Blood on the roads

EVERY ROAD ACCIDENT in India is followed by knee-jerk reactions and accusations. Often, the tendency is to blame the man or the woman at the wheel, completely ignoring, in the bargain, the various other factors that could have contributed to the mishap in the first place. A young woman moped-rider died in Chennai the other day probably for no fault of hers: a bad stretch on the street threw her and her friend off balance, and one of them was run over by a bus. After the customary protest, and a bit of patchwork on the thoroughfare, the woman would be just one more addition to the statistics. Which in India are terrifying. About 80,000 people were killed on the country's roads and highways last year, and twice as many wounded or maimed for life. In fact, the nation holds the preposterous record of accounting for 10 per cent of the fatalities worldwide with a whopping social cost of Rs. 55,000 crores annually. Unfortunately, these figures do not seem to move the men who matter, and civic as well as police officials continue to revel in trading accusations against one another. Sometimes, one policeman would point a finger at another in uniform, and the matter would end there till another ugly incident shocks the community.

It is not going to be easy to bring about a sense of civility and well-being on Indian streets, given the brashness and arrogance of most users. The average Indian has somehow learnt to lead a dual existence: he scrupulously follows rules the moment he crosses his shores, but cares very little for social order or discipline when he is at home. The reason here is obvious enough. He has little to fear by way of retribution or penalty. Most erring drivers get away lightly often by bribing the constable at the junction or by coughing up a measly fine, and worse, many among the offenders would not have even passed their driving test. Despite all the hullabaloo that has been made about the way the Regional Transport Offices issue licences, there has hardly been any inclination to tone up the system in a manner that only those who know how to drive, and drive correctly and carefully, are allowed on the thoroughfares with their vehicles.

But a lot more resilience is called for if tragedies on roads are to be prevented. It is now a proven fact that the greater the number of personal cars or two-wheelers, the greater are the chances of accidents. In India, there appears to be very little will to invest either in infrastructure (streets and pavements, for example) or in public transport. New Delhi has just got a Metro Rail, and it might take years before the entire network is in place. If Kolkata's underground transit system still remains a single line north-south affair, Mumbai has none, and Chennai's "flying trains" have hardly helped the swelling number of commuters, who have to depend on the clearly inadequate bus services or buy personal vehicles. In the resulting mess of traffic snarls, enforcement of rules continues to be primitive. Adding to this is the appalling state of thoroughfares, and we have a deadly cocktail whose poison kills and disables men, women and children. Apart from the need to spend more money on basics such as roads and public transport, there is a third dimension whose importance is unquestionable. Education. Street safety must be made part of the school and college curriculum, and teachers should spare a few minutes everyday to inculcate a sense of awareness in boys and girls who are forced to use their own bicycles or scooters. In the ultimate analysis, no single agency can hope to bring about order on our thoroughfares. There has to be a combined, concerted move. Or else Indian roads will continue to be soaked in blood.

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