Yesterday a Union Minister and a stalwart in Indian politics, Gopinath Munde lost his life in a road accident. He was seated behind in his car, but wasn't wearing a seat belt. The impact of the crash caused massive internal injuries to which he succumbed within hours of the accident.
His untimely and sad demise has brought the fatalities of India's roads and the lack of respect by the common Indian for road rules and the law into sharp focus. Twitter was abuzz as Indians lamented the lack of safety on our roads and the losses of lives every single day.
In terms of numbers, more people die in India in road accidents than anywhere else in the world!
"National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in the year 2011 there were 440,123 road accidents resulting in the death of 136,834 people. The incidence of accidental deaths increased by 44.2% in 2011 from 2001. This figure translates into one death every five minutes on Indian roads and is expected to escalate to one death every three minutes by 2020."
Those statistics are horrifying considering that we spend a substantial part of our day commuting to and from work, battling the vagaries of weather and nightmarish traffic.
The problem of increasing road accidents and resulting deaths in India is not just due to the quality of roads. If the number of deaths occurring in accidents on highways and large cities is anything to go by, poor roads are a tiny cause of the deaths.
Whether you're a two wheel rider or behind the wheels of a four wheeler, if you're the kind who follows traffic rules (doesn't overtake from the left, gives those going straight the right of way etc.) you will understand that the intrinsic problem with the traffic situation in India, and those directly or indirectly responsible for the huge numbers of deaths on our roads are INDIANS.
It is us.
Those Indians who don't follow road rules or traffic laws and those who standby and watch (or worse still, drive away) when an accident occurs.
The other morning, as is customary on my return from the gym at about 730am, I stopped at a traffic signal because it was Red. I was showing utter disregard to fellow commuters, quite obviously, for a few cars stopped behind me, honked a few times to let their disdain be known (Why is this driver WAITING? There is no traffic at this hour!) or those that zipped off from the left of my lane, the drivers actually turned back to "look" at this really "stupid driver"!
While I sat there singing aloud to the music playing in my car, I saw a motorbike in my side view hesitate for a nano second before its rider chose to cross the junction, while the signal was still red. I didn't think much of it, for when you're riding a Bullet you do tend to be a bit of a risk taker, (even if you're wearing a helmet like this rider was) and if you live in a city like Pune, you've pretty much accepted that road rules are NOT for us Puneris...
To my horror, however, as he crossed my car, I saw that there was a little boy, all of 8 or 9 riding pillion, clinging on to the shirt of the rider, his legs barely reaching the foot stand on either side. This child, clearly out on a joy ride with daddy or uncle it being summer holidays and all, was in grave danger, and the adult responsible for his safety (who I might repeat was wearing a helmet to save his own head incase of an accident) was recklessly endangering him!
If they were to get into an accident (with a vehicle coming from the road where the signal was 'green') who would be blamed? The roads? The traffic? Or the PERSON behind the Wheel???
This is not an isolated episode and neither is such carelessness restricted to two wheel riders. Cars break rules with as much impunity as trucks and buses. Heck, cop cars also break rules often!
Look around you when you're driving (and not breaking a rule yourself) you will find that traffic offences - reckless overtaking, jumping traffic signals, not giving way, not understanding "right of way", overcrowding (on scooters and in auto rickshaws), speeding, zig zag driving, talking on your mobile phone, not wearing the seat belt, standing on the zebra crossing, instead of behind it or allowing underage children to drive - are endemic to us and I daresay, our "Indianness".
For we would not DARE break the laws of another country with such carelessness.
It has something to do with the lack of implementation of laws (which includes exacting penalties from errant drivers), which to me, is a stupid reason to be irresponsible on the road because eventually the very people who break the laws are also the ones who have to bear the brunt of it...
It also has something to do with our "Bhagwan/Ram bharose" attitude that coupled with the belief in destiny and karma make us feel invincible ("Its not my time yet")....
But most of all, it has to do with our lack of respect for another human being, who may end up bearing the brunt of our recklessness.
Like Shri Gopinath Munde.
Or the scores of others who have lost their lives because one driver thought "Hey, its 6 am... Who's going to cross this junction at this hour!!! Screw the light... Im in a rush" and kaboom!
We blame the roads, (too wide, too easy to speed on, no speed breakers), and instead of looking inwards where the problem really lies, we look to blame something and make even more terrible rules... So we reduce driving speeds on highways and expressways, little realising that the people who 'speed' are responsible for their actions and no amount of government regulation or law is going to make them stop speeding, or in turn stop accidents.
Worse still we fail to implement existing laws (such as helmets in Pune) and look the other way terming it the 'choice' of the commuter sending wrong signals to an adrenalin driven generation thats driving faster and fancier vehicles on our roads. We don't monitor the process of issuing driver's licenses and on the other hand, as applicants think nothing of bribing someone to get what we want, whether we are good drivers or not.
Its time to accept that its not our roads that are completely unsafe. The problem lies with us. We are not safe for others on our roads.
Postscript: Last night a friend and I stopped to help an accident victim (biker) in Pune. A few good samaritans had stopped before we'd reached the spot, looked through his mobile phone and placed a call to his family after they'd called the cops and asked for an ambulance. As he lay there bleeding from his head, the delay in the arrival of the ambulance and cops' apathy was shocking, making my friend exclaim, "God forbid you're in a road accident in India..."
We don't know if he was a hit and run or what happened to him after hospitalisation, but I can't shed the feeling that it must have been "someone like us; an irresponsible driver like us..."