India Today - - CONTENTS - (Aroon Purie)

In­di­ans,’ the late colum­nist A.A. Gill once ob­served, ‘drive with an am­biva­lent ex­tem­pore gusto, un­en­cum­bered by the hand­i­cap of rules, train­ing, or in­sur­ance, but bol­stered by a star­tling be­lief in rein­car­na­tion.’ They also, if I may add, drive on roads that are poorly lit, have faulty sig­nals and pot­holed sur­faces that re­sem­ble moon­scapes. We have built space­craft that can with­stand the rigours of space travel, but we seem un­able to build roads that can sur­vive a sin­gle rain shower. Our roads, thus, are a cock­tail of ap­palling driv­ing cul­ture and abysmal in­fra­struc­ture. This lethal com­bi­na­tion makes any jour­ney a road to perdi­tion. In­dian roads con­sis­tently record the world’s high­est traf­fic-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties. In 2017, 147,913 peo­ple died in accidents on In­dia’s roads, which amounts to 405 deaths ev­ery day or 17 deaths ev­ery hour. In the 15 years since 2002, In­dia lost over 1.9 mil­lion peo­ple this way, nearly the com­bined pop­u­la­tions of Goa and Sikkim.

Many of the dead and in­jured have no health in­sur­ance and the loss of life has a de­bil­i­tat­ing im­pact on their fam­i­lies. The ex­plo­sive growth in mo­tor ve­hi­cles and the in­crease in the cases of over­speed­ing, drunken driv­ing and de­fec­tive ve­hi­cles has com­pounded mat­ters. Gov­ern­ment data shows that bad driv­ing was re­spon­si­ble for 78 per cent of road accidents in 2017, sug­gest­ing poor driv­ing skills and no fear of pun­ish­ment.

Each time a law­less motorist—who does not wear a hel­met or a seat belt and breaks rules with im­punity—hits the road, he not only en­dan­gers his own life but also those of other mo­torists and pedes­tri­ans. It truly bog­gles the mind why we haven’t been able to in­tro­duce a sen­si­ble na­tional law for so many years to tackle this calami­tous loss of life and limb.

A new Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles (Amend­ment) Act, which came into force on Septem­ber 1, 2019, aims to change this. It has pro­posed sig­nif­i­cant changes, among them a sub­stan­tial es­ca­la­tion in penal­ties. The penalty for drunken driv­ing, for in­stance, has been hiked from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000; for driv­ing with­out a li­cence, from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000; and for driv­ing with­out a seat belt, from Rs 100 to Rs 5,000. The fines have had a salu­tary ef­fect as ev­i­denced by the im­proved road sense in cities and a surge in ap­pli­ca­tions for in­sur­ance

and driv­ing li­cences. This is proof that in In­dia, some­times noth­ing works like puni­tive ac­tion. There has, how­ever, also been a back­lash and, as­ton­ish­ingly, sev­eral In­dian states have suc­cumbed to spu­ri­ous pop­ulism. The state gov­ern­ments of West Ben­gal, Pun­jab, Mad­hya Pradesh, Te­lan­gana, and even BJP-ruled Gu­jarat and Ut­tarak­hand, have taken the bite out of the amended Act, ei­ther by re­duc­ing the quan­tum of fines or by sim­ply de­lay­ing its im­ple­men­ta­tion. Only Haryana, Bi­har, As­sam and Tripura have de­cided to im­ple­ment the re­vised Act in toto. Their baf­fling be­hav­iour could well ex­plain why suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have baulked at mod­i­fy­ing the Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles Act.

Our cover story, ‘Civilising In­dian Roads’, by Se­nior Ed­i­tor Kaushik Deka, looks at the mod­i­fi­ca­tions in­tro­duced by the gov­ern­ment and what more needs to be done. We also have an in­ter­view with Nitin Gad­kari, the Union min­is­ter for road trans­port and high­ways, the man who has cham­pi­oned this new Road Safety Act for sev­eral years and now finds him­self in the cen­tre of a storm.

While the leg­is­la­tion is a wel­come step, it does not ab­solve the state of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of im­prov­ing road in­fra­struc­ture. Part of the rea­son our roads and high­ways are death­traps is be­cause they are badly de­signed, lack first-aid fa­cil­i­ties, are poorly lit and have faulty sig­nalling. They are the equiv­a­lent of a mo­tor car with­out in­di­ca­tors, air bags or brakes. My sense is that if the cit­i­zen un­der­stands that his fines and taxes are go­ing to go into pro­vid­ing bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, he will have no hes­i­ta­tion in pay­ing up. As with many of our prob­lems, a change in mind­set is the first step to­wards any so­lu­tion.

Our Sep. 6, 2010 cover

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