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Death trap


As monsoon sweeps the country, it is once again raining death on pothole-ridden roads. Thousands of people continue to lose their lives every year in accidents caused due to poor condition of roads and highways. Why are our roads turning deadlier with every passing year?


It was only the first spell of monsoon showers last month when, Mangala Thakre, a lady in her mid-thirties lost her life while riding pillion with her brother, Suraj Kalsarpe on a bike in Nagpur, Maharashtra. The siblings fell down on the road when their bike hit a newly formed pothole in the midst of a busy road. Mangala succumbed to her injuries while Suraj was seriously injured. But this is not an isolated incident. Stories such as these start pouring across newspapers and television channels during monsoon when the country sees a sudden mushrooming of potholes across national and state highways, and arterial roads within cities, turning them into virtual death traps for motorists.

According to the report Road Accidents in India, 2011, by the ministry of road transport and highways, a total of 1,42,485 people had lost their lives due to road accidents. Of these, nearly 1.5 per cent or nearly 2,200 fatalities were due to poor condition of roads.
The figures have been steadily growing by 10 to 15 per cent in the past decade. During monsoon, the number of accidents spike up as the condition of roads deteriorates further. However, the official numbers hardly reveal the gravity of the situation. Experts believe the actual number of deaths due to bad roads to be much higher at around 10,000 per year as most accidents do not get reported. “There is hardly any accountability. There is to bad roads in India, no one to monitor the real cause behind the accidents in such cases. The police generally put the blame on negligence on part of drivers, even when the real cause behind the accident is bad roads,” says Harman Singh Sidhu from ArriveSafe, an NGO that works towards road safety.

Besides the fatalities, there are thousands of incidents where victims have been seriously injured and left permanently disabled for life. The government is not unaware of the situation. “We do not yet have a proper mechanism to know the real number of deaths due to bad roads. It’s all based on the cases registered by the police. There might be many incidents that go unreported,” revealed a source from the ministry of road transport and highways, on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, proper reporting of accidents is an issue. A report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention in India reveals that there is a lack of formal reporting agreements and sharing of information between police, hospitals and other agencies. Many smaller accidents such as non-fatal skids and falls due to bad roads are not reported to the cops. Late hospital deaths due to complications of traffic-related injuries are usually reported as death due to other causes in death certificates. Even victims do not feel the need to report injuries in accidents caused due to poor road conditions, unless it’s serious.

It is evident from the rising death toll every year that the country, with a road network of more than 3.14 million kilometres, is unable to maintain its roads and highways and ensure the safety of travellers. India ranks a disappointingly low 90th globally in terms of quality of roads, much beyond its neighbours China (53), Sri Lanka (55) and Pakistan (72) according to The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011 by the World Economic Forum.

Harman stresses that maintaining existing roads is as important as building new roads. “While the government is pushing for development of new roads and highways, not much attention is paid towards the upkeep of existing roads.” He adds, “There are long stretches of newly developed national highways where motorists drive on high speeds. But these are interrupted by sudden bad patches, where most accidents happen.”

Maximum number of accidents happen while dodging potholes. Sudden braking by drivers to avoid potholes is also a major cause behind accidents. Bike riders are the worst hit among all motorists in such accidents, with most cases being fatal. Lack of traffic discipline and disregard of safe driving practices among Indian motorists adds to the severity of the problem. The poor quality of roads and burgeoning potholes, especially during monsoon, is a direct result of a systematic failure on part of the state and central governments, and local bodies responsible for the upkeep of roads. The government, on its part, is quick to pass the buck and put the blame on contractors for doing a shoddy job.

Despite the rising number of deaths every year that are turning our roads into asphalt graveyards, the authorities seem to be in a state of denial, ignoring all the accusations, right from corrupt officials to alleged nexuses between contractors, engineers, and Central Public Works Department and local municipal officials.

The need of the hour is to have a proper mechanism for monitoring of roads to ensure that they are repaired and maintained, as and when needed. The police must be sensitised to report all accidents caused due to bad roads to highlight the magnanimity of the pothole menace to the authorities. The government must take cognizance of the graveness of the situation and bring to book those who are responsible for the upkeep of roads. Engineers, contractors and bureaucrats must be held accountable for all the accidents caused due to bad roads under their supervision. To ensure that the contractors fulfil their obligations, road inspectors must move beyond armchair-audits and embark on regular site visits to know the real on-ground situation.

Roads are the lifeline of a country’s economy and India will have to work hard to transform its killer roads into highways of progress. And considering the current state of its roads, this one won’t be a smooth ride.

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June 2020
10 Jun 2020