The long road to building roads for humans, not cars in India

We are at the bottom of the list, even among total vehicles per 1,000. Yet, when it comes to accidents, we claim the first rank with 11 percent of global deaths in road accidents.
The long road to building roads for humans, not cars in India

Indian roads are deadly. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), more than 1.55 lakh people were killed in 2021 in road accidents -- that is 18 people every hour. There were 449,002 road accidents in 2019 and 366,138 in 2020, and 422,659 in 2021. Remember that in 2020, most of the country was under Covid-induced lockdown, yet there was no respite from road accidents.

The worst-affected age group was between 18-45 years, which accounted for 70 percent of the total accidental deaths. According to the report, national highways claimed the maximum number of lives -- 47,984 in 2020 followed by state highways, killing 33,148 people.

Of the total fatalities, 17.8 percent were pedestrians, and 43.2 percent two-wheeler riders. Animal-drawn vehicles, handcarts and cycle rickshaw riders comprised 6.7 percent of the total number of deaths, and 12.6 percent were hit-and-run cases. Of the top 10 states that contributed to 74 percent of the accidents, Uttar Pradesh led with 24,711 deaths, followed by Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, accounting for 33.7 percent of total accident-related deaths in the country. Overspeed accounted for 52 percent of fatal accidents.

Though we can mine a tonne of data from the report, the figures above reveal a skewed nature. Pedestrians account for 12.33 percent, bicycles 1.7 percent, two-wheelers 27.2 percent, and auto rickshaws 2.5 percent, which means 43.73 percent of the victims of reckless driving are mostly the poor and those belonging to lower middle class -- most of them at a productive young age and probably the breadwinners of their families. One can only imagine the tragedy that befalls the family after the death or severe injury of a loved one. There is no control over hospital bills, and private hospitals remain mostly unregulated, billing the hapless patients as they please. Government hospitals lack sufficient facilities, leaving most families vulnerable to an accident, even if it is not fatal. Even a routine viral fever can cut the family budget by a few thousand rupees due to the series of tests and antibiotics that are prescribed now. So the burden on families in case of a severe accident can be backbreaking.

India has made tremendous progress in building highways in the last two decades. The speed at which the roads have been built in the past few years is mind-boggling and is a spectacular achievement of this government. What is, however, becoming evident is that our streets are getting more designed for speeding cars, even if jaywalking or using non-designated places to cross roads may account for a substantial percentage of pedestrian victims on the road. Moreover, stray animals like dogs, cows and myriad domestic and abandoned animals roaming our highways cause most two-wheeler accidents.

Even in cities, the thrust is on building more and more flyovers. Widening of roads is often done at the cost of the footpaths. Two-wheelers drive through the footpath wherever they can dodge the shopkeepers using the pavement before the store as a part of their shops, sleeping holy cows and street dogs. The poor pedestrian has no place to go, and he walks on the road, blissfully ignorant of the traffic rules and darting from one side to the opposite side of the road with gay abandon.

Add over-speeding drivers, many of them driving with one hand on the horn and the other holding the mobile to their ears, ill-planned dividers, well-planned potholes, and random digging of roads by every conceivable public utility from gas pipelines, electricity, water supply to optic fibre cable and we have the perfect picture of a typical Indian street.

India has 22 cars per 1,000 individuals, one of the lowest ratios in the world. In the US and UK, there are 980 and 950 cars, respectively, per 1,000. We are at the bottom of the list, even among total vehicles per 1,000. Yet, when it comes to accidents, we claim the first rank with 11 percent of global deaths in road accidents.

We continue to design our roads for the miniscule, vocal, aspiring middle class who think they own the road. Numerous flyovers take traffic blocks from one point to the next, while the majority has no place to walk, no place to use bicycles or not enough public transport to commute. We are technologically advanced to send men to the moon and Mars, but are yet to figure out the art of building roads for humans.

Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy. He can be reached at

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The New Indian Express