The Edition, May 11, 2020

By George Cheriyan and Madhu Sudan Sharma

Despite the lockdown restrictions, people are riding around on flimsy reasons without using seatbelts and helmets, and traffic junctions being unmanned and traffic lights switched off, essential and commercial vehicles including ambulances are plying at excessive speeds leading to accidents.

India is under the nationwide lockdown from March 24, 2020, limiting movement of the entire 1.3 billion population of the country, as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 pandemic with the clear instructions to remain at home. This resulted in negligible vehicular movement across the country and drastic reduction in road accidents and deaths. A back of the hand calculation suggests that by May 3, India might have seen 16,500 fewer road accident-related deaths, which could be the biggest drop in a single year.

Mumbai has recorded a dramatic fall in the number of deaths during the lockdown and according to Road Transport Office (RTO) data, 13 people were killed in 94 road accidents in Mumbai in March this year, compared to 40 deaths in 258 accidents during the same month last year. The dip in road accidents during the lockdown period was also witnessed across Maharashtra as well.

In Kerala, compared to the corresponding period (21 days from March 25) last year, there has been a dip in road accidents by 92.6%, fatalities by 91.1% and injuries by 93%, according to the Kerala Road Safety Authority (KRSA). The coronavirus lockdown, which is due to end on May 17, will cut road deaths by at least 15% this year compared with 2018, Paresh Kumar Goel, a director at the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, said. These are very positive signs.

Ideally there should not have been any road accidents during this lockdown period, because no public transport was allowed and movements of private vehicles were strictly restricted other than essential/emergency services. However despite all strict measures restricting movement of vehicles, on the other hand road accident and road crash news keep appearing in the newspapers almost daily, though the overall rate of accident and crash has drastically come down.

Despite the restrictions, people are riding around the city citing frivolous reasons and many are riding without seatbelts, helmets, on excessive speed and in the wrong direction, which resulted in several accidents. During the lockdown since the traffic junctions were not manned and traffic signals are switched off, this might have led to speeding by essential and commercial vehicles and ambulances though during the lockdown, accidents should not have taken place.

According to Kerala Road Safety Authority (KRSA), 26 deaths and 184 injuries happened from 173 accidents in Kerala during the lockdown from March 25 to April 14. According to statistics provided by the Chennai Traffic Police, there have been seven fatal accidents between March 24 and April 5 and seven people died in these accidents. A total of 36 non-fatal accidents were reported during the same period and 43 persons were injured.

Certain estimates say, so far more than 115 lives have been lost due to road accidents across India during the lockdown. Around 10% of these accident cases were reported from Delhi. There have been 13 fatal accidents during the lockdown in Delhi. Speeding being a major reason.

Around 10 vehicles, on an average, were fined every minute for speeding in the national capital during the nationwide lockdown. The prime offenders, essential service providers, some of who were fined multiple times in a day. According to Delhi Police data, many of these challans were issued to repeat offenders, some getting prosecuted multiple times in a period of days with a few even getting fined multiple times in one day. The data collected is for the period between March 23 and April 26. This goes to show how dangerous our roads are even when there is minimal traffic.

In addition to these accidents happening within the city limits, many migrants walking back home met with road accidents. In the initial weeks of the lockdown, the country had seen an exodus of migrant workers, thousands walking back hundreds of kilometers to their home village in the absence of any public transport. Four migrant labourers from Rajasthan were crushed to death and three others injured when a speeding truck ran over them at Bharol village in Virar on Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway; Three members of a family died in a road accident while walking from Delhi to their home in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district, a distance of around 500 kilometers. The migrant workers were crushed by a tractor after it was rammed by a truck in rural Aligarh. These are few examples. Deaths of at least 22 such migrants were documented within a week of lock down.

Another major reason for increasing road accidents during the lockdown period were the decision of several State Governments to send dozens of buses to bring back migrants workers and students back to the State, before the Centre Government agreed for arranging trains for long distance travel of migrant workers. Uttar Pradesh Government sending around 40 buses to Kota in Rajasthan or Odisha sending buses to Surat in Gujarat are few examples. The buses send were mainly the road transport buses or buses plying within the state in short distances, with drivers having no experience of driving in such long distances.

As many as five persons were injured after the bus ferrying migrants from Surat to Odisha’s Ganjam district overturned near Karanja on Nagpur-Amravati National Highway (NH) in Maharashtra. It seems that the mishap occurred because of over speeding, reckless driving and lack of enough knowledge about driving in valley regions. In another incident, at least two people were killed after a bus carrying more than 60 migrants met with an accident in Kandhamal district of Odisha. One person died and five others were injured when a bus ferrying around 40 Odia migrant workers from Telangana rammed into a fruit-laden truck in Odisha’s Khurda district. Hence the decision of the States to send bus to bring migrants needs to be completely abandoned.

If we take a close look of the lockdown rules and guidelines issued by Central and state governments for the vehicles to be used for required essential services, there are detailed instructions for social distancing, maintaining proper hygiene etc., but there were no clear cut guidelines issued for following road rules. This lack of proper guidelines for safety on roads, resulted in to pushing back the road safety aspect during the lockdown. While the country is together fighting the Covid 19, these accidents and deaths add to the concerns.

Another very important reason is the delay in making corresponding rules of the new Motor Vehicle Amendment (MVA) Act, 2019, which came to force in August 2019. If the Central Government and all the states and UTs would have implemented and enforced all the new provisions of the MVA Act, 2019, including the enhanced penalties and electronic monitoring, then we could have saved more lives during the lockdown period.

Therefore it is urgently urged to add up the road safety provisions in the lockdown guidelines, make the required rules for all the new provisions of MVA Act, 2019 by Centre and States for its effective implementation. Ministry of Home Affairs, which is the nodal ministry, mainly overseeing the national lockdown, jointly with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, need to act soon to ensure safe roads during the lockdown.

GEORGE CHERIYAN is Director at CUTS International, and MADHU SUDAN SHARMA is Senior Programme Officer at CUTS international.

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