Road to disaster

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

Pedestrians sprinting across a road in Delhi. The number of people who sustain serious injuries on the roads of India has been estimated to be 1.27 million every year.-V. SUDERSHAN

Pedestrians sprinting across a road in Delhi. The number of people who sustain serious injuries on the roads of India has been estimated to be 1.27 million every year.-V. SUDERSHAN

ON November 26, 2008, terrorists attacked Mumbai and killed 195 people. The ferocity of the attack and the cold-blooded planning that was behind it appalled everyone, and the Central government was quick to react. Home Minister Shivraj Patil was replaced, and a plan was worked out quickly to strengthen the counter-terrorism machinery in the country. It included the acquisition of new equipment and more sophisticated weapons; the raising of a larger, well-trained force capable of extremely quick reaction; and the provision of greater depth to the existing counter-intelligence mechanisms and their expansion as considered necessary.

The country needs to be able to face any kind of attack, but the point of this essay, seen in the terrible context of the terror attack, is the number of Indians killed in a different manner every day. We lost 195 people to terrorism in Mumbai on 26/11. We lose over 250 every day to road accidents. In 2006, as many as 105,749 people were killed on our roads compared with 89,455 in China.

Chris Morris of the BBC, in a report in June 2008, said: There are now more road deaths in India than anywhere else in the world a man-made epidemic according to a government committee. India loses 3 per cent of its GDP [gross domestic product] to road crashes every year. Many of the deaths happen in rural areas, and one study found that 70 per cent of families who lose their main wage earner in a traffic accident subsequently fall below the poverty line.... It is a scourge which claims far more victims than communicable diseases like AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome], TB [tuberculosis] and malaria combined. And yet far less money is spent on trying to do something about it (emphasis added).

And beyond the deaths there is the huge number of people who are injured, maimed or incapacitated for life in many cases. The number of people who sustain serious injuries on the roads of India has been estimated to be 1.27 million every year. A majority of these are either confined to bed or to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives owing to injuries to the brain or spinal cord. This information is from the article Road Traffic Accidents: Emerging Epidemic by V.S. Madan in the Indian Journal of Neurotrauma (2006; Volume 3; No. 1; pages 1-3).

In fact, one doubts whether any money at all is spent in trying to prevent this horrifying carnage on the roads. A look at some of the much touted expressways and highways tells its own tale. The new, glitzy expressway between Delhi and Gurgaon was built with no pedestrian crossings. On expressways, zebra crossings are even more meaningless than they are on the streets of our cities. And there are no overbridges or subways, nothing to allow pedestrians to cross safely from one side to the other.

It is common to see groups of people making a dash from one side of the road in the face of speeding traffic, and escaping death by a miracle. Not always, though. That expressway sees people mowed down by speeding trucks, buses and cars regularly simply because they have no other way to cross the road.

The story is almost the same, but perhaps less gory, on the East Coast Road from Chennai to Mamallapuram. With no overbridges or subways, people have to dodge vehicles and run across the highway; it seems to me, however, that drivers on that highway generally drive more slowly and are careful to avoid people, but there are fatal accidents, nonetheless.

Within the cities the situation is frightening. Practically no road that is widened or improved has pavements wide enough for pedestrians to walk on, let alone subways or overbridges except in a few places. The pavements, as they exist, are used by hawkers and shops that encroach on the space, or are used as parking for two-wheelers, and in some places even cars. Delhi has tried to prevent the latter by raising the heights of the pavements, but that has its own disadvantage the elderly and the physically challenged cannot get down from these pavements or climb on to them. The fact is the road planners in India clearly suffer from a combination of myopia and indifference. One can understand their not providing for a service lane on expressways as is done in developed countries. Here the service lane would be used with impunity by trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles and autorickshaws as if it were a part of the road. But not to provide pavements wide pavements is inexplicable. Roads are surely not meant only for motorised vehicles and other wheeled transport; there has to be a safe area for pedestrians. In its absence, people walk on the roads, and their deaths add to the horrifying statistics quoted.

Are the State governments or the Central government doing anything about all this? As one has pointed out, the answer is no. Nothing has been seriously planned to prevent these accidents except for putting in the odd overbridge here, the odd subway there, and providing a narrow uncared-for verge on either side of roads, old and new, for pedestrians to use.

The mention of the preparations for counter-terrorism will now become apparent. There is concern and action in the one case, and apathy and general inaction in the other. Yes, the Central government has set up a committee to look at road safety, and it has made a number of recommendations. One has no knowledge of just what the recommendations are, but clearly they have not resulted in any plan to combat this enormous problem. People continue to die or are maimed or disabled for life day after day, as if they were victims of terror attacks, except that there is hardly any reaction to these tragedies.

It is not a question of making drivers more aware of the dangers of rash driving. Indian drivers will continue to drive in the way they do now, irrespective of any conditioning they may be given. It is a question of providing pedestrians safe facilities and it is a question of enforcing driving rules. The only things drivers are afraid of are the traffic police and punishment. These are the areas that need the kind of attention that counter-terrorism plans and action are getting. Just one more thing needs to be added to these two measures: a ruthless clean-up of the process of issuing driving licences.

If some authority in the Central and State governments gives this problem the importance it demands, we may see, in time, a reduction in the carnage on our streets.


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment