A few weeks ago, I joined 16 other Lok Sabha MPs to urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce the long-overdue Road Transport and Safety Bill in the coming Monsoon Session of Parliament. The sheer gravity of this legislation can be grasped through a simple but horrifying statistic – every four minutes that we delay action, one more commuter or pedestrian dies in an accident on India’s treacherous roads.
Only last year, nearly 1.5 lakh people, of which 12,500 were children, were killed in road crashes. And if this is not bad enough, these numbers represent a 53.9 percent increase over the last decade and a ten-fold increase since 1970 – truly bone-chilling.
Modi’s government, on three separate occasions since Gopinath Munde’s tragic demise, promised the introduction of a law to replace the obsolete Motor Vehicles Act of 1988. But as with several other official pronouncements, the promise has not been fulfilled. A number of states have expressed reservations against changes the government has proposed in public transportation, taxation and governance. These are understandable, but they cannot be allowed to delay the critical road safety provisions we so urgently need.
A New Legislation
As a way out, my fellow parliamentarians and I have recommended that the issue of road safety be considered in a separate Bill altogether, not least because none of the states concerned have expressed opposition to this particular section. After all, road safety is something that concerns every state and every citizen of our country. And we all know somebody whose life was touched, if not destroyed, by tragedy on the roads.
The bipartisan and broad support for a Road Safety Bill, as exemplified in our letter to the prime minister, is a testament to and reflection of public opinion that this subject can no longer be ignored. Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, despite expressing ‘regret’ on the non-passage of the bill, has been unable to introduce it in Parliament, he says, due to obstacles raised by ‘vested interests’.
We understand Gadkari’s predicament but as the death toll mounts by the hour, it is difficult to sympathise with him. The prime minister must act.
In a report in 2015, the World Health Organisation noted that the number of road accidents globally has plateaued since 2007 but fatalities due to road crashes in India continue to rise alarmingly. In fact, in 2006 we surpassed China as the country with the highest number of road crashes annually – not really a benchmark of superpower status. These accidents are responsible for nearly 400 deaths daily and cause an economic loss of Rs 4.07 lakh crore every year. Even leaving aside loss to our GDP, it is painful to note that 46 of these daily casualties are children – which is 46 too many.
As a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration, India is committed to reducing the number of road fatalities by 50 percent by 2020.
In 2014, I asked a question in Parliament on measures the government has taken to prevent such accidents, to which the then Minister of State, Krishanpal Gurjar, replied that the ministry was finalising an ‘Action Plan for Road Safety’ in consultation with the states. This too remains in the realm of empty promises and nothing has moved.
Vulnerable Road Users’ Safety
Some of the key aspects I’d like to see the Road Safety Bill address include statutes for the safety of cyclists, children, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users (VRUs), stringent punishment for faulty road design and engineering; even more stringent punishment for drunk-driving, over-speeding, and violation of helmet and seat-belt laws; and the establishment of an independent lead agency.
This is merely the beginning. At present, there is not even a dedicated authority to regulate road safety in India and the draft Bill, thankfully, seeks to address this vacuum.
Besides, the Bill also seeks to correct the haphazard and dishonest management of issuing driving licensing. It proposes a centralised licensing system which will help keep track of offences committed by a driver and also ensure proper testing before licenses are issued.
Outsourcing Licencing Authority
Naturally, this will also entail moving existing licenses to this system, which is a weighty task in itself, but not impossible. As chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, I know this is possible – we are proud of the outsourced system of issuing passports that rectified a very problematic method of issuing documents that are every citizen’s right.
Naturally, a Road Safety Bill is only part of the wider solution. There has to be a consistent effort on the part of our citizenry to respect others’ space when on roads. India has merely 1 percent of the world’s vehicles on its roads but accounts for 10 percent of global road crash fatalities – the highest in the world.
Need a Stringent Law on Road Safety
- Since Union Minister Gopinath Munde’s
demise in a road accident in 2014, Centre has been unable to replace the
obsolete Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.
- Opposition by states behind the delay in
the passage of the road safety bill as the provisions were seen to be against financial
and administrative rights.
- The bill had proposed setting up of a
regulatory body, which doesn’t exist at the moment to ensure road safety.
- The bill also had provision for a
centralised licensing system and keeping a check on mishaps by tracking
offences committed by a driver.
- Situation is worrying indeed as a WHO 2015
report indicates that unlike other countries, road casualties in India has
increased since 2007.
No Road Discipline
We in India are unapologetically and inexcusably bad in our discipline when driving. The apathy with which drivers occupy service lanes and breach traffic signals is damning and a worldwide cause for embarrassment. Some cities may perhaps be worse than others, but none are beyond rebuke. Bad driving is a characteristic we are infamous for today, but it can be corrected.
All said and done, however, lecturing bad drivers to change their ways is no solution to the problem we face. If we want road safety, which is the need of the hour, and if we seek to prevent the loss of hundreds of lives every day – hundreds of dreams, ambitions, and human possibilities – it is the government that must lead the way.
Legislation is a good start, and I hope the prime minister is listening.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor)