The Minister in a Hurry

Every second month we have to contend with some new rule in the Motor Vehicles Act. Nitin Gadkari is overspeeding on a highway that is not designed for whimsical veering

Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari; (right) the high profile accident of former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry again sparked the debate on how (un)safe India's highways are
Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari; (right) the high profile accident of former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry again sparked the debate on how (un)safe India's highways are

Avay Shukla

Why is Nitin Gadkari, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, in such a tearing hurry? It certainly hasn’t got him any brownie points with the Deadly Duo, from all accounts. He has tripled the pace of construction of national highways from 12 km per day in 2014 to 37 km a day in 2021—ramming his machines through virgin forests, protected wildlife reserves, fragile mountain terrain, prime agricultural lands, without any thought to either the environment or individual livelihoods.

Perhaps all this could be partially justified if it led to an improvement in driving experience or safety, but both official figures and personal experience show that it has not.

The NCRB data shows that the number of deaths in road accidents has gone up from 146,133 in 2015 to 155,622 in 2021, an increase of about seven per cent, even though Gadkari has built 58,000 km of new national highways during this period.

It used to take this writer eight hours to drive from Delhi to Shimla in 1982 in a Fiat Padmini; it now takes me nine hours, even though the entire stretch is now a multi-toll expressway. From what I’ve been reading, it’s the same for the Yamuna Expressway (Delhi-Agra-Kanpur-Lucknow) or the Mumbai-Pune highway too, even though we now have to pay heavy tolls—about Rs 1.50 per kilometre—where there was no such levy earlier.

Clearly, something is not right. What has improved after the massive financial and environmental costs incurred?

A recent blog by Dilip D’Souza, a retired computer engineer, gives us another dimension. Comparing USA, China and India, he states that the number of accident deaths per million vehicles in these three countries is 141, 814 and 2,247, respectively.

Another pointer: in the US there is one death for every 50 road accidents, in India someone dies in every second accident. These are horrendous figures, and I do hope some brave soul conveys them to minister Gadkari and the NHAI satraps, so that the former stops boasting that by 2030 our road infrastructure shall rival that of the USA. With these number of deaths, it won’t, sir.

In his race to enter the Guinness Book of records, Gadkari forgets that an expressway or a highway is more than just a six lane stretch of asphalt or macadam, dotted with toll plazas—it is an eco-system with many parts, and proper attention has to be paid to each one of them.

These include proper and timely maintenance, enforcing road discipline, globally accepted road designs, proper signages, setting up a highway patrol system, establishing medical and trauma centres to attend to accident victims. Yes, they will cost money, but they will prevent accidents and save precious lives.

Unfortunately, in its pursuit of kilometres constructed, the NHAI appears to have lost sight of these vital components of a highway system. Upkeep of these roads is dismal. The NHAI collects more than Rs 40,000 crore every year from tolls. Where is this money going? Repairs, diversions, widening et al are never-ending exercises and carry on forever.

There are at least six ‘diversions’ between Sonipat and Chandigarh, replacing three lanes with one, and they have been there for at least the last two years. Where is the urgency to complete these works, considering that the motorist is paying a toll of Rs 400 between Delhi and Chandigarh and still averaging the same speed he did in 1980?

The Kalka-Solan expressway (just about 45 kms) has been in the making for the last eight years, and the constant landslides and subsidence on it have made it a dangerous zone to drive on, with fatalities on it occurring every year. In its hurry to loot the public the NHAI starts collecting toll even before a road is completed; though this matter has gone to some courts, they remain mute spectators (is it because Milords are exempted from paying toll?)

The Minister in a Hurry
A toll plaza on Panchkula-Shimla highway (Photo: Getty Images)
A toll plaza on Panchkula-Shimla highway (Photo: Getty Images)

Our road designs are atrocious: two or three lanes suddenly being squeezed into one without warning, too many medians and exits, most of them unmarked, uncontrolled access, badly designed grade separators. Signages are considered a waste of money. All these grabbed headlines following the fatal road crash of Cyrus Mistry.

The administration tried its utmost to blame the driver for over-speeding, but investigations by the International Road Institute and Mercedez-Benz have revealed that the culprit was bad road design and lack of warning signages. (Mr. Gadkari’s reaction was his usual knee-jerk SOP- mandate compulsory six air bags for all cars.)

This is a red herring to divert attention from the NHAI and police’s failings: it is better to prevent an accident in the first place, than to simply try and reduce its impact once it has occurred.

Where are the highway police and patrols to discipline our notoriously errant drivers? You can drive for a hundred kilometre on an expressway and not meet a single patrol car. In any case, the traffic police appear interested in only over-speeding. What about the trucks and buses hogging the extreme right lane, forcing motorists to do the dangerous overtake-from-the-left manoeuvre?

What about the stationary vehicles parked on the left lane, without any warning signs? Just these two violations account for a large number of accidents. And then there are idiots driving on the wrong side or the wrong speed lane. Everything goes unchecked and unpunished—it’s like the wild west on these highways.

There is only one trauma centre sign on the entire 400 km stretch between Delhi and Shimla. I didn’t see any on the Yamuna Expressway. No dedicated ambulances, either. No wonder our fatality rate is 25 times that of the USA. There is no “golden hour” for an accident victim, no Good Samaritan Act: by the time he reaches a hospital it is usually too late.

Why cannot some of that Rs 40,000 crore be used for establishing dedicated highway police units (not just sparing two constables from the local police station) and basic trauma facilities every 50 kms or so to avail of that golden hour? Simply ramping up the length of highways built is no achievement, what matters is the quality of these highways, their engineering, their safety record.

The second issue on which Nitin Gadkari has gone into overdrive is the collection of tolls. The current FastTag system is working fine, a vehicle now takes just 40 seconds to cross a toll instead of the earlier 5-10 minutes, jams at a toll plaza are a thing of the past, leakage of revenue has completely stopped. The country saves Rs 2,800 crore worth of fuel every year because vehicles do not have to idle at the plazas any more.

Gadkari deserves credit for all this, but he wants more. You would think the government would be happy and not try to fix something which is working? Wrong. The minister now wants to introduce a new system of toll collection—the New Automated Toll Collection System.

The new system would consist of one of the two options being considered: one, a GPS in your car which will enable tracking of your vehicle and automatically deduct the toll from a connected bank account. Two, an automatic number plate recognition system: cameras at toll plazas will read your number plate and deduct the toll from your bank account. For this a new number plate will have to be installed by you. Both options are problematic.

Let’s not mix words: we are living in a surveillance state and the GPS system will only make it easier for the government to track your movements. In short, this option cannot be trusted. Germany has a GPS system for tolls, but it took almost a decade of trial and error before it could be introduced. Our minister wants to do it in one year, by 2023!

This will be worse than the unholy haste of GST and Demonetisation combined. And remember, Germany has only 10,000 kms of expressways and 50 million cars; we have 150,000 km and 250 million!

As for option two (the new number plate), how is it any different from a FastTag? Why make 250 million vehicle owners repeat the ordeal of the HSRP (High Security Registration Plate)? It has taken years and crores to install the HSRPs, and just when it is settling down, Gadkari wants us to install a new set of plates, for no apparent reason.

But, the after effects of Covid notwithstanding, I smell a possible rat. There are big bucks involved in the proposed scheme. It costs roughly Rs 1,000 to install one of these new-fangled plates; for 250 million vehicles that amounts to Rs 25,000 crores! This is what the public will have to dish out and what the chosen contractors will earn if Gadkari has his way.

The GPS option will probably cost even more. There’s a bonanza awaiting the fortunate and favoured few here.

I am also not comfortable with linking my bank account with any of these toll systems; I prefer a separate wallet (as in the FastTag scheme) where I can decide how much to put. This way I can limit any possible damage by way of wrong deductions, hacking and cyber theft, which is becoming all too common. If the security structure of UIDAI has collapsed like a house of cards, the toll guys cannot be any better.

There are other arrows in Mr. Gadkari’s quiver and he has made public announcements of them all— electric highways, completely replacing petroleum fuel with ethanol, vehicle scrappage policy (announced in 2020 but not yet visible on the ground even two years later), six air bags.

I’m afraid he is going too fast with his shock and awe tactics: every second month we have to contend with some new rule or amendment in the Motor Vehicles Act.

The minister should remember that ours is a poor country (no matter what his boss may claim), changes cost money, people need some time to adjust to them, our bureaucracy is not known for its efficiency, confusion about rules only gives greater opportunity for the police to exercise their predatory instincts.

Go step by step, sir, take your foot off the accelerator and move over to the left lane. It’s slower, but it is safer and will eventually get you to your destination in one piece.

(Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer)

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