Home / Opinion / Columns /  Time to admit India murders its own on the roads

The way India behaved during the pandemic, it was as though the government did not want Indians to die. It shut down the economy and hustled for vaccines, as though lives mattered. In a way, Indians were safest during that lockdown. For, when normalcy returned, thousands stepped out and died in road accidents, train mishaps, on construction sites, in mines, in factories and in other places where elementary safety procedures would have ensured those people were bouncing around today full of life. The biggest killer in the country is probably not microbes, but India itself. So the nation’s general excellence in vaccination drives has the quality of a turf battle between India and microbes.

I am certain, though, that India does not wish to kill anyone. It is just that it does not care enough to make extraordinary changes.

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A few days ago, the former chairman of Tata Sons, Cyrus Mistry, died in a road accident along with a friend. Authorities have since cited some reasons for their death, none of which was their fault—that the car’s driver lost control of it, that the two people who died were not wearing seat belts, and that the airbags may have failed to cushion them. India’s minister of road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, made an ambiguous admission of guilt when, during a public event, he said that he had succeeded in many aspects of highway-building, but safety was not one of them. What he likely meant was that thousands die or are badly injured everyday in accidents that are in part or entirely caused by poor road design and the absence of basic safety features that are common even in nations in Sri Lanka.

You would think it is difficult for a dignitary to die in a road accident in India because the country behaves as if the roads are meant only for them and the rest of us get to use them only because there are not so many important people. Yet, even they die. Gopinath Munde, a senior member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was involved in at least two accidents, that too while he was travelling in a car with a red beacon. He lost his life in the second, in the heart of Delhi. Former President Zail Singh, too, died in a road accident.

Cyrus Mistry died on a stretch of National Highway 48 that was known to road officials and regular drivers as dangerous. It was a spot where a three-lane road tapered into a two-lane. India rarely warns drivers through meaningful signage of approaching danger. Also, Indians are conditioned not to take any message from the government seriously.

As Indians we have a high probability of dying on the road. Our children are at risk almost everyday. Yet, when we look at the matter objectively, we have a feeling that we cannot do anything about it. Road safety is largely an upper middle-class concern, and even in this segment, the concern never erupts into fury. So politicians do not live in fear of an Indian uprising against dangerous roads. In fact, “development" to most Indians is a type of road on which you can go dangerously fast.

The Indian justice system does not make it possible for citizens to claim substantial compensation for negligence. That would also result in chaos, as every kilometre of Indian road would bear evidence of some serious and dangerous lapse by an authority.

Also, citizens are not without blame. We are among the worst drivers in the world. We are addicts of civic disorder, and most Indians find rules stifling. Also, every time India has made an extraordinary reform, it has been only because it did not have any other choice. But accidents, by nature, are rare even in India. It only brings some lives to a halt, not all life. So India can continue without having to transform its roads.

In fact, Indian roads may get even more unsafe as India keeps improving them to increase speed, which improves the economy, but without making them safer through design and stringent enforcement of rules.

Don’t I have anything hopeful to say?

I can try. Circumstances could arise that may trigger a movement for at least Thailand-grade road safety. For instance, if several politicians were to lose their lives in a short span in unfortunate road accidents. Not a whole bus of them at once while they are being ferried to a resort, but in separate incidents. Politicians tend to exhibit empathy when other politicians die. After the death of Munde, who was in the backseat and not wearing a seat belt, the then health minister Harsh Vardhan said something that was unthinkable at the time—wear seat belts even if you are in the backseat. Eventually, Munde’s death did not change anything, but if there is a ceaseless reminder of how deadly Indian roads are even for politicians, maybe a political will would form.

Another phenomenon that can transform Indian roads might seem esoteric at first glance because it is dependent on a proper right-wing plot. But it is not impossible. The current political establishment at the Centre appears quite keen to suppress dissent. Yet, it does not recognize how important the idea of civic order is to subdue future public demonstrations. A society that is used to chaos on the roads would find it easier to create chaotic demonstrations that bring normal life to a standstill. So proper roads, sacred markings and a greater enforcement of rules would actually be a step towards exerting more control.

You may wonder if I prefer an authoritarian regime to unsafe roads. I am just seeding an idea to help bring in civic order. This won’t make demonstrations vanish; only make them more expensive.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’ 

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