Pedestrians, for Delhi's drivers, are a nuisance but for one short-term exception. Mid-monsoon, they start slowing down – and even stopping – for saffron robed pilgrims for about two weeks. These 'Kanwarias,' fetch water of the Ganga from Haridwar to their neighborhood Shiva temples in North, Central and Western India.
The respect stems from the fear that Kanwarias are known to mob errant drivers. They avenge hit-and-run cases by indiscriminately wrecking what is in front, particularly when it is a police or government vehicle. I am sure the pilgrims are normally a peace-loving lot but they seem to have learnt the value of vigilantism.
In a rare gesture, the police have started to mark pedestrian corridors along the capital's arteries. The flip side is if the kanwarias were a lesser nuisance, the motorists would continue to mow them down with impunity. Do our authorities dole out services to the menacing hordes on the basis of harm potential rather than need? How else can we explain the lack of subways or footbridges in most Indian cities?
With new highways and newer cars, India is becoming increasingly more pedestrian unfriendly. We lose about 100,000 people in more than three lakh road accidents every year. In Patna and Mumbai, 90 per cent and 78 per cent of accident victims are pedestrians against a global average of about 60 per cent. A survey by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) on behalf of the Global Road safety Partnership (GRSP) found that India's accident statistics are understated because of questionable registration mechanisms.
According to the Planning Commission, for every death in a road accident, there are 15 cases of hospitalised injuries and 70 minor injuries. The vehicle speed has gone up everywhere but most cities aren't even thinking about amenities like trauma services. Studies by the WHO, EU and Government ministries warn that our road safety record is declining at an alarming rate of around 5 per cent every year.
Road accidents kill more 15 to 19-year-olds than diseases like cancer or AIDS. A typical road accident victim is a male, in the most productive years of his life (16-45 years), and most probably a family's breadwinner. The TRL study found that in case of death or serious injuries, even relatively better off families were pushed into poverty. In a large number of cases, children had to quit studies or a partner had to give up a job to be able to care of the injured. The study notes that the poorer families spend 62 per cent of their household budgets on tackling aftermath of accidents in urban and 42 per cent in rural areas.
Every accident incurs health, law enforcement, social and economic costs besides the obvious loss of livelihoods. Above all, road accidents pull down an economy's growth rate, nullifying years of hard work. According to a 2002 Planning Commission study, India’s annual cost of road accidents is Rs 55000 crore constituting about 3 per cent of the country's GDP at 2000 prices. But should I be concerned if I am a careful driver and a cautious pedestrian? The answer is yes because our indifference will make India’s roads even more dangerous for our children.