Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Nov 04, 2022 Updated 16 Days ago
Apart from wearing seat belts, equally important are improvements in road quality and better maintenance of national highways
Preventing road accidents on National Highways In a March 2019 circular, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) raised the subject of premature issuance of completion certificates for national highway works. NHAI had noticed that, in certain cases, completion certificates had been issued even before the completion of works ‘up to the standards and specifications’ prescribed by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways. Items such as road shoulders, road signs, markings, dressing of slopes, and road furniture were explicitly mentioned. The circular forbade the issuance of such certificates, especially if non-completion resulted in ‘material inconveniences to users’ or affected their safety.

The Minister for Road Transport & Highways stressed that it is necessary to build safer roads even if this decelerated the pace of construction.

The above-cited circular was not taken with due seriousness by some authorised engineers. This negligence could have contributed to road crashes, probably resulting in fatalities. The NHAI has now warned the delinquents that such behaviour would be treated as a serious dereliction of duty and disciplinary action would be taken against officers issuing such certificates to incomplete road works. Additionally, the officers would be held personally liable in case of serious accidents that occur on such unfinished infrastructure. The Minister for Road Transport & Highways stressed that it is necessary to build safer roads even if this decelerated the pace of construction. This assertion by the minister reveals a worrying aspect of road construction on national highways, which downplays safety in the course of asset building. This gets highlighted by the very high percentage of road deaths on national highways. National highways constitute a mere 2 percent of the country’s road network, but account for close to 35 percent of all road deaths. The ministry has been taking credit for the pace at which national highways are being constructed. In the fiscal year 2021, it reached a record 37 kms per day. This has come down to 19.44 km per day in the first six months of the financial year 2022. If the reduction in pace is on account of greater care in regard to safety, it is quite welcome. Unfortunately, self-introspection by the NHAI in regard to safety failures and the large number of deaths on national highways was not in evidence in the aftermath of the death of Cyrus Mistry on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai national highway in September 2022. Attention got overwhelmingly focused on the fact that the passenger was not wearing a seat belt and, hence, suffered multiple injuries leading to his death. However, what needs to be pointed out is that seat belts help may help in saving lives but have no role to play in preventing an accident from happening in the first place. In this instance, a seven-member forensic investigation team found that the car crash was the result of an infrastructure issue. The car in which Mistry was travelling happened to tragically hit a bridge that was faultily designed. The bridge parapet was found to be protruding into the shoulder lane. Furthermore, the road with three lanes unexpectedly narrowed to a road with two lanes with a dangerous L-shaped concrete divider that had no proper paint on it. Road signages were grossly inadequate, making that road stretch a ‘black spot’. This epithet is used for a road section where accidents are a frequent occurrence.

The road with three lanes unexpectedly narrowed to a road with two lanes with a dangerous L-shaped concrete divider that had no proper paint on it.

The accident also raised issues of the excessive speed of the car that crashed. It was said that the car was travelling at a speed in excess of 100 km per hour. However, the minister himself has been in favour of higher speeds on Indian expressways and national highways. He proposed a speed limit of 140 kmph on expressways and at least 100 kmph on four-lane national highways. This, he stated, was advocated on account of considerable improvements in the quality of India’s highways that permit vehicles to go faster than in the past. The minister was also critical of some judicial rulings that disallowed hiking speeds on national highways. However, in the light of certain facts repeatedly surfacing in regard to safety issues of national highways, it does appear that greater caution in regard to increasing speed needs to be taken. A further fact emerging in regard to national highways is the quality of their maintenance. While the government claims that they are of international standard, a recent report highlighted the plight of road travellers on national highways post India’s monsoons. The rains have left the country’s arterial network in poor shape as they have become riddled with potholes. The cited report mentioned the Gurgaon-Jaipur stretch of NH-8, which, despite a hike in toll rates, remains incomplete and terribly potholed. The reason for this sorry state of affairs was revealed in a reply by the government to a parliamentary standing committee. The budgetary provision for maintenance of national highways was a mere 40 percent of their own estimated standards. Clearly, maintenance of national highways was being discounted in favour of more kilometres of road construction. The shortfall of 60 percent of maintenance money was terribly high and resulted in the resources being thinly spread, making adequate maintenance intervention highly unlikely.

The budgetary provision for maintenance of national highways was a mere 40 percent of their own estimated standards.

The parliamentary committee pointed out in its report titled ‘Issues related to road sector’ that the shortfall in sufficient budgetary allocation was echoed in the poor quality of national highways often witnessed across the country. The committee emphasised that the maintenance of national highways was vitally significant in regard to safety and good average traffic speeds and ought to be given high priority. The issue had been repeatedly flagged by the committee. Similarly, NITI Aayog, in its report titled ‘Strategy for New India @75’, advised that the government should earmark 10 percent of its annual budget for maintenance of roads and highways and move towards the developed country norm of marking 40 percent of the budget for road upkeep. It is evident that if national highways are not in shape, the economy of the country and the states takes a hit. In view of the deficits of national highways described above, it was somewhat surprising that in the wake of Cyrus Mistry’s death, the authorities were quick to point out and clamp on the responsibilities of the citizens. They moved to penalise travellers who sat in the back seats of vehicles but did not use the seat belt. The minister announced that a notification in this regard would soon be expeditiously issued, and the delinquent citizens would be penalised. Questions were also raised in regard to car makers who fit their vehicles with only four airbags in India, while internationally they were fit with six airbags. While there could be no quarrel about citizens taking due precaution when travelling and cars having more airbags, the government ought to have declared that equal attention would be paid to fix the safety deficits and poor maintenance of the national highways. It is evident that while serious injuries and deaths may go down by travellers wearing seat belts, road accidents will not be prevented by that measure only. Improving the quality of road construction and better maintenance of national highways are equally important.
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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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