The Madhya Pradesh bus crash shows that the accident pandemic is not waning
India’s Road Safety Month, launched on January 18 as an extended form of the annual Road Safety Week for greater impact, has concluded with a bus accident in Madhya Pradesh that has claimed 51 lives. The victims, including many young people reportedly travelling to Satna and Rewa to take a government recruitment examination, were trapped within the bus as it plunged into a swollen canal. One of many ghastly mishaps that have occurred after the COVID-19 lockdown, it lends grist to the view that the country, with the world’s worst record on road safety, cannot get its act together any time soon. India has, according to the just-released World Bank-commissioned report, Traffic Crash Injuries and Disabilities, 1% of the world’s vehicles but 11% of all road accident deaths; the Union Transport Ministry put the number of dead in 2019 at 1,51,113, and injured at 4,51,361. Those who suffer the most are from low income households, especially in rural areas, and women bear the long-term financial and psychological impact of the losses more. Such a cringeworthy performance, affecting the fundamental right to life of the average citizen, should have led to intensive measures and a determined campaign to end the carnage, but the Centre and the States are evidently prepared to take only incremental steps. In the wake of this bus mishap, the immediate response has been to order a magisterial inquiry, which is no substitute for a technical investigation conducted by safety experts.
Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has actively campaigned for road safety, and the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act of 2019 has provisions that aim to bring about change. But most States have been lukewarm towards hard steps to bring order to the roads, viewing zero tolerance rule enforcement through the lens of populism. This is reflected in the spate of accidents on India’s highways, which witnessed 61% of deaths from just 5% of all accidents, as per 2019 data. The Centre must now set a timeline to operationalise the National Road Safety Board, for which draft rules were circulated in December last year, to lay down engineering standards and complaints procedures that will help citizens hold States to account. Transport departments continue to take an indulgent view of rule violations. Political parties and others fix illegal flag poles and spears on car bonnets and metal contraptions to SUV bumpers, which are deadly in an accident. Even with high political will — and there is no evidence this is present in all the States — ending the “silent pandemic” of accidents will need education, civil society cooperation and professional policing. Meeting the SDGs on transport and reduced road deaths and injuries will need actions that go beyond pious declarations.