Death at dawn

Some of us have the shocking experience of coming across a road accident where someone has lost his life. I was in that unsettling situation early today, when I came across an old woman, a pedestrian, who had been hit and killed on P.T.Rajan Salai, K.K.Nagar in Chennai.

The accident happened about 500 metres from the local police station. The road on which the accident took place connects Inner Ring Road (Jawaharlal Nehru Salai) and K.K.Nagar — PT Rajan Salai. It appeared to be a hit and run or the vehicle involved was removed from the scene.

The stretch where the accident took place is very wide and without a median divider. This prompts many vehicles to speed up in both directions and overtake others, giving pedestrians little chance to cross over safely. Putting up a median divider may reduce the risks of accidents here. Residents have also been demanding a pedestrian subway (in my view, Chennai needs hundreds of subways for a city of six million people but has only half a dozen), since there are several housing units on both sides.

I regularly go on this road from Kodambakkam towards Alagirisamy Salai in K.K.Nagar at 6 a.m. when I am witness to dangerous situations involving vehicles that do not obey signals and also drive rashly. Even the signal on Inner Ring Road (intersection of Lakshman Sruthi Musicals) is not obeyed and a few months ago, I saw a motorcyclist had been fatally knocked on the main road.

This traffic signal is particularly important, as is the one further down IRR close to Ashok Nagar Police Training College, because students of many schools in K.K.Nagar cross the two points early in the morning, amidst heavy vehicle traffic. Invariably, there is no policing at this time (6 to 7 a.m.) when drivers are at their worst behaviour, and very disconcertingly, the time of day when schools have sports sessions and tuition classes.

To the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Government at New Delhi, this unnamed person in K.K.Nagar will be merely another statistic in a tally that makes India one of the most unsafe countries on the earth — the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has officially calculated that nearly 100,000 people die on India’s roads every year. IIT Delhi estimates that the number of injured could be fifteen times that many, and that figure is generally underreported by government.

The lathi-swinging Chennai police team that was present at the K.K.Nagar scene today gave no indication of any concern, and lived up to the reputation of government as a passive spectator to India’s road carnage.

In fact, government policy is so indifferent and callous that the summary compensation given from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for the kin of such accident victims (as temporary relief) remains a measly Rs.50,000, at a time when the growth rate of both the economy and accidents were far lower than the much trumpeted 9- plus per cent of today.

It is possible that many accidents are the result of careless behaviour on the road. But it is even more evident that dead and maimed people are the victims of a culture of motorisation in India that is running riot (a Rutgers University paper explores the road situation in India and China.) The mayhem is fuelled by the car companies, the two-wheeler manufacturers which have sufficiently corrupted our politicians and ensured that major investments are not made in public transport and pedestrian facilities that have the proven effect of making roads safer. Despite the right noises made about pedestrianisation, metro trains, bus rapid transit systems and modernisation, it is clear that politicians simply will not act. For the record, though, India has a new National Urban Transport Policy.

Is it possible that they would have acted if their own lives were at stake? Those at the top, with their Z plus convoys, black cats and revolving red lights, for whom all of us stop and are made to practically genuflect, are obviously out of harm’s way, but what about others? In Tamil Nadu, we have witnessed the loss of talented members of society such as Maharajapuram Santhanam in road accidents. Elsewhere, a talented politician Rajesh Pilot died in a wholly avoidable road accident. Do their families feel complacent that these are small sacrifices to be made in the goal of universal motorisation?

It is also evident that even elementary facilities for those travelling on foot are absent in the biggest cities, because those in power in India walk only on treadmills these days. No Chief Minister can or will walk on a public road. Not even a Minister will condescend to do so. The only time that leading politicians will be seen on a public road outside their cars is during a demonstration against the government or as part of a power struggle

For the IAS and IPS, walking is out. This is because of the image problem with the pedestrian. When an officer is travelling on foot without the paraphernalia it is a sure sign that he no longer has it. He has fallen out of favour and is now part of the powerless masses, left to fend for himself, amidst all that slush, dirt, spittle, grime, toxic fumes, soot and dust. Even a retired officer would hesitate to do that.

It is tempting to debate whether India’s judges walk on public streets so they know which laws are being implemented and which are not, but we shall let that question lie for the moment.

Until India’s power elite is ready to become more human, old women — and men and children — who attempt to cross roads must watch out for murderous bus, lorry, taxi, car and two-wheeler drivers. For these speeding and selfish Indians, participating in the 9 per cent growth story is more important than your life and limb.

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