By Aparna Gupta:
Amidst the glamour and hype of increased FDI inflows and ease of doing business, an unnoticed bottom left corner of the newspaper recently read “a cluster bus ran over seven people in North Delhi after its driver died at the steering wheel due to a suspected heart attack.” The incident, though not a one off happening, reflects the much deeper malaise currently being faced by public transport system in India. Researches around the world have convincingly established that expanding public transit systems in cities can lead to hidden economic benefits ranging from $1.5 million to $45 million every year. Thus, the glaringly visible lack of safe, accessible and well-established public transport system in Indian cities is not only bad governance but bad economics.
National Crime Records Bureau states that in 2014, 12,456 people were killed in road crashes involving buses (the only mode of public transport recorded in the report), thus accounting for almost 9% of the total road crash deaths in the country. However, ensuring safer public transport has still not received the attention it deserves, in both the government and the public discourse.
Each day more than 35 people are killed in accidents involving buses in India due to a number of factors ranging from but not limited to driver fatigue, bad road and vehicle design and lack of driver training. For instance, most of the buses currently running in India are fabricated on chassis which is more suitable for trucks, thus compromising on the safety and comfort of passengers. Moreover, both heavy motor vehicles such as trucks and buses, and non-motorised transport are made to use the left most lane on Indian roads, exposing vulnerable road users to accidents. According to a study undertaken by IIT Delhi, in Bengaluru, about 25 percent of the victims of fatal crashes involving buses were pedestrians. The alarmingly high numbers of fatalities caused by the Blue Line Buses in Delhi led to the tag of killer line before the service was phased out by the State Government in 2011.
The pathetic conditions under which public transport drivers operate is hidden from no one. The poor salaries force drivers into long and multiple shifts leading to driver fatigue and higher chances of accidents. The lack of institutionalised driver training and issuance of licenses without driver tests leads to untrained and inefficient drivers behind the wheels, making the use of public transport unsafe for both passengers and other road users. The incident that happened in September in North Delhi speaks volumes about the existing apathy regarding physical fitness of drivers.
The apathy towards safety in public transport reflects the failure of our democratic process which ignores the needs of the majority of city residents who are pedestrians, bicyclists and public transport users. According to the UN State of the World Population report, nearly 41% of country’s population will reside in urban areas by 2030. Given the rapid pace of urbanisation and the desperate need for expanded and safe transit, it is crucial that existing concerns are addressed and a safe public transport system is established in the country.
Simple low-cost technological solutions, such as installation of pneumatic doors and modified low floor bus body design, will go a long way in making public transport safer in a country where large crowds precariously hanging for their lives on rickety buses is a common site. Similarly, separation of buses from non-motorized road users and provision of safe pedestrian and bicycling facilities on arterial urban roads will not only help reduce the number of fatal crashes significantly, but also improve access to public transport system. Lastly, there is a need to ensure better working conditions for drivers and an overhaul of driver licensing system so that only trained drivers are behind the wheels.
Given the rapid growth of India’s mobility needs, it is important that the country’s transit system responds effectively and swiftly. Today public transport users are largely people who are using these modes not out of choice, but because of financial constraints. A successful public transport system is not only crucial for addressing the growing levels of congestion and pollution, but also for ensuring safer commute for all road users.
About the author: Aparna Gupta is Senior Associate, Policy and Research at SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to improving Road Safety in India.