Live mint, June 23, 2012

By Pradeep S Mehta

The Sunder committee recommends a National Road Safety Board to oversee road safety issues and to evolve strategies for policy implementation

The road safety scenario in India is terrible and no serious attention is being paid.

The number of deaths is equal to three jets crashing every day (410 human beings), but since aircraft aren’t involved, they don’t make headlines. Annually about 150,000 people die every year due to road accidents, and about 400,000 people get maimed, the cost of which is about Rs. 1 trillion.

India’s dismal record in road safety is, among others, due to involvement of multiple government departments and ministries at the central and state levels. The central ministry of road transport and highways complains that it is the states that have to gear up to tackle the menace and they can do little, but prod them frequently.

In May 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2011-20 as the decade of action with a goal of stabilizing and then reducing the projected levels of road fatalities—a task to be accomplished by the government.

Meanwhile, road fatalities continue to throw up mind-boggling figures. Over 150,000 fatalities account for about 10% of the world figure, while the percentage of vehicles in India is only about 7%. The World Health Organization (WHO) has forecast road accident injuries to rise more alarmingly and become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.

There is a peculiar turf issue. The ministry of health and family welfare attends WHO meetings but doesn’t discuss key issues with the roads ministry.

Based on the recommendations of the Sundar committee, the Union cabinet approved a National Road Safety Policy (NRSP) on 15 March, 2010, which is a positive development as it conveys the government’s commitment to bring about a significant reduction in mortality and morbidity resulting from road accidents. Another highlight lies in the implementation strategy proposed under the said policy. It conveys the decision of the government to establish a dedicated agency, a National Road Safety Board, to oversee issues related to road safety and to evolve strategies for implementation of the policy.

Creation of a centralized nodal agency has been pending for long. Resolution 60/5 of the UN General Assembly and agenda item 12.7 of the 57th World Health Assembly also recommended this. The experiences of many countries at various levels of motorization indicates that strategies for reducing traffic accidents will be effective only if there is an exclusive government agency, which is assigned the responsibility with authority and adequate funding. With the announcement of NRSP, the creation of a dedicated agency should have received an impetus. Alas, that happened a while ago.

Unfortunately, the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill, 2010, had inherent flaws and the standing committee justifiably recommended its withdrawal. One of them was that the Bill proposed coverage of national highways only, 35% of the road network. The roads ministry is considering moving the Bill again after consultation with stakeholders. The revised Bill needs to incorporate certain critical issues such as covering all aspects of road safety and simultaneously doing away with other agencies at the centre and states. Further, its mandate should encompass all roads, not just national highways, which only account for about 30% of road accidents. Importantly, the qualification of the chairperson should be as detailed in the Sundar committee report and not drafted to suit a retired civil servant.

NRSP comprises measures that lay down the commitments of the government such as those pertaining to awareness, road safety information database, road infrastructure, safer vehicles, drivers and road users, enforcement of safety laws, emergency medical services, research, among others, which is a road map of the critical path to be followed by the board, once constituted.

The synthesis report of the latest endeavour of roads ministry covers the setting up of working groups on the four E’s: education, engineering, emergency care and enforcement. (I was the chair of the group on road safety education.) The synthesis report emphasises the need for such a centralized and independent agency to coordinate and channelize the efforts of diverse and multiple organizations. Various pressing needs such as devising a targeted comprehensive action plan in consonance with the UN decade of action referred to above can best be implemented by such an agency.

The key messages from the said synthesis report show the dire need for such an agency. Issues such as funding of road safety activities, improving the system of issuance and renewal of driving licences and refresher training (driver faults account for 78% of accidents in India), inspection of in-use vehicles to certify road worthiness, road safety information database and education/awareness, among others,are best handled on an all-India basis by a centralized agency.

It is in the interest of the nation and its citizens that the Bill for creation of a centralized agency is passed at the earliest. Prior to that, the roads ministry should undertake an intensive and extensive consultative process to ensure that shortcomings are addressed and that the Bill has enough teeth.

Pradeep S Mehta is secretary general of CUTS International

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