What made the PM Relief Fund shell out a grant to medical students killed in a car crash?

150,000 Indians die every year in road accidents. What made the Prime Minister give grants to seven medical students from affluent families who became the unfortunate victims of reckless driving?

What made the PM Relief Fund shell out a grant to medical students killed in a car crash?

Vidyadhar Date

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a seemingly good gesture when he announced a grant of Rs. 200,000 from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for each of the seven medical students who were killed after their car crashed into a river bed in Wardha district in Maharashtra the day before Republic Day. One of the victims was the son of BJP MLA Vijay Rahangdale.

Mr Modi has rarely shown such sensitivity in the past.

There is nothing to suggest that he gave such a grant or even expressed his condolence when nine school children were killed and 20 injured by a car driven by an allegedly drunken BJP leader Manoj Baitha in Bihar in February 2018. Not only that, BJP for several days even denied that Baitha was a BJP member. He had managed to run away with others in the car after the crash and then allegedly fled to Nepal from his home district of Sitamarhi bordering Nepal.

Later, he was made to surrender, was arrested and the then Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi announced that strict action would be taken against Baitha as per the law.

But since then, one has not heard of any follow up of the case. At the time a good section of the media actually suppressed the news, especially the fact that he was from BJP. The media was then giving saturation coverage to the death of film star Sridevi.

Mr Modi also gave a grant when 10 family members in a car were killed in a collision with a truck in Anand district in his home state Gujarat in January, 2021 and there were a few other cases of such munificence when there was no BJP involvement.

But the more important point is that Mr Modi is never known to have given any grant in the case of thousands of innocent pedestrians and other vulnerable road users who form a bulk of road crash victims in the country. Mr Modi has seldom shown any sensitivity to the fact that more people are killed in road accidents and crashes in India than anywhere in the world. We long overtook China in this respect.

All over the world it is considered the responsibility of the political leadership to bring down road deaths and many Western countries have succeeded while India’s record is worsening every passing year. Former French president Jacques Chirac in particular brought down the numbers in 2003 after making this a main plank in his election campaign.

Mr. Nitin Gadkari has shown more sensitivity to the issue than Mr Modi, partly because it comes directly under his ministry and he himself knows the trauma, having been confined to bed for a year after a car crash in the year 2001. He has gone on record to say that road deaths are also a form of epidemic, more serious than Covid deaths.

The medical students all came from affluent families, mostly from the north and eastern states and were studying in a college run by the education empire set up by Datta Meghe, former Congress and BJP M.P. Such colleges charge astronomical fees and extract big donations. The students were on a joy ride to celebrate the birthday of one of them.

Liquor consumption may have played a role in the crash, no other vehicle or pedestrian was in any way involved and it was being driven at a speed of about 140 kms per hour, according to records. The students do need sympathy, they are victims of a reckless culture of rash driving promoted by the government, irresponsible film stars and automobile companies.

But pedestrians and cyclists from poor families are much more in need of financial assistance; often they are the main wage earners in the family. But the police machinery often under-reports road accidents, favours motorists and insurance companies go out of their way to deny legitimate relief to the poor.

More poor people are killed each year as automobile numbers have risen steeply at the expense of public transport, there is a big increase in the number of rich, drunken, arrogant drivers who treat ordinary people like insects. More crashes means more pressure on the police and health care machinery and common people’s mobility is reduced as they are afraid to walk on the streets.

In the Wardha crash, the car was crushed so badly that it took the police several hours to take out the bodies. It is all so avoidable, preventable but the government is doing little about it. It is ironical that the PM should think of giving relief to affluent victims but say or do nothing to address the real issue.

Are we surprised? Should we be surprised?

(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and is the author of a book on public transport and walking)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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