As many as thirteen people are killed daily on the roads of Punjab - that's one life snuffed out every two hours.
Road accidents in Punjab in the past decade have claimed a whopping 30,000 lives as compared to 25,000 people consumed by the firestorm of terrorism that swept the border state in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Shockingly, even the death toll in road crashes doesn't reveal the entire tragic reality. The long-term social cost that the killer roads exact on the victims' families is incalculable. A majority of the victims - dead or left crippled - are from the young, productive age group.
Yet, despite such a horrendous cost and consequences, road safety hardly resonates in Punjab's political or public discourse. Reduced merely to cold statistics, road accident fatalities continue to be a low-priority, rather no-priority, concern of the government. Such callousness stems essentially from the fact that road accident victims aren't a vote bank - the only factor that drives the state government's policies and priorities.
The transport department, headed by "under middle" minister Ajit Singh Kohar, has no agenda for road safety, while deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who practically influences all government decisions, has made few noises in "two paragraphs" about "traffic hazards and traffic awareness" in the election manifesto. To make matters worse, Sukhbir raised many an eyebrow recently when he said that the state's highways and traffic would be so good that "je daaru pee ke vi drive karonge tan accidents nahi honge (even if you drink and drive, there will be no accident)."
Enforcing traffic rules remain a low-priority area for the Punjab police, so much so that in the past one-and-a-half-years, the traffic wing headed by additional director general of police (ADGP, security and law and order) Dinkar Gupta has been almost defunct. Inspector general (IG, traffic) Sharad Satya Chauhan, who is primarily responsible for running this wing, is usually on leave as this post is considered a dumping ground. So dismal is the functioning of the traffic wing that they even shy away from sharing data of road fatalities of past years.
"Implementing road safety programmes needs a vision, mission and political commitment," says Navdeep Asija, a road traffic expert.
As road accident fatalities were on the rise due to speeding, drink driving etc, a survey was done by the intelligence wing of Punjab three years ago from the security point of view. It brought to the fore that a huge number of vehicles were using fake registration number plates as well as fake licences and other papers.
Says ADGP SK Sharma: "At least 10% of the driving licences in Punjab are fake and there are no checks and balances to curb this practice."
A police officer says that before Punjab's division in 1966, the sanctioned strength of the traffic police was 1,100 and it remains the same, even as 83% of the road fatalities are happening on the state's core road network comprising national and state highways. "There are about 1,950 cops deployed on traffic duties across Punjab," Asija has pointed out in a report prepared for the Punjab governance reforms commission.
According to the union ministry of road transport and highways, in 2012, 468 pedestrians, 287 cyclists, and 1,948 people on two-wheelers were among 4,820 people killed on the killer stretches of Punjab. "There is a complete lack of infrastructure for non-motor transport vehicles," adds Asija.
National highways of Punjab claimed 5,784 lives in the past four years, while 4,798 people died on state highways during the same period. Last year alone, 1,559 and 1,552 people were killed on state and national highways, respectively.
But the actual number is often very high as a large number of cases are not recorded.
Senior cops like ADGP Sharma, ADGP (intelligence) HS Dhillon and ADGP RP Singh, who as IG (traffic) had done some notable work, concede that the actual number of people getting killed or injured in road accidents is much higher than what is reflected in police records.
"We have no mechanism of 100% recording and reporting of accidents," says Sharma.
Endorsing this view, RP Singh says: "Road safety is a neglected area.
The magnitude of the people killed in road accidents is much more than what is reflected."
Road safety and enforcement are under the purview of the transport department, public works department (PWD), National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), police and local bodies.
Punjab has neither a road safety fund nor is the mandatory road safety authority functioning, leading to complete lack of coordination among various departments responsible for road safety, a top government functionary said.
Punjab's road casualty rate (deaths per 100 road accidents)
2012 76% (highest in country after Nagaland)
50% of total accidents in Punjab (2012) occurred in districts of Patiala, SAS Nagar, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Bathinda
65% of road deaths (2012) in rural areas of Punjab (35% in urban areas)
* Till August
5,784 Killed on national highways in Punjab (2009-12)
4,798 Killed on state highways in Punjab (2009-12)