The streets must be safer for all

A speeding bus, the driver loses control, people die. This is an all-too-familiar story across the nation. A recent survey stated that in Calcutta alone, six people die every week in road traffic accidents. While reckless driving may cause such accidents, the response thereafter compounds them. A delayed police reaction, ill-equipped rescue services, an absence of inter-agency coordination and mayhem at the scene of the accident are the usual traits at any mass casualty incident, for which the lack of remedial policy amendments is also responsible. A closer analysis reveals deep policy flaws within our emergency services' response capability.

As much as 70 per cent of the brain is diverted when one is on the phone. That leaves 30 per cent left for paying attention to whatever else is happening. Yet we never see any police take action against people talking on their phones while driving. The lack of the use of seat belts, indicators, headlights and helmets, no enforced adherence to bus lanes and choked junctions - all of these are signs of dormant traffic management. If you are fined, do not worry; there is always the traffic lok adalat to reduce the already-low fine amount by a further 50 per cent. Substantial fines not only work as an effective deterrent but also as a substantial revenue generator. These principles elude our law enforcement agencies, who in turn are handcuffed by their political masters. Strong unions ensure buses and autorickshaws remain beyond the purview of the police, allowing a bus with over 800 fines and cases against it to mount a pavement in Gariahat.

The bus, in this instance, was state-run. As with most such buses, it is likely to have been operated by an owner who won a state tender. Did the tender have any of the following criteria: the bus must have seat belts for all passengers; the driver must be fully trained; the use of mobile phones while driving is not allowed; doors must be closed while the vehicle is in motion; passengers must be seated; there must be a monthly mechanical inspection? We have seen buses carrying schoolchildren and racing on our streets. Legal action is almost always limited to prosecuting the driver; the owners remain beyond the the reach of the courtroom. Even more ridiculous, often it is the vehicle that is fined or has a case filed against it, leaving nobody answerable.

One will find the police asleep in any thana in the country at night. You will often have to wait till midday to see the IPS officer finally stroll in. The force is terribly under-staffed - West Bengal is short of over 35,000 officers, leaving us with a ratio of 1,658 citizens for every officer. They are badly trained, demotivated, ill-equipped, tired and incompetent. All of this plagues our law enforcement apparatus. As in the case of the Murshidabad bus accident, nothing happened till the IPS officer arrived about two hours after the mishap. The police were armed with tear gas and lathis. But rescue boats and cranes did not arrive till hours after the accident.

During the Posta flyover collapse, the Indian army was blamed for taking several hours to get from Fort William to Posta. It was not traffic delaying them, it was red tape. The Metropolitan Police Service in London is a part of an inter-agency platform called the London Emergency Services Liaison Panel, consisting of police, fire and ambulance services, coastguard, all municipalities as well as other agencies on an ad hoc basis, the army, special forces and so on. The aim of the panel is to ensure smooth coordination, training, drills, communications, resource pooling, the elimination of red tape and devolution of authority down to the first responders, all of which leads to a highly efficient response to emergencies. Judging by the haphazard response to instances of mass casualty in Bengal, there does not seem to be any similar protocol in place here or anywhere else in the country. Our judiciary has not yet adopted the 'compensation culture' of the west, through which the notion of vicarious liability has been born. For example, in the Murshidabad accident case, if the state government were to be sued by the families of the injured and the deceased, and a court were to award costs - both immediate, in terms of medical needs and funeral expenses, as well as in terms of 'emotional' needs - all of the challenges would be resolved, overruling even the most influential bus owners. This acts as a fail-safe against policy gaps by both the public and private sectors, making them fear court awards and ensuring they take preventive action against such mishaps.

It is worth noting the commendable steps taken and the out-of-the-box thinking exhibited by the state tourism department secretary, Atri Bhattacharya. He is also the home secretary; it remains to be seen whether bold changes are brought into effect at Lalbazar and Bhawani Bhawan.


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