It is a boring bit of road statistics, but the truth is that India’s most vulnerable minority on the streets is really the pedestrian. Justice AR Lakshmanan, former Chairman of the Law Commission, cited a survey by the Central Road Research Institute which suggested that nine of 10 pedestrians felt unsafe while crossing the roads.
They should because they make up half the number of road victims. India’s road safety record is appalling and worsens every successive year. The nation records one serious accident every minute; and one person dies in a road traffic accident every four minutes. In 2010, about 130,000 people died in road accidents. The official statistics indicate that there are 35 accidents per 1,000 vehicles. Close to 12,000 pedestrians die in road accidents every year; the other vulnerable categories are bicycle riders, who are being edged out on the city roads. Close to 7,000 riders succumb to accidents. Motor-cycle and other two-wheeler riders die in huge numbers; in excess of 34,000.
So, the Supreme Court judgement earlier this week seeking urgent action from the Union and state governments to look into all aspects of road safety comes as a great relief. It was an order lost in the election din, but on April 22, against the rising criticism of judicial activism in India, the SC came out yet again with an important judgement that will save thousands of lives every year if the governments act diligently as directed. Chief Justice P Sathasivam and justices Ranjan Gogoi and NV Ramana have ordered the Union to appoint a panel to come up with recommendations to prevent road accidents and ensure accountability from the government authorities.
The panel comprises Justice KS Radhakrishnan, due to retire from the SC next month, former transport secretary S Sundar and traffic engineering and safety expert Dr Nishi Mittal. The bench has taken notice of the petition filed by Dr S Rajaseekaran, an orthopaedic surgeon who has seen enough road victims in his career, and asked the expert panel to monitor the steps taken by the government authorities in the states and Union territories to improve road safety and submit its report within three months. Crucially, the court has made all the states of India party to the case.
The bench has taken note of the inadequacy of law and poor implementation, the lack of medical facilities for accident victims, poor awareness among drivers and other road users, and directed the authorities to look into, among other things, aspects of law enforcement and road design. The numbers have always been frightening. But this the first time that such a wide-ranging intervention has been ordered by the Supreme Court. The fact that this tragedy is preventable cannot be disputed. About 10 years, China and India had roughly the same number of road accidents annually; China has now got it down to a third, but India continues to reign at about half a million accidents every year.
The ratios of accidents, deaths and injuries against the total network of roads in India, which is about five million kilometres, and the total number of vehicles, are alarming. “The facts mentioned above would leave no room for doubt that Indian roads have proved to be giant killers demanding immediate attention and remedial action. Such attention and necessary intervention, in the first instance, is required to be made by the concerned governmental agencies,” the bench has said. It is up to the traffic authorities of Bangalore, the Department of Epidemiology at NIMHANS – which has been doing traffic safety studies for many years now — and concerned experts and activists of the city to ensure that the opportunity offered by the SC order is fully used to restore a measure of sanity on our city roads.
Crucially, we must fight to win back at least three feet of width on either side of the road by reclaiming the ‘road-widening’ space, on every single road of Bangalore. This means encroaching into one lane of traffic, but look at it this way: there are four million vehicles, yes; but 10 million pedestrians. If you must widen the road for one category, you must widen the pavements for the other, and in larger measure, surely? We must ask for the road space and road space, only, because the pavements have become bad, encroached, occupied by trees, streetlights and utilities.
It may seem a hard ask, but the bench has noted: “We are aware that the journey… would be long and arduous. It is difficult to visualise when the same would end, if at all. To ensure the success of the process undertaken, constant supervision of this Court of the measures undertaken by the Central Government and the State Governments and the extent of affirmative action on part of the Union and the States will have to be measured and monitored by the Court from time to time.” It is to this end that the expert committee has been appointed. This may be bigger than winning the elections.