Government-approved death trapsRoad accidents are created by the government’s neglect and lack of responsibility
Twenty-two students died en-mass in Dang on December 21 in yet another road accident. Two days after this tragedy, three died in another accident in Khotang. A month earlier, on November 22, eighteen people lost their lives in a similar disaster in Dadeldhura. In October 2017, thirty-one people, including 11 children, plunged to death in Dhading. These are only some of the recent cases of road accidents in our rural roads. The figures are a fitting indicator of how these roads have turned into government-approved death traps. According to reports, seven people die on our roads everyday across Nepal. And, given the fact that conditions are only worsening as years draw on, this number is likely to increase. It was 2,004 in 2014-15. Come 2017-18, it has risen to 2,541.
The statistics behind this ongoing carnage paints a numbing picture. In their article, ‘Epidemiology of road traffic injuries in Nepal, 2001-2013’, Rajendra Karkee from the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences and Andy H Lee of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, conclude that the number of road traffic fatalities per year is far more than those caused by natural disasters or by malaria. The World Health Organization, in a 2017 report, stated that ‘deaths by road accidents constitute 3.01 percent of Nepal’s total casualties’. In an article by the Himalayan Times published on 21 October 2017, a representative from Nepal’s own Ministry of Health admits, ‘road accidents are the fourth leading cause of death after infectious diseases, child and maternal mortality, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer’.
An issue of design
The majority of fatal accidents in Nepal occur in mountain roads built by local authorities. A 1998 report, ‘Bus Accidents in the Kingdom of Nepal; Attitudes and Causes’ by D.A.C. Maunder and representatives from ‘T Pearce of Transport and Road Research Laboratory’, identified ‘road conditions’ as one of the primary reasons behind accidents. They also listed other issues such as lack of training opportunities for drivers, drivers’ habits, vehicle conditions, poor traffic awareness by road users and weak enforcement of traffic regulation. Experiences since the publication of the report show that ‘weak enforcement’, hobbled by rampant corruption and political interference, has become weaker over the years and is now, without question, one of the most critical issues contributing to road-related accidents.
The government formed the Department of Local Infrastructure Development and Agricultural Roads (DoLIDAR) in 2005 to address the concerns with the design and maintenance of rural roads (‘road condition’). DoLIDAR revised design standards for rural roads developed in 1999 after publication of the report by Maunder and Pearce. The responsibility to oversee the implementation of these standards is vested primarily on local governments.
The government’s priority to connect as many VDC’s as possible through whatever means possible has left compliance to standards on the wayside. Contrary to DoLIDAR standards, rural roads are mostly designed and constructed by people with little engineering qualifications.
Contractors, allegedly with political connections, provide excavators and bulldozers for construction. In a recent parliamentary committee meeting, members accused the government of giving bulldozer owners, many of whom do not navigate the roads themselves, the authority to determine road alignment and geometry. ‘Roads are constructed without proper study’, critics complained. They also described the random cutting/filling of hillsides by bulldozer owners as ‘Bulldozer Atanka (Bulldozer terror)’.
The DoLIDAR standard sets several requirements for road conditions including the minimum width and radius of the curvature of roads, locations for traffic signs and speed limits, and the need for safety barriers and passing lanes to be provided every 300 m apart. None of this has been followed.
The actual road widths and curvature on ‘Bulldozer Atanka’ roads vary depending on who is building the road. Looking for properly designed passing lanes or speed signs on these roads is like looking for greenery in the midst of a forest fire.
The standard also emphasises the need for proper maintenance of the roads. Most rural roads have gravel or earthen surfacing, but due to a lack of maintenance, the surfaces are characteristically dotted with huge holes. Navigating these potholes is like driving through an obstacle course. Overloaded buses and trucks operated by drivers with little training have no choice but to risk their lives and the lives of others by plying on these roads.
A comprehensive regulatory control mechanism and a plan to administer road safety education of drivers are also currently non-existent. The sole bus driver training school in Nepal operates with very limited facilities. The training, which ideally should be driven with engaged-learning approaches and practical teaching methods, is also provided entirely indoors.
Marred by interference
Any attempt to enforce traffic laws meets stiff resistance from drivers unions and transportation cartels—which are supported by politicians with financial interests. The comments made by the then Deputy Inspector General Ganesh Rai to a correspondent of the ‘Economist’ in August 2012 are still valid: ‘Such is the power of transport cartels and drivers unions, the bus drivers receive lower fines than ordinary users of the common road. If their licences are confiscated by any of his officers, they are allowed by their union rep to retrieve it, rather than attending the station in person.... This is the main reason for their reckless driving. “ The cartel is very powerful. It is very difficult to fight them’.
Rural roads, which are supposed to be the engine of a village’s economic development, have become death traps for those who use them. This is particularly true for the people who were promised development through the construction of the roads in the first place: the villagers themselves. Economic development and public safety are not antithetical; not mutually exclusive. More people have died on these roads in ten years than during the Maoist insurgency.
Road accidents are created by the government’s neglect and conditions the government has wilfully allowed to be created. They can be reduced substantially if there is political will to empower the enforcement of the standards and traffic rules that are already in the books. The big question lies in the fundamental concern: is it realistic to expect that will from the Oli government?
If the government’s half-baked performance in breaking the transport syndicate, in the investigation of the gold smuggling racket, or in the search for Nirmala Pant’s rapist and murder is any indication of their commitment to carry out their will, then the answer may be an emphatic no.
Koirala is a geotechnical engineer based in Canada.