There are rural politicians and then there are urban politicians, so say the established schools of political thought. If this is correct, Gopinath Munde who died after a car accident in Delhi on Tuesday, would have to be counted as a rural politician and his bitter adversary in the BJP, Nitin Gadkari, a quintessential urban one.
In the mid-1990s, when Munde was Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister, there were those – even within the BJP – who mocked him and his rusticity, in particular, his heavily-accented self-introduction to foreign dignitaries as “I, Gopinath Munde, Dee Shee Em”. When Gadkari embarked on his grand plan to build 45 flyovers in Mumbai, Munde had remarked, “What’s in these flyovers? We don’t even have roads back home”.
One did not have to preclude the other but Munde was giving voice to a typical rural sentiment about partial treatment to urban areas. As he spent more time in Mumbai and Delhi, he began to appreciate urban issues and challenges better.
The Munde-Gadkari rivalry, political but also in their basic approach to the issues they saw, was tragically cut short with Munde’s death.
Gadkari, as union road transport minister, may well carry his elevated roads agenda forward at the national level. He would do well to initiate a policy to make city roads safer, in all cities of the country, but in Mumbai and Delhi to begin with where road discipline has increasingly worsened.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures tell the story. Mumbai had the country’s highest number of accidental deaths, 12.5% of the total 3,94,982, in 2012. Delhi followed behind with 12.1% of the total. Not all accidental deaths are road-related, they include death by “natural causes” too but nearly 36% of all accidental deaths – the single-highest reason – were due to road accidents. Road mishaps account for staggering 92.6% of all injuries and 37.3% fatalities.
Mumbai figured at number four among the major cities in India. Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore were ahead of Mumbai, but that’s little consolation. The rate at which road accidents claimed lives was increasing at a rapid pace. The national average was 32.6% but Maharashtra was dubiously ahead of this with 54.1%.
Maharashtra was also the state with the maximum number of pedestrians dying after being hit by vehicles.
In Mumbai, the traffic police and EMBARQ, a think tank, studied all road accidents between 2008 and 2012 to arrive at some conclusions: there were high-casualty traffic jurisdictions across Mumbai; Vikhroli topped the list of the 16 such jurisdictions that the study focused on; followed by Goregaon, Vile Parle, Nehru Nagar, and Trombay; 57 of every 100 people who die on Mumbai’s roads are pedestrians, the next big set were bikers.
The figures are sobering. More people have died simply commuting in their own cities than in a terror attack. The background research work is available for most cities, done independently by think tanks or jointly by the local police and non-profit organisations. If anything, they underline the fact that road accidents have to be addressed as we would a health epidemic.
In his death, Munde brought bitter political rivals together. It was a testament to his ability to walk the tight-rope, balancing different – even contradictory – political interests. He also unwittingly brought the focus back to the road accident epidemic. Gadkari would do well to drive a campaign to make our roads safer, both in cities and where they exist in rural areas.
It could be the best tribute to Munde.