boards for the States.  Furthermore, the Planning Commission has allocated funds in the 11th Five Year Plan for providing central assistance to the States for strengthening public transport system in the country.

The decision by the government to constitute national and state level safety boards with experts on road design, vehicle safety and health is a welcome one. "The primary role of the boards is to ensure safety norms are followed by all stakeholders including, road builders and maintenance agencies, vehicle manufacturers and road users,'' said Mr. K H Muniyappa, former Minister of state for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways. One sincerely hopes that it will be implemented sooner and strictly enforced to bring a halt to fatalities. As studies have shown that there is a direct connection between increase in speed and the number of fatal accidents, the union government has decided to ensure speed governors are installed in all commercial vehicles in the country. According to reports even the half hearted implementation of this has been effective in Delhi.

The ministry is also sanctioning Grants-in-aid to NGOs (non-governmental organization) for undertaking road safety programmes. Road Safety Week is also being observed throughout the country involving State Governments, voluntary organizations, vehicle manufacturers, State Road Transport Corporations, etc. The ministry is also planning to train more than 59,000 drivers under the scheme of refresher training to heavy vehicle drivers in the unorganised sector. Financial assistance for setting up model drivers' training schools is also being provided to some of the State Governments.

Recently, the new Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Mr. Kamal Nath has set up a Committee to look into Road Safety and Traffic Management issues in the country. The committee is a stop gap arrangement and will cease to exist once the National Road Safety & Traffic Management Board comes into existence. The mandate of the committee includes making recommendations on safety standards for the design, construction and operation of National Highways including road infrastructure. It would also recommend formulation of standards of safety features for all mechanically propelled vehicles. The committee will also provide recommendations on the procedure, methodology for collection of road safety related data and its analysis, and also guidelines for training, testing and licensing of drivers. It would advise Central Government on road safety related issues and on administration of relevant road safety provisions envisaged under Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The Committee has suggested allocating of minimum 1% of total proceeds of cess on diesel and petrol for Road Safety Fund.

Although much is being done, the progress is also weighed down by bureaucracy, inherent corruption and plain indifference by local authorities to the plight of the people. Citizens should take to task officials lacking in their duties and there are ample means to realise this. The RTI (right to information act) enables the citizens to gain access to information from any Government body within thirty days. May be in the near future one might know as to how much money is actually being spent on surfacing our local roads. Furthermore, if an independent body was given power to examine the conditions of a road as soon as it is laid, the trepidations of tax payers will be alleviated. On the other hand, when it comes to curbing the speeding and unlawfulness on NH17 and other local coastal roads, sane and vigilant citizens, can bring about quick and lasting change. Using the current technology available on mobile phones, citizens could alert the authorities expeditiously about the unfolding threat, so that, eventually, our roads will be transformed from being perceived as killing fields to fit for safe travel. If the law doesn't help to rein in road rage, the fear of instantaneous harsh punishment will.


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