New Delhi: In one of the most tragic incidents in recent times, 44 people died and at least 37 are critically injured after a private bus fell into a 500 feet deep gorge in Banjar sub-division of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh. The 42- seater private bus was carrying at least 81 passengers, some travelling on its roof, and fell into a deep gorge while on its way from Banjar to Gadagushani area.
The tragic accident has once again brought to the fore the daily risk that ordinary people take in travelling along the serpentine roads of Himachal Pradesh, which lack safety measures like crash barriers. According to data obtained from Road Accident Data Management System (RADMS), in the past 10 years, between 2009 and 2018, the hill state has recorded 30,993 road accidents in which 11,561 people were killed and 53,909 were injured.
As per RADMS’s data, rash driving, speeding, dangerous overtaking, drugs and alcohol consumption, slippery and uneven road surfaces, suspected vehicle defects, adverse weather, non-provision of parapets and crash barriers on outer curves etc. are the major causes of accidents. However, in 93.61% of all accidents, human error was the primary cause of accidents in the state in 2019, it said.
‘To Err is Human’…. Till Humans are at Stake
Himachal Pradesh has remained deprived of effective rail and air connectivity due to which roads are the major source of transportation within the state. At present, the road network is widely spread in Himachal.
The state-run Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) operates on 2,850 routes with a fleet strength of 3,130 till December 2018. According to information available on HRTC’s website, its fleet covers 6.05 lakh km per day with a total staff of 8,813. The staff ratio per bus is 4.37.
Prima facie, Thursday’s horrific accident seems to be a result of overloading and negligent driving. Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said the state government would initiate steps to prevent such incidents and take stern action against the bus owner if found guilty of overloading. Talking to mediapersons during his visit to Kullu Friday, the CM said the Kullu Additional District Magistrate (ADM) had been instructed to conduct a magisterial inquiry into the incident.
However, former state Congress president Sukhwinder Sukhu criticised the government for failing to take effective measures even after the Nurpur bus accident in April last year that killed 30 people, including 27 schoolchildren. In a press statement issued on Friday, Sukhu said the state government should enact a stringent law to prevent such road accidents.
However, in the light of such accidents, the burden of accountability pushes one to scrutinise the workings of HRTC.
Vidyasagar, President of the karamchari union of HRTC told NewsClick, “this particular accident happened because the driver of the bus had no experience at all. He was a newbie and it was his first day. Second, the bus was severely overloaded. When it’s a corporation bus, our staff knows we cannot overload. But here, passengers were also sitting on the bus roof. This should not be allowed by the government authorities.”
Vidyasagar said private bus drivers often have no experience in driving bigger vehicles like buses and despite this, they are given driving licences. Sometimes the roads are also unforgiving and such unfortunate incidents take place.
“Because of several accidents in the past, our staff is very careful about such things, otherwise we have to face severe repercussions. Therefore, you’ll find that our papers are in order, we have proper licences, our buses are maintained well with proper servicing and every 15-year-old bus is auctioned out,” he said, accusing the government of taking a ‘relaxed’ approach to private entities,
“They (private drivers) don’t get proper training to drive heavy vehicles on such terrain. Anybody with a driving license starts driving a bus and then they lose control because of which such fatal accidents happen. One can only blame the government authorities for the loss of lives,” Vidyasagar said.
Though accidents can happen due to several unforeseeable reasons, RADM’s data shows that human error is the primary cause of accidents in the state. When asked what his take on the statistic was, Vidyasagar said, “letting untrained drivers drive on such risky roads is also a human error. Most of the time we take every possible precaution but sometimes drivers can make mistakes like rash driving or because of exhaustion. We require more staff.”
Pointing out at under-staffing and the trend of driving long hours, Vidyasagar said “About 1.6 persons per bus are required and we don't have that. Our union often raises the demand to recruit more people to ease the burden. Because if accidents happen when a driver falls asleep, the entire corporation comes under the scanner. But, whose fault is it really when drivers work long hours? A human error is most likely to occur when drivers are exhausted. But the authorities don't face any action. One needs to understand that human lives are at stake -- passengers and as well as the staff.”
Roads and Authorities also Under Fire
Following Thursday’s accident, the authorities are definitely under fire as the bus was heavily overloaded. Local residents are angry over the apathetic attitude of the authorities who let owners of private buses flout safety norms, like proper training of drivers, maintenance of buses as well as overloading to make an extra buck.
“We blame the authorities totallly. The conditions of the roads are terrible, the weather can get unpredictable and on top of that they let anybody get up and drive these buses. People have no option but to take the transport they are getting, but whose job is it to ensure their safety? Regardless of the buses being private or government-run, the authorities have to take responsibility. Today, three panchayats in this area were mourning the deaths of their loved ones. Who is responsible? All these corrupt government officials are responsible. They can neither provide us adequate services nor security” a local resident of Banjar, Sheela Devi, told NewsClick.
It is also an irony that in a state where roads in remote areas are crying for government attention, the proposed upgradation of state highways as national highways has taken a political colour.
Before the Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had claimed that 69 roads in the state would be upgraded to national highways which had led to the hope of better commuting experience. But, till date, this announcement has remained on paper as the BJP government is still preparing the Detailed Project Report (DPR).
According to a report in Times of India, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had met Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and expressed gratitude to him for approving 69 new national highways for Himachal. However, now the Congress is cornering the BJP Government on this issue. As per the report, Rs 24 crore has already been released to the consultants for preparation of the DPR and now there are talks of framing new policy for them.
The HP High Court on February 25 had directed the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to file a status report furnishing the details of the amount released for maintenance of national highways in the state.
While hearing the matter on April 9, the court had observed that the fact of the matter is that as a result of the declaration of in principle approval for upgradation of 69 state highways as national highways, all such roads are lying abandoned without any maintenance, causing unexplainable inconvenience to the public at large. Not only this, the existing national highways are also not being maintained at all, it said.
“On a query by the Court, Assistant Solicitor General of India, on instructions, informed that over Rs 25 crore has been released to the HPPWD for the maintenance of national highways whereas on the spot, one does not find, as reported by various learned counsels, that even a single highway has been satisfactorily maintained and is worth motorable,” it added.
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