India’s Failure to Rage Against Its Deadly Roads

Dated: 02/10/2012

Last month, as many as 34 people were killed in a single incident when a bus driver lost control of his vehicle in the hilly northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, and sent himself and many of his passengers down a steep gorge to a grisly death.
This kind of accident happens often in the state, with its steep, narrow and winding roads, inclement weather and overcrowded public transport. Only the month before, in August, 52 people had died in exactly the same way.

Even if such accidents were limited to areas where driving conditions are treacherous — of which there are a great many in India — there should still be a way of minimizing them. But the truth is that news of such tragedies is met by Indian people with an indifference that might variously be interpreted as callousness, detachment or fatalism. This is because the incidents take place in a country where major road fatalities are practically daily occurrences and have no great impact on anyone but the families of the victims.
India has the dismal distinction of being the world leader in the number of people killed in road accidents — in excess of 100,000 each year. Every day, newspapers reserve a few columns for news of the latest mishaps involving reckless or drunk or overworked drivers, negligent or unfortunate pedestrians, hapless passengers in public transport, cars wrecked in collisions with buses and trucks, motorcyclists or bicyclists mowed down by cars — and perhaps most tragically of all, homeless people, often migrant laborers, who are crushed by speeding vehicles as they sleep at night on the sidewalks.
As anyone visiting here for the first time might work out from just a few hours on the streets, nowhere in the world is civilian life as cheap as it is on India’s roads or highways. The tumult of horns and cursing voices, the speeding and overtaking vehicles, the motorists casually running red lights, the pedestrians jumping into traffic or hopping off moving buses — all this isn’t, unfortunately, an expression of the chaos and bustle of street life celebrated in some accounts of the subcontinent, but rather a sign of a shocking flippancy and pointless bravado.
In the three decades or so since middle-class Indians began to be able to afford motorbikes or cars, road casualties have gone up enormously, to 142,485 last year from 24,000 in 1980. As a recent editorial in the Hindu observed, “Economic growth has set off a wave of motorisation in India, but in the absence of a comprehensive approach to road safety, accidents are killing or maiming a large number of people every year.”
Rules are broken in big and small ways by motorists (and very often by pedestrians) on such a vast scale that, through a kind of destructive and individualistic civil disobedience, they cease eventually to become infringements, and become seen instead as a kind of extension of the natural human inclination for liberty — until the day they result in something fatal. Sanjeev Shami observed in an essay about India’s dismal road safety record in the “Economic and Political Weekly” in 2005: “The number of people dying every year in India due to road accidents is more than double those dying because of violent crime.”
In “Among the Believers,” his 1981 travel book partly set in Iran, V.S. Naipaul writes of motorists in Tehran:
They drove like people to whom the motorcar was new. They drove as they walked; and a stream of Tehran traffic, jumpy with individual stops and swerves, with no clear lanes, was like a jostling pavement crowd. This manner of driving didn’t go with any special Tehran luck. The door or fender of every other car was bashed in, or bashed in and mended. An item in a local paper (blaming the Shah for not having given the city a more modern road system) had said that traffic accidents were the greatest single cause of deaths in Tehran; two thousand people were killed or injured every month.
This could easily serve as a description of any big or middle-sized Indian city. But in India, the motorist’s power to negatively impact the quality of life in public spaces — one that can be only moderated by awareness and circumspection on the part of drivers, and regulation and enforcement on the part of authorities — has been greatly exacerbated by the skewing of traffic management and road allocation toward car-drivers and away from public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. Discussions in Indian drawing-rooms — and presumably in transport and public-works departments, among bureaucrats and within governments — always center around how terrible traffic jams are, and how wider roads and more interchanges must be built, without a sense of the natural limits of such endeavors. If anything, what Indian cities require today is a version of the European car-free movement that restores to historic city centers a sense that pedestrians come first.
Once, most poor and lower-middle-class Indians moved around urban spaces on bicycles; even today, a great many still do. But the elite who control urban planning in India have never considered allowing for a bicycle lane on the roads of cities, and recent attempts to introduce such lanes in certain neighborhoods (such as this one in Mumbai) have been hopelessly misconceived and perfunctory. So not only is there no incentive to ride a bicycle on an Indian street, but to attempt to do so is an endeavor fraught with danger. A recent piece in the Hindu noted:
Despite a high user base, Indian cities have no plans for cycles. For example, Delhiites make 2.8 million trips a day by cycling, which is almost equal to the number of trips made by car. But the city hardly has any safe cycle-lanes. Chennai, which has about 1.4 million cycles, is no better. Given the fact that the average trip length in Indian cities is within 5 km, bicycles are the best suited for such commutes. It is disheartening to see urban planners overlook this advantage. Worse, their policies have literally pushed cycles off the road, forcing the poor who use them the most to spend more and more on transportation.
The dysfunction of Indian streets deepens with the addition of thousands of new cars every day — the country is one of the world’s biggest car markets, partly because of the size and (wholly legitimate) aspirations of the new middle-class and partly because of the poor quality of much public transportation and the perils of navigating public spaces, especially for women. Many vehicles are driven by people who disdain wearing seat-belts, and whose driver’s licenses were obtained by a little greasing of the palm of a pliable Regional Transport Office inspector. (A few years ago, an incident came to light in which a regional transport office in Nagpur issued a driver’s license in the name of a dead man).
Thankfully, after three decades in which Indian towns and metropolises have slowly been taken over by the cult of the car, small pockets of resistance are beginning to emerge. They take the form, for the most part, of citizens’ groups and urban-planning movements that want to hold not just drivers but also the police to the rules of traffic discipline, to emphasize the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians and the need to welcome back cyclists and the sanctity of sidewalks on the streets, and to restore to Indian roads a semblance of discipline and sanity. Two such initiatives in Mumbai are the Open Bicycles Project and the Walking Project. A third, combining civic engagement with prosecutorial zeal, is SOOR (Sanity On Indian Roads), which is led by the lawyer Armin Wandrewala and is aimed at enforcing road discipline in the city.
The campaign is backed by a public-interest lawsuit in the Bombay High Court, charging the city’s municipal corporation with negligence in enforcing traffic rules. (SOOR’s Facebook page is here.) The work before it is vast: to make Mumbai’s drivers and pedestrians unlearn every bad habit developed in this most impatient of all cities and to force compliance with the rules through better law enforcement and deterrence. Meanwhile, as long as Indian drivers continue to embrace a competitive me-first and everything-goes attitude, life on an Indian road will continue to be invariably nasty and brutish — and sometimes tragically short.

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