Lesser lives

- Jagannath Adhikari
Lesser lives

May 7, 2014-

The government, the media and the bureaucracy seem to consider people who travel by road as 'lesser' people. We do not need a great deal of analysis to reach this conclusion. Their practices clearly show this disdain, even if it may not be intentional. Just two recent accidents—an airplane crash and a bus accident, both in Arghakhanchi—and the way they were dealt with amply reveal this. Plane accidents draw a lot of attention from the government and media whereas bus accidents often go unnoticed, especially if they only involve a few deaths. The media provides attention only to big bus accidents. In fact, road accidents kill far more people and bring misery to many more than airplane accidents.

Worse than death

Besides the trauma and agony of death, families suffer from disabilities caused by road accidents for a long time. Such families often remark that it would have been better for their relatives to have died rather than survived as disabled persons. This might seem cruel but it is quite rational. Looking after a disabled person takes a massive toll on families and relatives in a society that lacks a public social support system. This task is also extremely costly. As a result, families with such responsibilities have been ruined economically, not to mention socially and emotionally, as they have to bear twice the burden—caring for the sick person and meeting their medical costs for a long time while losing the income and labour of the person in question. In case of an accident causing death, it would more or less amount to losing the person's income and labour. But, of course, there is the emotional aspect of losing a family member, which is always hard to account.

It needs to be noted that bus or road accidents in Nepal cause more people to become a burden on their families. Looking at the recent accident in Arghakhanchi, we can see that more than 40 people were injured, some seriously, while 19 died. The media does not follow up on what happens to these injured persons afterwards. They are all forgotten once out of the public eye when the first day of reporting on the accident is over.

Accidents happen almost daily in one location or another along Nepal's 7,000 km of roads. In the year 2012-13, there were 13,582 road accidents, which resulted in 1,816 fatalities across the country. As the number of deaths from the accidents is so large, we can easily imagine the equally or greater number of people injured. In a way, on comparing the death toll, road accidents seem to have been deadlier than the Maoist conflict for Nepalis that resulted in the death of around 15,000 people in a decade. Yet, road safety is not a priority of the government.

Ignored by the state

What is also worrying is the government's negligence of road accidents and their victims. Taking the case of the recent Arghakhanchi bus accident, at least a related minister, if not the prime minister, should have visited the accident site, met with the families and relatives of the passengers who died or were seriously injured and discussed the possible ways to help them. But this did not happen. One of the passengers was a medical doctor who had chosen to work in this rural district. Now his family has lost three members—him and his parents. At least some government representatives should have visited the family and discussed ways to support dependent members. This would have sent a message to professionals that the state cares about those who choose to go to remote and risky areas to practice. At least, they would learn that the state recognises their efforts.

Nepal still lacks adequate road accessibility as compared to other countries. One can argue about the pros and cons of accessibility but roads are required if the present model of market-based development is to be followed. Roads are also important for people to quickly access centres for basic services, like hospitals and schools. In places like Mustang and Manang, controversies have arisen concerning the building of roads. On a visit there to study what people think about having a road in their locality and how to reduce adverse environmental impacts, I discovered one voice from people of all classes and ethnicities—a road is required to quickly access services like hospitals in central places like Kathmandu and Pokhara. Otherwise, only the wealthy are able to hire helicopters to access emergency medical services, they said.

What kind of road?

However, having road access is certainly not enough. The roads needs to be of good quality and must be properly planned so that even a few kilometres of road can serve a large population. Such planning is possible if politics is not involved in bringing a road to one's village. There are many examples of such interference, which show that the quality of the road has been deteriorated by the need to serve the interest of a particular powerful individual. In such cases, the road has to be made unnecessarily long and torturous. Taking just one example, road tracks were opened on either side of the Kali Gandaki from Baglung to Beni, which led to excavation of fragile hill slopes and raised expenses. This was due to conflict between interests—just to show which side is more powerful. A quality single track, wherever it was more suitable, would have been enough.

Apart from improving the transportation system through the proper regulation of vehicles, monitoring the drivers' and vehicles' conditions, safety provisions in road construction, proper signs and signals and upgrading bus operators' and drivers' capacity, there is a need to address the social protection of bus passengers. This essentially means adequate insurance of passengers so that families do not get ruined when their family members are victims in road accidents. As roads are the primary form of transportation in Nepal that many can afford, something needs to be done urgently for this sector.

Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 08-05-2014 07:54

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