My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).
The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?
India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!
Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.
On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.”
On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.
Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!
Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!
Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.
On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.
In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!
Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.
I was charged by my paternal uncle with the seemingly simple task of creating a power point that described the highlights of my father’s life to be shown to schoolchildren in Goa, who would be participating in an inter-school elocution contest in memory of Dad, Dr Subhash Raghuvir Naik. Now Dad was very much a son of the soil and his Goan identity played affected him deeply; his emotional connect with his birthplace and family was always obvious to me, as it was only when he spoke of his childhood that I would see his eyes wet with unshed tears and sheer nostalgia.
Anookaka’s persistence is legendary in our family, and it took several calls to galvanize me into action. I had had a busy week at work, but I was also procrastinating. I knew delving into memory lane would take its toll on me emotionally. But there was no escape and last weekend, I found myself leafing through old pictures and condolence letters. Words swam in front of me as I shed tears that have been contained for over a decade; the mind flash-backed into scenes I thought I had forgotten. My mother watched me calm and composed as I let myself drown in a strange sort of sorrow. Sweet sorrow, as it were.
It is always hard to cope with the loss of a parent, or any dear one. The initial months are hard in the sense of getting used to life without the lost one, the years after are hard because you learn to cope and the guilt of that never leaves; and many years later, you think the trauma has left you but all it takes is a quiet afternoon and a few photographs for you to come undone.
Am blogging a few of the images I scanned for the presentation. I am smiling today, as look at these because I am not the kind of person who can weep for long, I am a proud daughter to a dad who taught me always see the glass half full; and because I know shit happens, but life must go on…
The anger at the death of little Mahi (whose lifeless body was rescued from the borewell she fell into 85 hours after she went missing!) across social media is genuine. The anger is, of course, directed at those who let such things happen, but even more so, it is directed at us. At the public memory of Indian newspaper readers and news channel watchers, who have gotten so used to stories of pointless death that we scarcely bat an eyelid anymore!
I always remember it being like this, though. When we were little (I was 8, same as Udai is now) and Indira Gandhi died, I was actually amazed to see so many people crying because someone on TV had died! I simply could not understand it. There were people dying in newspapers and TV all the time. Why did some people get tears and others shrugs? To my eyes at the time, many of the people shot by militants in Punjab or dying in train accidents seemed more like us. People with kids, who went to offices, carried tiffin boxes, wore nondescript check shirts and brown/grey trousers or bleached fading cotton saris. And so their dying seemed somehow to talk about the vulnerability of us. I once dreamt that my parents held hands and jumped off the Worli seaface into the sea…..perhaps a fallout of all the violence, distant and yet surrounding me.
Later, as a teenager in Lucknow, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I clearly remember a few of us took responsibility of a small pinboard in the faculty club, our venue for evenings full on table tennis, carrom and gossip! That pinboard became our canvas for expressing our feelings. We put up a daily tally of lives lost in the J&K insurgency. For months, those figures leapt at us everyday. I don’t remember the reactions of the adults round us, but our group of kids was very much affected by the sheer number of innocents losing their lives to a cause they didn’t perhaps understand or subscribe to fully.
Even then, we were steeling ourselves to become adult Indian citizens. Part of that preparation was developing a thick skin about death, killing the tears before they sprang to the eyes, stopping yourself from caring too much, convincing yourself that there is precious little you can do, so its best to get on with life and not think about the negatives.
It’s not easy to really be like that though. Many of us still get seriously disturbed by death that could be avoided if we were more careful, more sensitive, better organized, more prepared. And while I try and fight the feeling of total helplessness, I rack my brains to think about what I can possible do to change this, the deaths themselves and certainly, the apathy!