Like in much of the world, India’s road accidents are attributed to challenges such as drunk-driving or lax enforcement of driving safety standards. With the rise of mobile telephony, a negative externality has been the increase in traffic accidents due to mobile phone use while driving. But there is also the larger issue of infrastructure, of how roads are built and maintained over time. Dr. Nata Menabde, a WHO India representative, has said: “We need to see how we build our road[s], investigate properly how accidents occur and police probe these cases. There should be one group or body that should bring all sectors together, and it should announce a plan to reduce fatalities.” Large South Asian cities like Mumbai and Dhaka are notorious for their badly maintained roadways, which in and of itself increases the likelihood of major and minor accidents.
In 2010, official records show that 134,000 people died due to road accidents in India. Experts, however, claim that the number is closer to 150,000 fatalities for that year. In 2010, the U.S. experienced ~25% of India’s traffic fatalities, its historic lowest level at 32,788 deaths, a 3% drop from 2009. Regardless of the exact number of fatalities in India, it is universally agreed that something must be done. The WHO estimates that India loses US$20bn every year due to road accidents: a sum, if put into perspective, that could be invested to feed 50% of the country’s malnourished children. Just a decade ago, India’s losses were recorded at half as much at ~US$10bn. At a recent convention in Faridabad, Dr. Menabde told international road safety experts that “…there is dire need to save the vulnerable road users to reduce the huge annual financial loss.”
President K.K. Kapila of the International Road Federation has pointedly said that India lacks the so-called “political will” to remedy its road standards. “The sad part is the establishment knows [about the high annual losses due to road accidents]. These figures are present in their records and, despite this, there’s no political will to resolve the problem.” This lack of political will can be interpreted as the government not giving priority to this rapidly growing problem, most likely because it is not a “hot” issue. Delhi Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic), Satyendra Garg, notes that a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill has “yet to see the light of day” despite the country’s claim to 10% of the world’s road accidents while having only 1% of the global vehicular population. The bill calls for the creation of a development and regulatory road safety panel, a traffic management system and safety standards in highway design and construction. The latter point is particularly important given rapid urbanization across India. More attention needs to be paid to physical infrastructure.
Bangladesh sees a fraction of India’s annual accidents, but faces a very similar problem at home, where the discussion around infrastructure is “controversial” and highly politicized. In 2011, the Accident Research Institute recorded ~2,500 deaths due to road accidents; over the 1998-2010 period, 50,000 fatalities occurred. With the lack of maintenance of current road systems, though, Bangladesh could very well see its road accident-related fatalities increase and converge on India’s statistics. The country requires further investment in building its transit and connectivity. Its unique geography means that Bangladesh could reap significant financial and strategic benefits by becoming a well-planned, well-connected hub within South Asia, as well as connecting the region to Southeast Asia. The various reigning governments of the country have either not had the vision to recognize the potential of enhancing Bangladesh’s infrastructure or have “rushed” projects to satisfy country investors like India.
In August 2010, India extended US$1bn credit to Bangladesh for four road development projects. Bangladesh, however, says that India’s “complex credit conditions” impedes project implementation and is a serious obstacle in moving forward. In the original loan agreement with India, Bangladesh had to procure at least 85% of “goods, works and services” from India, meaning that at most, 15% could come from Bangladesh itself. This stringent condition could potentially incur a very high cost to Bangladesh. Financially, sourcing materials from India could double the cost of road construction. The Ministry of Finance has communicated the country’s decision to not proceed with the four road projects to India, but the Indian government has yet to provide feedback. The fact that these projects are in limbo is particularly disheartening because of the tremendous employment opportunities that would have been available to thousands of Bangladeshis, both in the process of construction, and later in the form of maintenance. The potential for business corridors to be developed alongside these roads is also lost if these road development projects are forfeited.
The Government of Bangladesh is laying down the groundwork to implement eight large-scale infrastructure projects in the communications sector, with support from the private sector. The public-private partnership (PPP) model will likely be the country’s next-best option if the original deal with India falls apart. And already Bangladesh seems to agree: three projects of the Bangladesh Railway will be executed under PPPs. Currently, the government is handing over land to investor companies and relocating utility services from project areas. The success of these projects will likely have a bearing on whether and how future physical infrastructure projects are handled in Bangladesh, in the absence of outside country investment.
Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka face the road infrastructure issues they do because of the massive vehicular populations they lay claim to. These cities were never planned to accommodate so many vehicles, nor were they planned, to their detriment, to accommodate wide networks of public transport, such as rapid bus transit systems. R. Balaji wrote in a recent article for The Hindu that: “Increasing road infrastructure and bridges will only increase the number of cars which will choke the widened roads. Provide facilities that help people to walk whenever possible, cycle wherever possible, or use public transport that can be efficient.”
Large U.S. cities have made public transport a priority, and in efforts to relieve the financial burden of investment to create and update physical infrastructure, South Asian cities need to also make room for strong public transport on the infrastructure agenda. The growing relevance of inclusive planning in South Asia’s cities cannot be ignored: “[Prioritize] people more than cars,” as Balaji says. A number of cities around the world have found innovative ways to make transport more accessible and to reduce the number of cars on the road. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro, for example, have cable cars, or trams, that bring people from the slums to more centralized areas of transport. Slum-dwellers may not be able to afford their own vehicle, but by bridging these access gaps, governments may find that the overall investment is not as costly as continually green-lighting new projects that do not see final execution. The keywords should not be new or more, but accessibility, affordability and maintenance.
It is clear in the cases of both India and Bangladesh that their respective governments understand the inherent value of infrastructure. Though both countries are part of the developing world, they also want a slice of the returns that come with investing in high-development areas, such as energy and infrastructure. The irony is that both Bangladesh and India struggle with making these sorts of investments in their own countries. Steps need to be taken to take “smaller” issues more seriously: the incidence of road accidents cannot just be written off as the consequence of bad driving, but as a meter of the state of physical infrastructure and how to make it stronger.