It does not take new accident data from the National Crime Records Bureau to confirm that India’s roads, bursting at the seams with about 141 million motorised vehicles in 2012, are deadly. The Centre has been ignoring the shameful toll of death and disability for years, responding only with token measures. State governments mostly limit themselves to granting meagre compensation to the families of victims, instead of engaging in serious reform. That 139,091 lives were lost on the roads last year seems to be an insignificant statistic, given the extraordinary indifference among policymakers to a worsening public health disaster. There is even less attention paid to the burden of disability caused annually by crash injuries. Studies show that figure could be 15 to 20 times the number of deaths. On paper, India is addressing several aspects of the problem through a Road Safety Policy: education of users, law enforcement, engineering of roads and vehicles, emergency care, and audits of highways. But none of this is really working, as the annual increase in casualties shows. What does stand out is the complete lack of accountability.
It is six years since the Committee on Road Safety and Traffic Management of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways submitted its report, but its important recommendation, that the many Central and State agencies involved in licensing, engineering, enforcement, and investigation should be coordinated by a statutory and autonomous national agency, has not been taken seriously. The Sundar committee’s criticism of the unscientific approach to safety adopted by official bodies, and the tendency of the police to criminalise accidents rather than investigate, is even more valid today. No major improvements have been made to the process of driver training and certification, in spite of a steady rise in the number of vehicles. The number of cars per 1,000 population in India has shot past the 100 mark in some big cities. Given the low political priority that road safety enjoys, State governments are dragging their feet on infrastructure creation, particularly in small and medium towns. The ever-present threat of injury and death on India’s lawless roads violates the right to life, and calls for its vigorous assertion by citizens. Municipal governments responsible for putting up physical infrastructure should be held accountable if their failure leads to accidents. Zero tolerance for police corruption is vital, if the swelling tide of accidents is to be checked. And, motorists should rely less on the horn, and more on good driving practices.