The deaths of soldiers and others

roadd accident

True, the deaths of soldiers have to be lamented. But the Indian authorities’ record is extremely incompetent when it comes to the deaths of innocents in other fields. There is evidence of jingoism when it comes to the deaths of soldiers but on the other hand and utter callousness on the other.

Many more people are killed on Indian roads every year than in skirmishes with Pakistan, terrorist attacks, riots and armed conflicts in various parts of the world. The Indian government is a signatory to the Brasilia declaration of 2010 to bring down road crash deaths in the country by 50 per cent by the year 2020.

In reality, the numbers have not only not gone down, they risen sharply to more than 150,000 last year and are expected to rise in the next few years.This is a slaughter of innocents, most victims are poor people, victims of a largely arrogant driving class. More people are killed in road crashes in India than in any other country in the world.

Surely, we mourn the deaths of 42 Indian army personnel in the Pulwama attack. But there is little awareness of the fact many many more people are killed because of various factors including inept road engineers, drivers, corrupt government machinery, the constant glorification of speed by the car lobby aided by film stars and so on.

The actual number of road crash victims are much higher than recorded as the World Health Organisation and other bodies point out. This is because the police manage to suppress so many cases, in some cases they even intimidate and ridicule accident victims.

Many rich and arrogant drivers get away without a case being registered by working on the psychology of the victims’ families. Some families believe or are made to believe it was their own fate and they do not want to prosecute the criminal drivers.If the perpetrator is young, it is argued that a police case will ruin his or her career, prospects of travelling abroad and so on. And the poor, gullible people succumb to pressure tactics.

Rajesh Wable, a bright IT professional whom I meet in joggers, was knocked down and seriously injured by a heavy SUV car driven by a Rizvi law college student on St Paul’s road in Bandra some time ago. The driver could not escape as Rajesh fell in front of him and another car coming from behind left no escape route. Rajesh was lucky, the Samaritan motorist took him to Holy Family hospital nearby where he was treated by kind doctors and nurses without the normal delays in such cases.

The family did not press for prosecution on humanitarian grounds in view of the offending driver’s age. Rajesh was lucky to get quick treatment and the driver could not escape. But most victims are poor and not so lucky.

As for soldiers,it is the government’s responsibility to look after the soldiers it sends to war, but it is our responsibility to stop the government sending them out to die in the first place. If we blindly endorse the goodness of the military we are in danger of forfeiting our ability to stop wars, or better still, prevent them from starting, the respected Guardian newspaper pointed out some time ago.

Mr Nitin Gadkari, road transport minister, cited the example of his own road accident while speaking during the recent road safety week. He was seriously injured in 2001 when he was the leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra legislative council and was confined to his home for a year. This should not happen to others, he said.

That is fine. But there is a world of difference when others meet with accidents. He was even then an important politician and got the best possible and quick medical care. And yet had to suffer for long.

The lot of others is far worse. Motorists suffer much less damage during crashes as cars are now much safer for occupants but deadlier for pedestrians. Most of the victims are the poor, vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists who are victims of the arrogant car culture.

Most government departments argue it is not their responsibility to bring down the number of road crashes. So there is much tossing of responsibility. Finally, two months ago in Maharashtra the responsibility was entrusted to the motor vehicles department which suffers from numerous maladies, corruption cases and does not even have a proper infrastructure for testing of vehicles and conducting tests for drivers.

Transport commissioner Shekhar Channe has a better understanding of issues and some staff members have received the best training from safety experts in Delhi like Dinesh Mohan of IIT. But much more needs to done.

In a sense the recent observance of the road safety week is ridiculous. The police themselves are severely endangering the lives of common people. Look at the badly managed signals, the meagre time given to pedestrians to cross at signals. Sometimes the signal is completely switched off at major junctions to facilitate car speeds at the cost of lives of ordinary people.

Sadly, a few NGOs, non-government organisations, act in league with the car lobby and want to blame the victims of the accidents through very clever propaganda.I witnessed this during a recent road safety week programme.

Formula One, motorist organizations and car makers have manoeuvred themselves into pole position in global road safety politics. The FIA, the governing body of motor sport, has established a Commission for Global Road Safety that aims to set the policy agenda for road safety in poor countries.1 Formula One’s ability to access and influence leading political figures has undoubtedly raised the profile of road traffic crashes as a global public health crisis, but the policies it promotes are neither the most effective in preventing injury, nor the most environmentally sustainable.

Working through the Commission, the FIA and the car lobby have manoeuvred themselves into a leading role in global road safety. They aim to set the policy agenda for road safety, which would give them considerable influence in global transport policy. They do not intent to fund road safety efforts themselves but will dictate how other organizations spend their money, and in particular how development money is spent, experts point out.

Although in poor countries most people will never own a car and most of the victims of traffic crashes are pedestrians, the Commission has worked hard to ensure that the views of the motoring elites dominate transport policy decisions. Unelected, with only token representation from developing nations, the car lobby will dictate how poor countries will spend development money..

Ian Roberts, an acknowleged expert on health asks Are we to believe that Formula One has now become a force for good in public health? Surely it is time to establish a truly independent Commission for Global Road Safety that will put the daily toll of 3,000 road deaths before any commercial concerns.

Most countries have a multidisciplinary approach to traffic planning and road design. It is done by psychologists, engineers, doctors, sociologists, vehicle experts, etc., In India, road traffic is still a civil engineering issue. Lessons can be learnt from the eminent guidelines and good practices for good behavior on the roads practised in developed countries where safety, orderliness, and discipline are ingrained in the citizens, come what may. Mere celebration of the annual Road Safety Week during the first week of January does not serve any purpose. Drivers should learn to show consideration and respect to co-vehicle drivers and pedestrians so that our roads become safer. But it looks a long way to go, experts point out.

Vidyadhar Date is a veteran journalist and author of a book seeking democratisation of urban mobility


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