We should take a holistic look at transportation safety

Live Mint, August 10, 2023

By Pradeep S. Mehta

Recently, a meme was circulating on WhatsApp about a hullabaloo over the death of five rich individuals who went deep into the ocean to view the ruins of the Titanic. Simultaneously, it spoke about inadequate media coverage of 750 persons who died at sea while trying to immigrate illegally to Greece on an overloaded fishing trawler. The first tragedy was about rich people, while the second was about the helpless poor in search of better lives. The common factor in both cases was a lack of safety measures, revealing a broad indifference to a pressing problem.

In India, transportation safety is a significant issue across its various sub-sectors: i.e., roadways, railways, airways and waterways. While all these require attention, it is imperative to prioritise road safety, given the intensity of road use and frequency of mishaps, even though the Balasore train accident served as a stark reminder that railway safety needs bolstering too. National Crime Records Bureau figures reveal a deeply concerning trend of escalating accidents on roads, waterways and railways. The present transport regulatory institutions are falling short in reducing accidents, injuries and deaths on roads, rails and waterways, and to save the lives of Indian travellers.

The need of the hour is to integrate the country’s entire transport safety system under a unified national body.

Globally, the transportation sector is growing exponentially, and so too in India. Vande Bharat Express trains symbolize the fulfilment of growing aspirations, whereas expressways being constructed by the government are transforming road connectivity. We now have the world’s second biggest road network, having overtaken China’s (as with population) but not America’s. As for aviation, India’s “Hawaai chappal mein hawaai yatra” (air travel in modest slippers) slogan was coined to capture and fulfil the dream of modestly-earning citizens to travel by air, like their better-off counterparts.

While easy and affordable transportation is clearly good for Indian consumers and the economy, safety does not get the desired attention or resources.

In India, there are dedicated national-level regulatory bodies that typically provide safety frameworks for their respective transport sectors, investigate accidents, collate safety statistics, monitor safety performance and undertake enforcement action against organizations, all of which fall short of the required standards.
To ensure rail safety, the Commission on Railway Safety (CRS) works under the administrative control of the ministry of civil aviation. This is an excellent example of arms-length governance, ensuring that the CRS can function independently of the railways ministry.

A total of 35 rail accidents were reported in 2021-22, as against 22 during the pandemic year 2020-21. The number of fatalities caused by train accidents increased to 17 against just 4 in 2020-21. In the recent Balasore train crash, 275 people died and more than 1,000 people were injured. This was a freak case, if we look at the recent record of Indian Railways.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is the regulatory body for civil aviation; it also deals with safety issues. It is responsible for the regulation of air transport services, and so also for the enforcement of regulations, air safety and airworthiness standards. In 2021, there were four accidents in Indian skies, compared to two in 2020 and one each in the preceding two years. India did not witness any fatal accident involving a commercial airline after a Calicut case on 7 August. However, the DGCA does take action against air-crew misdemeanours that result in the violation of safety norms. For example, it keeps a sharp eye on pilots who consume liquor before flying or bring guests into the cockpit.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India is responsible for policy formulation, safety standards setting, monitoring and regulating our waterways. There are around 14,500km of navigable waterways in the country. This comprise rivers, canals, lakes, backwaters, creeks, etc. However, its remit extends only to major waterways under the Union government’s charge, and not smaller waterways under state administrations. Though the waterways sector is very small in India, a total of 270 accidents and 259 deaths were reported in 2021.

What we must address most urgently are road accidents. In India, a total of 412,432 road mishaps—claiming 153,972 lives and causing injuries to 384,448 persons—were reported in 2021. The World Bank estimated that poor road safety imposes a cost as large as 3% of GDP. A recent amendment in the Motor Vehicles Act recommended the establishment of a National Road Safety Board, which has only recently been set up. Instead of this board, we propose an umbrella body, the National Transportation Safety Board, on the lines of similar bodies in Canada and the US, that would report to the Prime Minister directly. The proposed Board’s authority should supersede that of all existing transport safety regulatory regimes; and it must be independent and responsible for the overall safety of India’s entire transportation sector. This would promote a whole-of-government approach that will not be bogged down by turf issues.

(Madhu Sudan Sharma contributed to the article.)

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