For the second time this summer, minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has drawn attention to the relentless rite of human sacrifice on India’s roads. This is not exactly news, but it must make headlines when a cabinet minister articulates it, for historically, governments have been at pains to downplay the massive human cost of poor road safety. Indeed, many improvements in the field, such as the science behind helmet law and the advocacy that urged its legislation, owed not to government but to non-governmental and academic initiatives. Accidents involving two-wheelers contribute disproportionately to the fatality rate, and serve as the first challenge.
Releasing a report compiled by his ministry titled ‘Road Safety in India 2015’, Gadkari acknowledged an escalation in road accidents and casualties. In 2015, 400 people lost their lives every day on India’s roads, compared with 382 in 2014 and 390 in 2011. There must be a correlation with the increasing number of vehicles on the roads, and with the miles of new highways being laid every year, sometimes incompletely or imperfectly. Gadkari specifically blames engineering defects in road projects and laxity in the process of issuing driving licences. He identified corruption as the single biggest contributor to road fatalities. Retail corruption in the process of licensing has been an enduring problem, and is reflected in the finding that driver error accounts for over three out of four accidents. Earlier, Gadkari had said that governments cannot afford to hand out driving licences indiscriminately. Contracts for road construction are a known source of political funds, and engineering quality is compromised when budgets are skimmed to pad war chests.
In a sense, for Gadkari, the release of this damning report is an act of contrition. Last month, he had regretted the lack of political will to pass the road safety bill, blaming unnamed “vested interests” who stood in the way of transparency and computerisation in the operation of highways. His warnings are timely: globally, India is second only to China in the A-list for road fatalities. Gadkari has reiterated his commitment to halve the rate of road accidents and fatalities by 2020. If he succeeds, he will have taken the first step towards ending a national disgrace.