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Preventable Tragedies

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Tuesday was a tragic day for Uttarakhand with 21 persons dying in road mishaps that took place across the state. These were not due to any particular natural occurrence such as a landslide, rain, snow or sleet. Preliminary reports indicate that the reasons were the poor quality of roads and bad driving. Usually, speeding, overloading and poorly maintained vehicles also contribute in a big way to such tragedies. This increases the focus on a very primary governance issue in Uttarakhand – ensuring safe transportation in the hills through properly planned and engineered roads, enforcement of rules and regulations, and ensuring safe driving.

There are all kinds of regulations that various agencies are supposed to enforce from the RTO to the police, as well as the PWD, but these remain mostly in the books. Corruption, lack of motivation, poorly trained and inadequate staff are responsible for this dangerous state of affairs. With Uttarakhand’s economy depending heavily on tourism and pilgrimage, safe transportation in the hills is a necessary prerequisite to growth of the sector. It is not that nothing is being done – advances have been made in road construction and installation of safety features, leading to a drop in total number of fatalities with each passing year, but these are obviously not available in all parts of the state.

Impediments to good quality roads come from paucity of funds and opposition to projects for a variety of reasons – disruption in the lives of local populations as well as environmental activism. Even the safe option of constructing ropeways to connect with remote villages and destinations is being resisted for these reasons.

Often, accidents happen because drivers from the plains face the challenges of hill driving for the first time when they visit the state. There are specific techniques required and rules to abide by when on hill roads. These need to be communicated to them with the request that they be extra careful. Also, the habit of driving under the influence, which is rampant in India particularly among the youth, becomes far more dangerous on hill roads. Awareness on this issue needs to be much greater, with the local populace cooperating with the police to enforce safe driving. It is an established fact that road fatalities are not just tragic for the families of the victim, but are also an economic blow to them as well as society as a whole. The necessary lessons should be learned from each accident and action taken to prevent them.