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The death of 22-year old software engineer Shobana near Maduravoyal on January 3 could fade away as another statistic in India’s world-leading road accident death tally, unless civil society pushes back against governmental indifference to abysmal road safety conditions in Chennai and its suburbs.
Government agencies’ negligence of road safety has been causing avoidable deaths for which no official is held accountable for criminal negligence.
It is impossible for agencies to claim ignorance of road conditions as thousands of government officials traverse the length and breadth of the city everyday, bumping along on potholed roads as they go about their duties. Even if they are oblivious to the condition of the roads, in this age of Information Technology they cannot say they weren’t aware. Obviously, they are not required to report hazardous conditions to any agency, and neither do they feel compelled to do so. But the public does report such things on social media, and yet the response from government agencies is found lacking.
The accident site apparently was on the service road along the Irumbuliyur – Maduravoyal elevated highway. This zone has been witnessing intense housing activity over the past decade and more, encompassing multiple local bodies. Gated communities are being built alongside the highway, and the high-speed tolled road has been connected to small roads below through ramps with poor planning, weak enforcement and low safety metrics.
It is impossible for agencies to claim ignorance of road conditions as thousands of government officials traverse the length and breadth of the city everyday, bumping along on potholed roads as they go about their duties. Even if they are oblivious to the condition of the roads, in this age of Information Technology they cannot say they weren’t aware
Available accounts of the accident show that it is along one such stretch that the hapless Shobana fell victim, run over by a lorry that was following her two-wheeler when she skidded while trying to avoid a pothole. Her brother, whom she was taking to school in Mogappair, was injured.
The death of the young woman, who had a promising life ahead of her in Zoho Corporation, received wide attention and could therefore become a test case that civil society can pursue to bring the full weight of public outrage on government agencies, whether from the Union of India or Tamil Nadu. This could trigger a wider shift to safe roads.
Scope of criminal negligence
The amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 provides one weak section against negligence by contractors, agencies and consultants that leads to death or disability, and the penalty is monetary, in the form of a maximum one lakh rupee fine.
This provision states: 198A. (1) Any designated authority, contractor, consultant or concessionaire responsible for the design or construction or maintenance of the safety standards of the road shall follow such design, construction and maintenance standards, as may be prescribed by the Central Government from time to time.
(2) Where failure on the part of the designated authority, contractor, consultant or concessionaire responsible under sub-section (1) to comply with standards for road design, construction and maintenance, results in death or disability, such authority or contractor or concessionaire shall be punishable with a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees…
Since road safety is a national law, the provision on standards would apply to all agencies involved.
In the case of Shobana, besides a life snuffed out early and the grievous loss suffered by her family and friends, which would have to be compensated punitively, there is clear endangerment of public health and safety by the officials responsible for design, construction and maintenance of a public access pathway. All of them individually incur the penalty, to be recovered from their personal funds.
Road Safety Councils have also been formed at the State and District levels, including in Tamil nadu. What have they been doing? This information could be sought by public-spirited individuals and the media using the Right to Information Act
Courts are clear
Liability is clearly laid down in several court judgments. In Madhu Kaur vs Govt of NCT of Delhi 2009, the Delhi High Court said, the “Government of NCT of Delhi was required to act in a prudent manner and ensure that the road in question was properly maintained and not act in a manner which would show a shameful disregard of safety of persons using the road. Failure to properly maintain the road and display caution notice/sign when a road is damaged results in failure to take due care as was expected of reasonable, prudent persons and amounts to negligence.”
Further, in C B Singh vs Cantonment Board, Agra (AIR 1974 All 147) a division bench of Allahabad High Court observed: “There is no principle of law which enjoins on the users of the road to be extra astute. A driver, prudent and reasonable, is not expected to drive on the assumption that he would meet with improbable obstructions on the highway, otherwise there would be impetus to law breakers. A person driving the car at night has a right to assume that the road ahead of him is bereft of obstructions and that dangers around are indicated by proper safeguards or forewarning in the shape of signals by light etc.”
What is more, following the Supreme Court’s repeated directions in the landmark case, Rajasekaran vs Union of India, (2017) brought by orthopaedic surgeon Dr S Rajasekaran of Coimbatore, States were required to review the safety of roads from a design perspective. The relevant part of the order directed the Union Ministry of Roads, Transport and Highways to publish a protocol for identification and rectification of black spots and take necessary steps to improve the design of roads to make them safe.
Road Safety Councils have also been formed at the State and District levels, including in Tamil nadu. What have they been doing? This information could be sought by public-spirited individuals and the media using the Right to Information Act.
It is incumbent on the Union Government, which has shown great interest in creating a new road from the Chennai Port to Maduravoyal to enhance economic activity, to demonstrate that it complied with the SC order in the Irumbuliyur-Maduravoyal highway to ensure safety of people. There is a direct liability for all officials concerned in the Union and Tamil Nadu governments, warranting punitive action where negligence is demonstrable.
The way forward is to create a call centre attached to the Tamil Nadu Road Safety Council, which will record complaints of bad road conditions from the public across the state
Officials of the National Highways Authority reportedly swung into action after the fatal accident near Maduravoyal and patched up the bad sections of the road, while they were negligent all along. The question that begs to be answered is, what the Porur-Mangadu-Kundrathur-Kattupakkam-Poonamallee local bodies have done so far to make roads within their fast-growing jurisdictions safe.
It may be an offence that Shobana and her brother did not wear crash helmets, but the cause of this accident is evidently unrelated to that; it is bad road conditions and potholes and a carelessly driven lorry behind.
Chief Minister M K Stalin inherited a very bad road safety scenario in Tamil Nadu when he assumed office, with reports of several highway accidents everyday taking a heavy toll of lives. Both infrastructure and driver behaviour continue to be responsible for that. But there is no excuse to delay action.
In the urban context in Chennai, smaller cities, towns and their peripheries, fatal accidents even in slow-moving traffic show that there is a deep rot among government agencies and local bodies who are supposed to ensure the safety of roads. Lucrative road relaying contracts have replaced constant repairs to bad roads by municipal authorities.
What can be done?
The way forward is to create a call centre attached to the Tamil Nadu Road Safety Council, which will record complaints of bad road conditions from the public across the state. A mobile phone app could add to this reporting mechanism. This should be treated as reasonable notice to authorities, who should face criminal prosecution and punishment under Section 304-A of IPC (causing death by negligence) or Section 304-II (culpable homicide) if they fail to make these spots safe. This is apart from exemplary compensation awarded to families of the dead and injured victims. Shobana’s can well be the watershed case to bring accountability in government.
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