Going Home to Die on the Road

By the third week of May, more than 200 migrants were reported to have died due to road accidents while trudging home because of the nationwide lockdown (see https://thejeshgn.com/projects/covid19-india/non-virus-deaths/#Table). A colleague of mine suggested that we should do an analysis of the causes of these accidents.

That set me thinking. Assigning cause is not a simple matter. About 60 years ago, William Haddon Jr. and his colleagues in the US started discussion on how to understand the reasons why accidents occur and what to do about them. Haddon was a physician trained in public health who served as a leader of the New York State Health Department and later the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. He was influenced by leading thinkers of the time like JJ Gibson and others who maintained that injuries due to accidents should be considered another disease where the vector was not a bacterium or virus, but energy.

And, thus, it is important that we do not indulge in victim-blaming and look for associated factors that result in the causation of injury. Like we do for any other public health problem.

This approach to events we term “accidents” changed how we analyse the occurrence of crashes and injuries on the road. The most important principle is we do not just look for someone to blame for making a mistake just before the event. We look for all the possible contributing factors, design flaws (vehicle and road), laws, regulations and policies that in the past made it possible for that event to take place.

If we follow this scientific approach, then it becomes clear that the principal factor contributing to the migrants’ deaths was the sudden declaration of the nationwide lockdown. No lockdown, no panic dislocation of millions of normal hardworking citizens of India.

There are other contributing factors we can think of. Given the lockdown, if all these people had homes/huts/jhuggis that they owned where they worked, many would not have taken to the road. If they trusted their employers and had access to social welfare measures, they may not have fled in such large numbers. If local bureaucrats, MLAs and MPs had come out in large numbers to help give support and confidence to these people, many would not have moved. Those who left could have been provided travel, lodging and food support. These are important issues to consider, as India is the only country where we have seen this tragic movement unfold the way it has. Quite obviously, we have come terribly short as a society that cares for its own.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 3 of this Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This right to life subsumes within it the right to live in good health. The human rights approach has been used effectively by people all over the world in many arenas: the rights of the child, the rights of women, the rights of workers and the rights of people in development in general. The adoption of these conventions, declarations, and charters have made it possible for individuals, civil society groups and citizens’ organisations to demand safer products, safer working and living conditions and safer roads around them.

Systems that ensure a life safe from injury on the road cannot be put in place unless there is a societal and political understanding about the ethical and moral responsibility of the State and civil society to ensure the right to life for all its citizens according to currently available knowledge and technology. These basic principles have not been internalised by most of the policymakers and road safety professionals in India.

In a very uncommon situation not normally experienced, special counter-measures have to be put in place in a hurry to minimise unwanted outcomes. This happens more efficiently if the implementers have experience and knowledge to mitigate negative outcomes and empathy for the people they are supposed to serve. In this case of migrants undertaking their death-defying march home, much of that was lacking.

We do have examples of the same bureaucrats and police officers preventing road traffic crashes when hundreds of thousands of kanwariyas take over the roads to march to Hindu pilgrimage places every year. Last year, we were driving on an expressway in Uttar Pradesh when we were suddenly diverted onto village roads because the main roads had been reserved for the kanwariyas! There were thousands of trucks also stranded on these roads and we had a hard time getting to our destination.

I mention this event because it shows that the political and bureaucratic establishment can and does institute very harsh measures to protect a minority that it empathises with. The migrants did not evoke this empathy, compassion or fellow feeling, leaving many dead.

Another principle in safety analysis is that you cannot and should not make policies based on events that are complete outliers. Such events have very special conditions associated with them and may not be applicable in everyday life.

However, disasters do help us understand what kind of institutional mechanisms should be in place so that we know how to react when necessary. Laws and safety features should not be based on one disastrous event. The event can be used to raise consciousness and social and political support to give the issue much more importance and professional attention later.

I am afraid the tragic deaths of our fellow citizens on Indian roads over the last couple of months will not engender much discussion on the issue of road safety, though it is a very important public health issue. Reliable statistics are not available, but it is possible that over 500 persons die every day on Indian roads and 10,000 go to hospitals every day to be treated for road traffic injuries. The daily Covid-19 morbidity toll is luckily much less than that.

I hope the issue of road safety starts getting discussed in a more scientific and logical manner once we enter more normal times.

—The writer is Professor Emeritus at IIT, Delhi. He does research on road safety  

 Lead Picture: UNI