Even if all car manufacturers in India succumbed to a fit of conscience and installed the best safety equipment in their models as a matter of course, more than 70,000 people are still likely to die in road accidents in India every year. That's because cyclists, two-wheeler drivers and pedestrians account for more than half the 143,000 road deaths in India (perhaps as many as 85 per cent). India leads the world by a long margin on this particular parameter. India attracted yet more negative global press recently following the news that five small cars made in the country signally failed an independent global crash test conducted by the United Kingdom-based Global New Car Assessment Programme (GNCAP). The findings only underlined what everybody had long suspected: that car manufacturers, whether Indian or multinational, cut corners on safety in India. The fact that the introduction of the expensive dynamic crash test has been delayed in India - some say under pressure from the major manufacturers - is testimony to this, and it enables companies to dissemble by insisting their cars pass Indian safety norms.
But airbags, safety belts and better crumple zones address only part of the problem; despite more cars and more roads, the issue of road safety is largely missing in the public discourse and, therefore, public policy. That large numbers, probably the majority, of people continue to die on Indian roads owing to speeding, drunk driving, light-jumping and general rule-breaking - not to forget the chronic habit of jaywalking - points to the collective indifference to the issue and, following from that, the lack of coherent policy. Consider this: more people die in road accidents here than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together. The 10th Plan outlay for the three diseases put together was Rs 3,320 crore. For road safety? Rs 187 crore. Although it is true that road safety is largely a state issue, the Centre could play a proactive and constructive role in promoting it. In the United States, the federal Highway Safety Act required each state to have a safety programme as far back as the 1960s. In India, the Sundar Committee's many sensible recommendations for an integrated approach drawn from global best practices have been quietly ignored.
Yet the solutions are hardly rocket science - whether they involve more stringent enforcement (Delhi's drunk-driving campaign is a pointer to the benefits), education (so that pedestrians learn to cross at the appropriate signal), better facilities for pedestrians and non-motorised transport (the introduction of no-signal zones has considerably added to deaths) or dedicated emergency medical services. But in populous India, where life is cheap and people have infinite faith in their immortality, the courts can be importuned to exempt women pillion and two-wheeler drivers from a basic safety device like a helmet. When the players themselves are largely indifferent to their own safety, public servants are unlikely to bestir themselves to remind them.