Photo: Kashmir Ink
Chaotic traffic system and unruly drivers make J&K roads deathly
Thursday evening. The sun has hid behind the clouds, allowing the haze to conceal the day’s brightness. The February cold is almost pleasant, enticing people to come out of their cosy homes for work or recreation.
A team of five traffic cops, dressed in their untidy blue uniforms, is out on surveillance near the Tourist Reception Centre Kashmir, a few meters from their headquarters at Srinagar.
A woman moves closer in her luxurious, white sedan sans a number plate. And the cops ask her to pull over. The driver, sporting a colourful hijab, isn’t wearing a seat belt. Still learning driving from the bearded young man occupying the passenger seat, she doesn’t possess a license either.
The cops quiz her through the opened driver’s window. Not having a serious explanation for the violations, she telephones her family and hands over the phone to the in-charge cop. The entire team, except the one hunting for more unregistered vehicles, gathers around the car to keep track of the proceedings.
As they strive to settle her case, half a dozen buses, most of them overcrowded, stop right at their feet, where there isn’t a bus stop. The cops let go. They don’t pay attention; no one is fined or interrogated.
The vehicles continue to pass through the critical, narrow junction that receives traffic from four parts of the capital and outside. In absence of traffic lights or assisting cops, they move haphazardly, leading to minor snarl-ups and half-collisions nearly every second.
Turning matters worse, the junction is closed up on three of its four sides for construction of the skewed bridge. Ideally, at several points there is proper passage for only half-a-vehicle to pass, and impatient drivers appear to be competing for driving through first.
The outcome is enough chaos for a Lal Chowk-bound car to miss its path and push into a wrong lane. The cops correct it, without any fuss, and return to the woman, who, ten minutes later, continues to negotiate with them.
Another sedan arrives, this one with a temporary registration number on it. The cops signal it to pull over. Simultaneously, an old hatchback registered in Maharashtra is stopped too. The cops need to check documents of both the cars.
A biker locates the police from a distance, and slows down to see if he, and his two pillion riders, could be in trouble. But it doesn’t take him long to notice that bikers, including teens, passing by are not the target. He rides at ease and takes a right turn towards Zero Bridge.
More two-wheelers follow him. Roughly, one of the three riders is wearing a crash helmet. But Thursday isn’t for them; they may be fined some other day, when unregistered vehicles are not the focus.
With all the infrastructural imperfections, policing lapses, and people’s fondness for violations on display, the square presents a true picture of the mess that the roads of J&K have become.
And the result is this: In nine years since 2008, 9193 people have died in a disturbing 52,325 road accidents across J&K; about 75,628 persons (nearly one-twelfth of Srinagar’s total population) have got injured in these accidents.
It amounts to an annual average of 1,021 accidental deaths in J&K. That means, nearly three persons die in average 16 road accidents per day.
As per the stats, 910 people died in 4,198 accidents across the state in 2016, leaving 8,000 more injured.
In 2015, 917 people died in 5,836 road accidents with 8,142 recorded injuries.
In 2014, 993 deaths were recorded from 5,861 road mishaps, which left 8,043 individuals wounded.
In the nine-year span, 2008-2012 has been the worst period in terms of the number of accidental deaths taking place.
In years 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, the number of deaths recorded in road accidents in the state is 1126, 1042, 1120, and 1146, respectively; the respective number of people injured in the accidents is about 8348, 8709, 10108, and 8000.
Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t figure in the latest list of most accident-prone state of India, but it isn’t far behind. In 2016, the average death rate in the state due to road accidents was twice the national average.
The authorities and the people are doing their best to blame each other for this loss of life. The latter refuses to accept that careless driving or disregard to rules is the reason; and the former is reluctant to accept that infrastructure needs to improve.
The causes, however, could be more than one, with government and public to be blamed equally.
Over the years, the number of registered vehicles in the state has simply swelled. As on date, Jammu and Kashmir has 7, 37, 577 registered commercial and private vehicles plying on its roads that have barely grown proportionately.
Take, for instance, the Jammu-Srinagar highway—one of India’s most accident-prone roads that forms Kashmir Valley’s only surface link to the outside world.
The 300-km highway is yet to become an all-weather route, as the mega widening project that was to transform it into a shorter, risk-free corridor is yet to complete.
The work on the project was divided into six stretches—Jammu-Udhampur, Udhampur-Chenani, Chenani-Nashri Tunnel, Ramban-Banihal, Banihal-Qazigund, and Qazigund-Srinagar—for its speedy completion.
However, only its first leg could be completed on time, so far; its other components continue to miss deadlines. The deadline for the completion of Ramban-Banihal section has been pushed from May 2016 to May 2019. Deadline for Srinagar-Banihal road has been stretched from December 2014 to December 2015 to July 2016, and it is yet to be completed. Scheduled to be thrown open in July 2016, Asia’s longest road tunnel, Chenani-Nashri, is still waiting to be commissioned.
Consequently, the treacherous highway continues to consume human lives. In a latest incident happening earlier this February, four persons were killed and five others injured after a Jammu-bound passenger vehicle fell into a deep gorge at Ramban.
The internal roads in the cities and towns have equally been the victims of official negligence. The fate of Srinagar’s Circular Road Project sums it up. Conceived in 1981, the project meant to decongest overburdened streets of the city is yet to be completed. The cost of the project has increased from Rs 18 crore at the time of its inception to Rs 230 crore at present.
Indicating that not much has improved vis-a-vis the pace of developmental works in the state, Rs 350-crore Jahangir Chowk-Rambagh flyover is set to miss its March 2017 deadline for completion.
The public considers lack of infrastructural development as one of the prime reason behind the high number of road accidents.
“Why should the accidents not happen?” reasons Ali Mohammad, 65, a shawl merchant from old Srinagar, “almost every person in Kashmir owns a car or a bike today, but the road infrastructure virtually dates back to the era of horse-carts.”
Disregard for rules has become a routine in the state. The extent of its accuracy can be gauged from the reality that the state doesn’t have a tradition of pillion riders wearing crash helmets.
It compelled the Traffic Police for the first time (which is so far the last time as well), in January 2016, to announce launch of a special drive in the state to enforce the helmet rules.
“Even the pillion rider of two-wheeler would be required to wear helmet. Violation would result in imposition of fine under relevant section of Motor Vehicle Act,” the enforcement agency had said.
Till date, however, things on the ground are unchanged: pillion rider not wearing helmets continues to be a bizarre tradition.
Earlier, in 2011, the police initiated move for denying fuel to bikers not wearing crash helmets, suggesting that riders also avoid wearing helmets.
As per the Accidental Deaths and Suicides (ADSI) 2015 report, two wheelers have accounted for maximum fatal road accidents (43,540), contributing 29.3 percent of total road accidental deaths, in India.
Similarly, not wearing seat belts is more of a fashion in the state. People, quite strangely, do not regret it.
“I only wear a seat belt if I spot traffic policemen on the road. Usually, however, I am used to not wearing a helmet. I just don’t think it is necessary,” says Sameer Dar, a government employee from Srinagar outskirts. Sameer is a post-graduate in social sciences.
Globally, crash helmets and seat belts—along with over-speeding, drunk driving, and use of child restraint system—are key risk factors identified as crucial to the reduction of fatalities in road accidents.
Until recently, driving licenses used to sell for anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 4,000 apiece in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Anyone could pay and get a license. They only needed to sign a few documents at home; they didn’t have to qualify any driving trial or something,” a license-agent (name withheld) explains the procedure that existed until a year-and-a-half ago.
“Then, it was made mandatory for a license applicant to be video-graphed during his trial. But applicants didn’t need to pass the test; they just had to be at the steering wheel while recording.”
Due to media pressure, the government, in 2015, put a check on the ill means of acquiring licenses, he states.
The tip-of-the-iceberg stats corroborate people’s apparent liking of breaking traffic rules. In 2016, the year in which Kashmir Valley witnessed a near-total shutdown for about five months, at least 5, 29, 831 people in the state were fined for traffic violations.
If the successive government’s promises are to be believed, measures are being ensured to reduce the rate of accidental deaths in the state. But on the ground, a lot remains to be done, as could be felt in 15-odd minutes of stay at the TRC junction. After a massive dose of counseling and lengthy telephonic conversations, the sedan driver was let off by the cops, without fine.