Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dying, Daily...

Many are shocked, angry and aghast about the number of innocent passengers killed recently in the ill-fated Air India Express flight that overshot the runway and fell down a deep ravine.

But where is the similar sense of outrage over the 118,000 people who died on Indian roads in 2008 alone. The reasons are not far to seek.

While road deaths in many other big emerging markets have declined or stabilized in recent years, even as vehicle sales jumped, in India, fatalities are skyrocketing — up 40 percent in five years to more than 118,000 in 2008, the last figure available.

A lethal brew of poor road planning, inadequate law enforcement, a surge in trucks and cars, and a flood of untrained drivers have made India the world’s road death capital. As the country’s fast-growing economy and huge population raise its importance on the world stage, the rising toll is a reminder that the government still struggles to keep its more than a billion people safe.

In China, by contrast, which has undergone an auto boom of its own, official figures for road deaths have been falling for much of the past decade, to 73,500 in 2008, as new highways segregate cars from pedestrians, tractors and other slow-moving traffic, and the government cracks down on drunken driving and other violations.

Evidence of road accidents seems to be everywhere in urban India. Highways and city intersections often glitter with smears of broken windshield and are scattered with unmatched shoes, shorn-off bicycle seats and bits of motorcycle helmet.

Tales of rolled-over trucks and speeding buses are a newspaper staple, and it is rare to meet someone in urban India who has not lost a family member, friend or colleague on the road.

The dangerous state of the roads represents a “total failure on the part of the government of India,” said Rakesh Singh, whose 16-year-old son, Akshay, was killed last year by an out-of-control truck in Bijnor, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, as he walked along a highway to a wedding.

The government has responded as governments traditionally do — by setting up committees.

“We propose to introduce an amendment bill in the ensuing budget session of parliament to set up a National Road Safety Management Board to strictly enforce road safety rules across the country,” Nath said at an interactive session with captains of industry here.

Admitting that India had the unfortunate distinction of having the worst road safety record in the world, Nath said the Road Safety Management Bill to amend the Motor Vehicles Act was being drafted in consultation with the central law ministry.

“The proposed board will lay down certain standards and rules to enforce the law. We need a holistic approach towards road safety with international standards,” Nath told the members of the Bangalore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), which organized the session.

Ah yes. Another government department to solve the problems created, or at least ignored, by an existing government department. The story is endless, and endlessly repetitive. For instance, statistics indicate that in a particular year, over 600,000 drivers were issued with tickets for jumping red lights in Delhi alone.

The government’s response was to increase fines. Not enough, say traffic experts: “We have problems with signals, with road markings, signage, design failures, that is a large contributory factor,” added Baluja. “Signals you cannot see, behind bushes, they are not properly placed, if there are no stop lines, how would you know that you have crossed a stop line? “

All of that is the responsibility of the highways ministry — a responsibility it routinely abdicates, even as the minister in charge talks of ‘a bill to set up a board’ to solve the problem. What is needed, the World Bank has said even way back in 2007, is a complete, systemic overhaul of the system.

According to Sinha, the construction zones are not safe and at some sites large concrete blocks are used as traffic barriers, posing a major hazard. “If you happen to hit this block, you are dead,” said Sinha and proposed guardrail and plastic drums filled with sand or water instead.

He also said the whole highway system needs an overhaul and has put that in black and white in his report which was submitted to the World Bank last December.

“There are problems right from the planning stage, designs chosen, data collection of traffic volumes, planning, supervision and maintenance of highways. There is no accountability at all. The structure of NHAI itself is problematic as most of its engineers from state PWDs are on deputation. So there is no organizational loyalty, no accountability,” he said.

A government incapable of such systematic effort meanwhile tinkers with bills to set up more bureaucracies, and toys with increasing fines. To what end? What stiffer fines actually do is provide the under-staffed, poorly paid traffic police around the country with additional opportunities for corruption — which, in some areas, is even institutionalized, with rate cards and such.

It is not that we lack laws. What is really lacking is an organizational will to upgrade traffic infrastructure, and an official will to strictly impose those laws.

The problem is serious, and it is genuine — and yet, it does not get the attention it deserves, probably because the attritional toll our highways take is not as dramatic, as visceral as an air crash.

So try this: every eight minutes, one person dies in a road accident in India, and 10 are injured.

'Time to act' would you say?

What are the problems with traffic in India, as you see it?

What is it that the government needs to be doing, and isn’t?

And where does our responsibility begin and end?

All this and much more definitely calls for a debate in urnest at all levels of nation building.


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