Eleven-year-old Manjeet Kumar was riding pillion with his mother on a scooter last winter when a lorry hit them from behind and wrecked their lives.
Kumar and his 40-year-old mother suffered grievous injuries, narrowly avoiding India’s long list of 133,715 people killed in road accidents in 2020.
The pupil from Dharamsala in northern Himachal Pradesh has since had 10 operations and is unable to stand. His mother also spent weeks in hospital recuperating from the injuries caused by the reckless act.
Each year, tens of thousands of people die in road accidents caused by human negligence, faulty road design, lax laws and corruption, making road accidents one of the biggest causes of unnatural deaths in India.
The grim figure of 415 deaths per day is a telltale sign of the dangers on the country’s roads. They are considered to be the deadliest in the world.
But fatalities are not the only price Indians pay each year. Many more who survive accidents, like Manjeet, are left with life-altering injuries, huge medical bills and a quest to seek justice.
Manjeet's father Ashok Kumar, a mechanic, has already spent 1.8 million rupees ($25,000) on his child’s medical bills and sought help on crowdfunding websites after exhausting his savings.
“Not only has the accident left my son in bed, it has drained our financial savings. We have no money and we don't know when he will get his normal life back,” Mr Kumar told The National.
Latest figures released by the National Crime Records Bureau say 120,000 road accidents were reported in 2020, the year India was shut for at least for 10 weeks due to the pandemic lockdown.
Despite millions staying at home, the accidents continued unabated on highways, roads and by-lanes across the country, including around 45,250 deaths in "hit and run” accidents where, as in Manjeet's case, the drivers responsible do not stop.
About 79,000 accidents were blamed on negligent driving, with overall conviction rates hovering between 5 and 10 per cent.
Manjeet's family were fortunate to find the driver after passers-by reported him, but he was released on bail after a day in jail and the case continues to crawl through the labyrinths of India's sluggish judiciary system.
“The driver was released on bail a day after arrest and the case is in court. Our lawyer said the next hearing is in November, but we are not keeping any hopes of justice from the judiciary,” Mr Kumar said.
In the past decade, more than 1.3 million people have died while more than five million have been injured in road crashes. Each year, such accidents shave 3 to 5 per cent from the nation's GDP, according to the World Bank.
India has 1 per cent of the world’s vehicles but accounts for 11 per cent of global road accident deaths, according to the World Bank, with 70 per cent of the victims aged between 18 and 45.
Campaigners say the carnage is mainly a result of poor infrastructure, disregard for traffic rules and corruption, with hordes of traffic violators evading scrutiny every day by paying bribes to law enforcers.
The problem is further compounded by speeding, drink-driving, jaywalking, failure to wear seat-belts and helmets and the growing trend for using mobile phones while driving.
“Wrong practices such as speeding, drinking and driving, and dangerous driving are rampant throughout the nation,” Piyush Tewari, founder of road safety charity SaveLife Foundation, told The National.
“Road users do not take precautionary measures such as a helmet and seat belt. Infrastructural errors such as potholes and steep grades are an added hazard to road safety.”
Experts warn that the trend could worsen in the world’s fifth-largest car market, which is growing at an annual rate of 5 per cent, if road safety norms remain lax.
The government has tried to stem the problem by imposing steep penalties after amending road laws in 2019 and promised to revamp infrastructure and vehicle safety.
72,000 officers for 300 million vehicles
Transport minister Nitin Gadkari has vowed to reduce road accident deaths by 50 per cent before 2025 by using technology such as artificial intelligence.
But experts believe that although India requires a complete overhaul of its road transportation system, it needs to cut daily deaths immediately by enforcing rules and improving human resources.
Anurag Kulshrestha, president of TRAX, an NGO working towards road safety, said India’s high fatalities arise from a systematic failure to use its available resources, including thousands of policemen who manage traffic on the streets instead of regulating it.
India has around 72,000 police officers for 300 million vehicles, according to the Bureau of Police and Research Development, with traffic signals mostly limited to big urban centres.
“The reality is that traffic enforcement is just 20 to 25 per cent in cities because we don’t have the traffic police network,” Mr Kulshrestha told The National.
“The ones we have are unable to enforce laws because instead of traffic management. Their entire focus is on traffic regulation and penalising. We need capacity building of traffic police.”