Horrors on the highway Rahul Singh -19 March 2012

Source : http://www.khaleejtimes.com/displayarticle.asp?xfile=data/opinion/2012/March/opinion_March75.xml&section=opinion&col=

I have been a motoring freak ever since I got a driving licence at 18. The first car I drove was my father’s Morris Oxford.
Then, after graduating in England, a close friend, Charles Noon, who was taking up a teaching assignment in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) suggested that I drive with him till Cairo, from where we would go our separate ways, me taking a ship from Port Said in Egypt to Bombay and he continuing to Southern Rhodesia. I jumped at his suggestion. Charles had just bought an Austin Mini, an iconic small car, and we set off from London.
Our three-month journey took us through France, Monaco, Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The only mishap we had was a puncture, such was the excellent condition of the roads, even in the Sahara Desert.
Then, when I took up my first job in Bombay the following year, my grandfather gifted me a 3.5-horse power Royal Enfield “Bullet” motor-cycle, a beauty of a machine that I used for five happy years. My next job entitled me to a company car. There were only three major models in the Indian market: The Herald, the Fiat and the Ambassador, each one worse than the other. The joke about the Ambassador was that its only part that did not make a noise was the horn! Those were the bad old days of “socialism” and “self-sufficiency”.
Then, in the mid-1980s, India got its first international-standard car, the Maruti 800. It transformed the motoring scene. After that, different makes of cars have hit the Indian roads. However, what has not changed are the roads themselves, though admittedly in the last few years a few major highways have improved.
The Mumbai-Pune, Delhi-Chandigarh roads, for instance, which used to be nightmares earlier, are almost world-class now. I also recently drove from Delhi to Mumbai and found the highways in Rajasthan and Gujarat much improved.
Nevertheless, most Indian roads and so-called national highways, especially in the rural areas and those connecting smaller towns, remain in deplorable condition and constitute a huge national waste, not to mention the hazard they pose to loss of life and limb. Apart from that there is the bewildering variety of vehicles — all going at different speeds — on Indian roads: Bullock carts, horse-driven “tongas”, tractors (especially in north India), bicycles, cycle rickshaws, scooters, motor-cycles, trucks, buses, and, of course, cars.
I doubt if any other country in the world has such a bewildering array of motorised and self-propelled vehicles. They make road travel both hazardous and slow.
The 650-km Mumbai-Goa road should not take more than about seven hours. I have driven on it many times. It takes me usually 12 hours or more and is strewn with mangled cars and trucks, along with dead dogs and cattle. Every time I complete the journey unscathed I say a little prayer of thanks.
Here are some more telling statistics.
For the number of vehicles on the roads, India has the largest number of deaths and injuries in the world. China comes a distant second. In 2010, almost 140,000 Indians were killed and 500,000 injured in road accidents. To put it more graphically, a full Jumbo-jet load of 360 persons dead every day. The socio-economic loss is staggering: An estimated $20 billion every year. Much of this is entirely preventable. Indian roads and highways could easily be better constructed and maintained. Poor roads reduce the life of vehicles (while also increasing their operating costs), increase travel time and push up the consumption of fuel.
Routine maintenance of roads in India is virtually absent and the road policy is basically, “build, neglect and rebuild,” as a report points out.
Underlying all this is big-time corruption. Government officials, especially in town and city municipalities, are hand-in-glove with road-building contractors, who use sub-standard materials and are repeatedly asked to rebuild the roads after they deteriorate. This nexus needs to be broken.
Indians also lack a proper driving culture. Speed limits are not adhered to, traffic signals commonly ignored, overtaking on the wrong side rampant, the rights of pedestrians at crossings ignored, drive-and-drink laws rarely enforced, policemen easily bribed.
Motorists literally get away with murder. Remember actor Salman Khan and the notorious case of two well-heeled and inebriated youngsters in New Delhi mowing down several people, including policemen, and getting away with it, by bribing witnesses and relatives of the victims?
Motoring is a pleasure in most countries, where road conditions are good and driving habits civilised. Sadly, not yet in India.

Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times

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