When roads are killing fields

September 17, 2013

By Vinod Mathew


Kerala is at it again. The state is seeking ways to downsize the width of the National Highway network under its footprint, from 45 metres to 30 metres even as progressive states have made clear their intention to go by the international benchmark of 60 metres. Such an unreasonable posturing comes at time when the state leads the nation with 13 daily deaths from road accidents, most of them on narrow roads, from head-on collisions. The opposition to wide roads comes largely from a few lobbies of powerful land sharks who have built commercial complexes along narrow roadsides in the thriving business hubs of Malappuram and other northern districts. The state government is so much like a toy in their hands that serious discussion is under way on building sky roads along such stretches where it upsets the high and mighty if the roads get widened.

Ideally, the need to widen and straighten its narrow, serpentine roads should have been flagged by the state itself, considering the gigantic growth of its vehicle population in recent years. The journey from 1,94,567 vehicles in 1980-81 to 60,72,019 in 2010-11 has come at a breakneck speed, with the last year alone adding another 8,21,295 vehicles. Consider the vital statistics: Eight national highways in the state cover a length of 1,524km or only 2.3 per cent of the total national highway network in the country. Even as road accidents numbered 37,072 in 2000, causing 2,710 deaths and leaving 49,403 injured, in 2012 the accidents remained rooted at 36,174 but the number of deaths climbed to 4,286, showcasing what real damage head-on collisions by speeding vehicles on narrow and winding roads can do.

In other words, the state roads have witnessed close to 40,000 deaths and left four lakh injured, many of them maimed for life — a fact that should have shaken the state government into seeking its own ways and means of widening, straightening its roads.

It is in this context that one has to see the latest in a string of hugely parochial demands put forth by the state in a seemingly endless endeavour to set its own standards. It is a given that such demands keep cropping up on occasions that warrant definition of acceptable standards, whether it be for setting up industrial units or going in for infrastructure projects. In essence, no industry is allowed to set base in the state because of heightened pollution fears, though the average Keralite has no qualms about availing benefits of such industries set up in neighbouring states. The mindset holds good in the case of saying no to thermal power projects or large manufacturing hubs that will essentially have as a spin-off, a degree of environmental pollution. Kerala, therefore, has chosen to be a consumer state, leaving it to the other states the little matter of production — whether it be for foodgrain, vegetables, fruits or the many automobiles that it buys in large numbers, the narrow roads notwithstanding.

It is by no means a logical corollary to this thought process, but many Keralites also think it but natural to give a thumbs down when asked to pay toll while motoring through well-carpeted stretches of national highway. Strangely, this does not seem to bother any Keralite once he crosses the border, with many waxing eloquent in an incredulous tone on the rather heavy toll he’s required to pay during a drive to Goa and back. But once he hits the home road, it is all cursing and swearing each time he catches the sight of a toll gate.

Cynics often argue that the bane of Kerala has been its high dose of literacy and the cultural chip-on-the-shoulder many seem to carry while going about their daily business. While these are debatable points, there is no denying the negative impact that the non-resident Keralite (NRK) has had on their kith and kin, as much is persuading them to lead a life of no toil as in making a whole community believe an NRK is so special that an NRI pales into insignificance when faced with the homegrown repatriate. Thus, you have a whole department at the state government-level playing fiddle to the whims of the NRK community, you have the NRK deposits rated at an overwhelming percentage of Kerala’s GDP and of course a real estate sector and a gold jewellery business that catches flu of the highest virulence each time the NRK sneezes.

Therefore, it should have come as no surprise when the state government, led by an unusually belligerent chief minister, pitched wholeheartedly to get airborne an idea that has remained grounded nevertheless. The concept of Air Kerala was thus borne. The purpose — to fly in and fly out all those NRKs, who keep getting annoyed periodically at the highhanded treatment meted out to them by the national flier, Air India, and its country cousin, Air India Express.

Such has been the animosity generated among the NRKs against Air India Express that its management is actively thinking of shifting its headquarters from Kochi to Mumbai or any other location where the chances of Keralites behaving in a normal manner are significantly on the high side.

Even as its airy ideas remain grounded, Kerala refuses to take a serious look at down-to-earth solutions to its daily problems. It continues to turn a Nelson’s eye to passing a law against the stopping of government buses at major curves on its winding roads, said to be one of the causes for major accidents and something that it can set right at no cost to the exchequer. True, such a path-breaking decision can come only if it volunteers to undertake a great re-engineering exercise — one of its mindset. Having said that, it is time the people of the state began taking ownership for many of the woes that have befallen it and stop blaming others, stop looking for unrealistic solutions.

Getting a move on, the first step could be to stop calling hartals at the drop of an umbrella. Because, this stoppage of normal working days has no immediate history of having set anything right, since realistically none of the recent hartals are a throwback on those from the freedom struggle days. If that were the case and the goal behind the hartal a noble one, we would have had at least one hartal calling for widening the Kerala roads as per international standards, as a first step towards metamorphosing the girth and elevation of many murderous roads, so that people could safely venture out, confident that they will reach home by the end of the day.

(The writer is resident editor, The New Indian Express, Kerala. E-mail: [email protected])

Share your comments here: