A NEW ROAD CUL­TURE

THE MO­TOR VE­HI­CLES ACT, 2019, HAS SPARKED FEAR AND PROTEST, BUT WILL IT MAKE IN­DIAN ROADS SAFER? AND SHOULD STIFF PENAL­TIES FOR VIOLATIONS BE AC­COM­PA­NIED BY A DRIVE TO BUILD BET­TER ROAD AND TRAFFICMAN­AGEMENT IN­FRA­STRUC­TURE?

India Today - - CONTENTS - Cover by NILANJAN DAS

The Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles (Amend­ment) Act, 2019, im­poses puni­tive fines for violations and has sparked fierce de­bate and op­po­si­tion. Will it suc­ceed in tam­ing In­dia’s no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous roads?

LLast week, when traf­fic con­sta­bles in Delhi stopped a girl rid­ing a two-wheeler with a bro­ken num­ber plate, they weren’t ready for the com­mo­tion that fol­lowed. Not only did the girl refuse to pay the fine (which had gone up as an­other vi­o­la­tion had been dis­cov­ered—she wasn’t wear­ing a cer­ti­fied hel­met), she also threat­ened to com­mit sui­cide on the spot. At an­other lo­ca­tion in the na­tional cap­i­tal, a man, faced with a chal­lan of Rs 11,000 for drunk driv­ing and other of­fences, set his mo­tor­bike on fire even as cops were in the process of im­pound­ing it. He later said he had re­fused to pay a Rs 11,000 fine for a bike he had bought for Rs 15,000.

The steep hike in fines for vi­o­lat­ing traf­fic laws, as pro­vi­sioned by the Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles (Amend­ment) Act, 2019, which came into ef­fect from Septem­ber 1, has led to sharp de­bates and bit­ter di­vi­sions over the big ques­tions—can stiff penal­ties make In­dian driv­ers bet­ter be­haved, and the roads safer in In­dia? Nitin Gad­kari, the Union min­is­ter for road trans­port and high­ways, has been the strong­est pro­po­nent of the new act. He be­lieves this is a crit­i­cal step in bring­ing dis­ci­pline to the traf­fic mess in In­dian cities. “There was no fear of the law be­cause the fines were low. Peo­ple got away cheaply. And fines are just one as­pect of the new Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles (MV) Act. We are aim­ing for larger re­forms,” he says (see in­ter­view: ‘Fines are just one as­pect...’).

The in­tent be­hind amend­ing the act can­not be faulted. In­dian roads are among the dead­li­est in the world: 147,913 peo­ple died in the coun­try in road accidents in 2017 alone. That amounts to 405 deaths ev­ery day or 17 deaths ev­ery hour. Trag­i­cally, with just 1 per cent of the world’s au­to­mo­biles, In­dia ac­counts for 15 per cent of global traf­fic deaths, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. Be­tween 2002 and 2017, In­dia lost 1,961,301 lives to road accidents—nearly the com­bined pop­u­la­tion of Goa and Sikkim.

The amended MV Act has re­ceived sup­port from most quar­ters. A study con­ducted by SaveLIFE Foun­da­tion at four key stretches in Delhi and Mum­bai af­ter the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the act notes higher seat-belt com­pli­ance and fewer over­load­ing violations by two-wheel­ers and com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles. “On av­er­age, 18 ac­ci­dent deaths were re­ported ev­ery day in Bi­har prior to the new MV Act; this is down to 12 now. In Patna, 98 per cent bik­ers are wear­ing hel­mets now,” says San­jay Agar­wal, prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary, trans­port de­part­ment, Bi­har.

Crit­ics, how­ever, have slammed the Cen­tre for mak­ing peo­ple pay for the chaos on In­dian roads, al­most as if the

In Jaipur, au­thor­i­ties have hung flow­er­pots from traf­fic sig­nal poles, of­ten ob­struct­ing the driv­ers’ line of vision

ad­e­quate lack of pub­lic trans­port and poor road ad­min­is­tra­tion had no role in the sorry state of af­fairs. In June, the Supreme Court Com­mit­tee on Road Safety sought the re­sponse of states to a re­port by the Delhi-based In­sti­tute of Road Traf­fic Ed­u­ca­tion (IRTE). The re­port said a large per­cent­age of traf­fic sig­nals and road sig­nage vi­o­lated the stan­dards set by the In­dian Roads Congress, a pre­mier body of high­way en­gi­neers. “Seventy-five per cent of the traf­fic sig­nals in Delhi are faulty. Ex-Union min­is­ter Gopinath Munde died in an ac­ci­dent in Delhi in 2014; the sig­nal light at the ac­ci­dent site is still de­fec­tive. What’s the point in pe­nal­is­ing peo­ple with­out giv­ing them good in­fra­struc­ture?” asks Ro­hit Baluja, pres­i­dent of IRTE.

The sit­u­a­tion is much worse in other places. In Jaipur, au­thor­i­ties have hung flow­er­pots from sig­nal poles, of­ten ob­struct­ing the driv­ers’ line of vision. It comes as no sur­prise to Vish­was Jain, MD of the city-based Con­sult­ing En­gi­neers Group, a lead­ing firm in road safety plan­ning. He claims that the Ra­jasthan gov­ern­ment does not have a sin­gle trans­port plan­ner or en­gi­neer on its rolls, leave aside a de­part­ment for it.

It’s the story of ev­ery In­dian city—con­gested, with poor pub­lic trans­port, lit­tle room for pedes­tri­ans or cy­clists, badly en­gi­neered roads, abysmal park­ing fa­cil­i­ties, traf­fic sig­nals on the blink, reck­less driv­ers and in­dif­fer­ent en­force­ment agen­cies. Anil Kumar, ad­di­tional com­mis­sioner of po­lice (traf­fic), Hy­der­abad, points to other mal­adies—poor im­ple­men­ta­tion of mu­nic­i­pal laws that con­vert res­i­den­tial ar­eas into com­mer­cial zones; houses with in­ad­e­quate park­ing, lead­ing to en­croach­ments on roads and side­walks. Not to men­tion the ram­pant cor­rup­tion in the traf­fic man­age­ment sys­tem—from driv­ing li­cences to chal­lans for road trans­gres­sions.

TOO FEW ROADS, TOO MANY CARS

What makes mat­ters worse is the un­sup­port­able ve­hic­u­lar bur­den on city roads. Ur­ban roads ac­count for only 9 per cent of In­dia’s to­tal road net

RIGHT OF WAY? A traf­fic jam in Mo­han Es­tate, an in­dus­trial area in New Delhi, Sept. 16

SONU KISHAN

SOMNATH SEN

QAMAR SIBTAIN/MAIL TO­DAY

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