Road Safety Bill: Dying due to slow drive

Alka Pande, CNS Correspondent
Photo credit: CNS:
On June 3, 2014, the Indian Minister for Rural Development, Gopinath Munde died in a car accident. Reacting swiftly, the Indian government assured the nation to bring a stringent Road Safety Law to curtail road accidents. Since then, in the last one year, road accidents have reportedly killed nearly 500 people, including women and children, and have left almost double the number with serious injuries. The alarming part is that this number represents only those accidents which were major and which were reported in the media.

Statistics received under a Right to Information query confirm that 280,718 major road accidents were reported in 2014, from the top ten accident-prone cities of the country--Tamilnadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Delhi-- in that order.

These road accidents are not only slaughtering humans but also hammering the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Planning Commission (now Planning Commission has been wrapped up and replaced by National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog), in its report in 2014, had estimated the annual cost of road crashes to be around 3% of the GDP. According to the Central Statistical Organisation, the GDP for 2014-15 was INR 126 lakh crore. So the cost of road accidents would have amounted to INR 3.8 lakh crore.

However, be it the loss of human lives or the trouncing of finances, neither seems to have been able to inspire or motivate the Indian government to steer forward the Road Safety Bill, even to date.

“The initial draft of the proposed Bill indicted the Government’s seriousness in dealing with the issues of road accidents in India but lately there has been a departure from the earlier stance,” says Piyush Tiwari, the Founder CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation working on road safety.

The Foundation has started an online campaign from 1 June to remind the government of its commitment and promise to its citizens.

“The campaign aims to highlight the missing intent from the government to bring the road safety law, the draft bill for which has undergone considerable dilution,” says Tiwari.

Starting the campaign, the SaveLIFE Foundation launched a website on 1 June. The website allows the public to write letters to the Prime Minister’s Office. Through these letters on the website, the citizens can ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to move forward in ensuring a strong road safety law in India.

Taking advantage of the present government’s penchant for social media, the Foundation is promoting the website through social media, using Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp. 

After the tragic death of Gopinath Munde on 3 June 2014, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, on 5 June 2014, had promised to bring a strong Road Safety Law, which, he said would replace the existing Motor Vehicle Act, 1988.

Photo credit: CNS:
“Since then the Government has been shifting the deadlines, first to the winter session, then to the budget session, and now there is a conspicuous silence on the issue,” Tiwari says. His organisation had held several meetings and interactions with experts and the government for pushing a more stringent Road Safety Law.

These meetings and interactions resulted in recommendations for comprehensive provisions for road safety, in the Bill, including establishment of the lead agency on road safety, reforms of regional transport offices and strict penalties.

However, today these provisions, especially reforms of regional transport offices and tough penalty system, stand either compromised or diluted, says Tiwari.

“This dilution is due to pressure from various influential stakeholders, such as transport unions, automobile companies, insurance companies, as well as state governments,” Tiwari explains.

The transport minister, in his announcement, had promised to address all major risk factors which contribute to the high death toll on Indian roads.

Tiwari fears that most of such provisions may get pushed into the ambit of rules, thereby taking away the force of law from them, and making them prone to discretionary changes.

Tiwari says that the government has given a statement in parliament, in which it has refused to give a next deadline.

While the Modi government contemplates and decides to show the draft Bill the light of the day, road accidents continue to take away invaluable human lives. 

Take a note of this timeline:
In August, Gadkari had said that ‘there are outdated laws and systems which need to be scrapped such as the system for the regional transport office, which would be abolished soon’.

In September, the Minister stated that ‘a new Traffic Act would be brought in the winter session of the Parliament. This Act will be at par with international Acts on road safety. The draft of the proposed Act is already reaching final stages and will include the best practices from developed nations like Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, UK, and US’.

In October, while appearing in one of the television programmes, Satyamev Jayate, Gadkari had accepted that influential lobbies were unhappy with the strong proposals in the Bill. Despite the pressure, reducing road accidents was a priority for the Prime Minister as well as himself, Gadkari had told the nation during the television programme.

However, all those claims are slowly being watered down in the Bill.

Take a sample:
  • The cap for insurance claims towards death and disability caused by road accidents has been limited to INR 15 lakh (1.5 million).
  • The penalty for speeding has been reduced from INR 15,000 to 2000 for the first offence.
  • The punishment for causing death to a child has been reduced from 7 years in jail to 1 year, and the fine has been reduced from INR 300,000 to 50,000.
  • The penalty for riding a two-wheeler without a helmet has been reduced from INR 5000 to 500.
  • The penalty for failure to comply with standards for road design, construction, and maintenance has been reduced from INR 10 lakh (one million) to one lakh (100,000). There is no provision of jail term for road contractors and engineers.

The response of the government and its representatives had been remarkably lukewarm on this issue. In February, this year, when asked during the parliamentary session about the Bill, the Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways had stated that ‘no definite timeframe can be given for the Bill to take the form of an Act’.

While the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims to have been steering the country forward, this is one road, which is still full of potholes, giving the Indian citizens a bumpy ride.

Alka Pande, CNS Correspondent
3 June 2015