'Khooni' road! That's how road-crash survivors and hard-nosed cops refer to a single-lane 20km-long section of the Grand Trunk Road between Dhilwan (Kapurthala) and Bidhipur (Jalandhar) in the Doaba region. No other stretch of this major artery of Punjab - built by Sher Shah Suri to connect Bengal with Lahore consumes human lives on the scale and severity witnessed repeatedly on this stretch.
Along this road peppered with black spots (accident-prone areas), which begins just 8km from Jalandhar city and culminates at Dhilwan a little before the dera of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, lie scattered the mangled remains of vehicles, grimly reminding passersby of the tragic end of human lives. The gloom that hangs over this killer road becomes stark outside police stations such as Subhanpur, a brief stopover among tourists at least, where are dumped crushed four-wheelers.
But for cops such as head constable Paramjit Singh Brar, these "case properties" are like a nightmare. "Every vehicle here has a moving story," Brar says in a choked voice. "Look at this car…the whole family died in it…click a picture of this…I had to pull out dead children from it. I wish these vehicles are taken away."
Under the jurisdiction of Subhanpur police stations falls a 12km stretch of this single lane on which 36 persons died on the spot and 50 were injured grievously in 34 road crashes in 2012. On the 8km stretch of the adjoining Kartarpur police station, 13 people died on the spot in as many accidents recorded last year. In other words, road mishaps on this 20km stretch have snuffed out one life every week.
"The actual number of people getting killed in road crashes is more than what is recorded. Who takes note of those dying in hospitals due to road-accident injuries?" says Lakhvir Singh, a cop.
A 10km section of this road has at least nine frighteningly narrow bridges either bereft of railings or virtually broken. These are virtual death traps for night-time drivers. This road caters to pilgrims and witnesses a huge rush. Any accident or vehicle failure leads to long traffic jams, extending up to 10km. Despite this, there is no road safety mechanism in place.
A police highway patrol operates on this stretch to evacuate accident victims. In 2012, it dealt with 213 accidents, while till October 25 this year, it has recorded 138 road crashes. "We just pray for an accident-free day. Otherwise, handling accidents leaves an adverse and lasting impression on the psyche," points out assistant sub-inspector Manjit Singh.
Driven by the urge to gauge how and why, as per official records, at least one person is killed per day on NH-1 in Punjab, we set out on a journey at dusk from the inter-state Shambu barrier.
Much before hitting NH-1, our cab driver's act of removing his seat belt and summarily dismissing our advice to use this life-saving asset gave us a glimpse of what we were heading for a daredevil drama of two-wheelers, cars, tractors etc. violating basic traffic and driving norms with impunity.
"People are killing either themselves or others like flies," inspector Surinder Pal Singh, station house officer (SHO), Kartarpur, points out. "We are unable to enforce traffic laws due to various reasons. People don't obey the law. Murder is a heinous crime, while in road accidents you kill people willfully or otherwise, but the offence is bailable."
During the 500km journey at night as well as day, mainly on NH-1, traffic cops were conspicuous by their absence.
Wearing a helmet, it seems, is considered below one's 'prestige' and driving on the wrong side on the highway and taking a detour by using damaged road dividers is the norm rather than the exception.
At fate's mercy
To top it all, there is abject and criminal absence of road furniture. Mandatory, cautionary and informatory signboards, blinkers, reflectors, barricades, thermoplastic pavement markings etc. are missing in the incomplete corridor from Shambu to Jalandhar that meanders through Rajpura, Sirhind, Mandi Gobindgarh, Khanna, Ludhiana, Phillaur and Phagwara.
The plastic strips have been fixed in place of guard rails along the highway and are hanging in the air with markings such as: "Caution, Soma enterprise". Every diversion point between Shambu and Jalandhar tests the driver's skills to the hilt at night.
"You are literally at the mercy of fate till Jalandhar. One minor mistake may prove life-threatening," admits Baba Singh, a veteran truck driver. "Besides, speeding, overtaking, drink driving and overloading are causing accidents."
Lack of footpaths, cycle tracks and traffic-calming measures, coupled with encroachments along the highway and service lanes, increase the risk and severity of accidents.
The entire length of the highway on both sides is dotted with encroachments. Huge logs are dumped along the highway to run lakkar mandis illegally; businessmen have direct and illegal access to NH; and people have damaged road dividers to cut short their journey.
The highway has become dangerous due to unregulated urbanisation along its length.
"There is virtually little support from the state authorities to control illegal access to the highway. At this rate, we would neither be left with space for future widening of the national highway nor would there be space for greenery alongside," says a senior officer of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
Family of eight lost bread-winner
Kartarpur (Jalandhar): It was the evening of September 25, 2012. Inside their ramshackle abode at Dayalpur village, adjacent to Kartarpur police station of Jalandhar district along NH-1, Jasbir Kaur had begun serving dinner to her husband Punnan Singh, the only earning member in a Dalit family of eight.
But there was an abrupt knock, seeking help from Punnan - lovingly called Punnu to drive a hired motorcycle to visit the police station some 3km away. Much to Jasbir's anguish, she failed to persuade Punnu not to leave the meal midway.
"I let him go after he pleaded that he would be back in 10 minutes," recalls Jasbir, mother of two sons and two daughters. But destiny willed otherwise. Punnu, 26, did return after 10 hours, wrapped in a shroud.
The bike he was driving rammed into a wrongly-parked tractor-trolley, just 1km away from home. His uncle Kehar Singh also died on the spot, while Satwinder Singh, a cousin, sustained grievous injuries.
It was Satwinder who had taken along Punnu to drive the bike. He needed Punnu and Kehar's help to appear as witnesses before the police for passport verification.
After the mishap, Satwinder sold his one-room share in the ancestral house to raise Rs. 1.5 lakh for meeting hospital expenses. After having lost a roof barely enough to accommodate two beds, he left Dayalpur to live with his in-laws.
Now, Punnu's family lives in abject poverty, with the responsibility of earning the daily bread falling on his partially-blind father Mohan Singh (65), who says: "Kam mil jaye taan khaa layi daa (we get to eat when we get work)."
According to a study conducted by the Punjab State Road Sector Project, 1,756 persons were killed on NH-1 in Punjab in five years (2001-05), an average of one death daily.
Road crash casualties
Shambu police station: 8km of NH-1 falls in its territory
2013 11 so far
Sirhind police station: 15km stretch of NH-1
2013 31 (till Oct 24)
Khanna-Jalandhar stretch: 100km stretch of NH-1
2013 84 (till Sept)
Kartarpur police station: 8km stretch
2013 11 (till Sept)
Subhanpur police station: 12km stretch
2013 15 (till Sept)
Causes of accident deaths
59% Driver's fault (2,839)
36% Speeding (1,739)
2% Cyclist's fault (103)
2% Defects in road (77)
1% Drunk driving (55)