Keralas transport commissioner Rishi Raj Singh has made much progress in pulling off what was till recently considered impossible: curbing the anarchy on the states roads and making them safer

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His Way on the Highway

Keralas transport commissioner Rishi Raj Singh has made much progress in pulling off what was till recently considered impossible: curbing the anarchy on the states roads and making them safer

:: S Sanandakumar

Not long ago,six months to be exact,the roads in Kerala had turned killing fields.Death toll due to accidents had shot up to 13 a day.Accidents in a day had risen to 120.The number of people who were injured stood at 135 a day.It was not hard to see why.A steady uptick in the number of vehicles Kerala has 2.75 % of Indias population,but its people own nearly 10% of the total vehicles negligence by drivers and pathetic roads have all played a part in turning the state into a motorists nightmare.

For four years,an exasperated government has been scrambling to tackle the issue.A spate of reforms covering all stakeholders of the transport sector it introduced bore few results.Accidents continued unabated.In 2012 alone,4,286 motorists perished on Kerala roads.

It was in this backdrop that Rishi Raj Singh took charge as the transport commissioner of Kerala in June 2013.Even before he eased into the job,Singh,a 1985 batch IPS officer hailing from Bikaner in Rajasthan,got a taste of the difficulties of the job.Twenty six people died in two separate accidents in north Kerala.

Those incidents were an eye-opener for me, Singh told ET Magazine.Over the past ten years,road accidents in Kerala had increased to the highest in the country,he says,adding that the rate of accidents could be one of the highest in the world if one accounts for the area of the state 38,000 sq km.

Road Rage-less

Today,the scene could not be more different.Granted Keralas roads are still a motorists nightmare you cant expect things to improve unless people stop purchasing vehicles or roads get longer and wider and of course,they turn better drivers but the number of accidents and deaths has fallen in the past four months over a year ago (see The Number of Accidents... ).

 

Malayalis,who once saw seatbelts as a nuisance,now reluctantly wear them.Helmets have become as common as mundus (dhotis ).Drivers are careful when stepping on the accelerator;it is not unusual to see BMWs and Mercs snail on highways,often behind autorickshaws and buses.

Bar owners are in a quandary.Customers who drive out of a bar run straight into a cavalcade of policemen waiting with breathalysers.

Driving,including drunk driving,roads and vehicles have all turned topics of debate for primetime television talk shows.Kerala is no longer driving with reckless abandon.

These changes are all thanks to Singh,who has been showered in recent days with an outpouring of praise from actors,politicians and the public alike.Actor Mohan Lal called the IPS officer the real superstar.In many of the major cities,including Trivandrum,the number of accident casualties has been reduced to more than half.The races staged by buses have also disappeared.Road travel gained its rhythm.People have picked up real confidence to say see you in the evening and venture out on roads.It is all due to someone like Rishi Raj Singh,who dared to stand up and implement the law,without fear! the actor wrote in a blog that has gone viral.

His colleague Suresh Gopi,who declared support for the new initiatives,said people like Singh are very important for our society.And yes,there is a Facebook fan page.

Singh has earned a reputation of a nononsense officer and had earned accolades in his earlier stints as commissioner of police of Kochi and Kozhikode,inspector general of police and as a member of the special team constituted by the VS Achuthanandan government to control encroachment of land in Munnar.(On May 9,2013,The Times of India reported that Singh,who was transferred over and again after filing a charge sheet naming former Maharashtra chief minister among 13 people in the multi-crore Adarsh Housing Society scam,has been sent back to his state cadre Kerala.)

Malayalis have embraced Singh as one of their own (it helps that he speaks Malayalam with the slightest of an outsiders accent).No officer in recent memory,bar E Sreedharan,the former boss of Delhi Metro who is now overseeing a similar project in Kochi,has been eulogized as Singh.

Singh started the job with a bang.He warned that drivers found responsible for major road accidents would forfeit their driving licence and the permit of such vehicles would be cancelled.

Until Singh,52,took over,drivers responsible for accidents got away scot-free by blaming the poor condition of roads.But studies revealed that 80-85 % of the accidents in the state were due to the carelessness of drivers.

Reform Rush

There was no dearth of laws to check accidents and rash driving.Their implementation was patchy.So the transport department under Singhs watch decided to enforce the existing laws more strictly.The first in their priority list was to ensure that all the 15,000 private buses,5,000 state road transport buses and 12,000 trucks were fitted with speed governors.The process is nearly over,with only some trucks remaining to comply with the order (their deadline ends on November 30).With this the maximum speed limit for heavy vehicles will be limited to 60 km per hour.Every day,the joint regional transport officer conducts field checks to see if bus owners are following the rules.

Officials began conducting checks in areas that were accident prone.Strict checks led to an increase in the fine collected from drivers to 4 crore a month from 3 crore.

Joint transport commissioner Said Mohammed says a state-wide awareness programme has helped immensely.All categories of drivers were given training while new applicants had to undergo a separate orientation course.

A traffic control room which functioned 24x7 was also launched.We invited suggestions from the people to reduce the fatal accidents and the feedback was very encouraging, says Singh.The refrain was that speeding was the main reason for accidents.

Indeed,most accidents happen during the day,in mornings and evenings,during rush hour.It is over-speeding at peak hours that leads to accidents, says Singh.

According to him,50% of people who lost their lives were two-wheeler users.Though the Central Vehicle Act has laid down clearly the law regarding use of helmets,it was ignored.But the transport department decided to enforce the law.To those who resisted,Singhs reply is simple: There can be no arguments over the enforcement of law. The results were impressive.Use of helmets in cities touched 80%,with Kochi recording a 100% compliance,which Singh says is a first in India.In villages and s m a l l e r t ow n s,change has been slower.Only 65% of two-wheeler users have started using helmets.Stricter enforcement will see usage going up,says Singh.Needless to say,despite the gains,Singh still has his task cut out.The number of vehicles has been growing at nearly 10% a year.The tipplers paradise that Kerala is,its drivers are not going to shun drunk driving in a hurry Rishi Raj Singh or not.A government plan to widen the highway has been hanging fire for years.

Brickbats Too

Despite earning accolades from the public and celebrities,Singh has his share of detractors not really surprising given that Kerala has a proven record of resisting reforms.All Kerala Private Bus Operators Association president MB Satyan says the transport department is pushing products made by private manufacturers.Engine is mechanical and when electronic speed governors are fitted,we have experienced a compatibility problem, he says.The government forced the transport sector in 2007 to buy speed governors from about 15 private manufacturers,he adds.After six months,13 closed down operations.According to Satyan,the association had given a letter to the government to start manufacturing speed governors in the public sector.Keltron [the state-run electronics maker ] can manufacture and sell it to us, he says.For its part,the association runs spare parts shops for members.We could have distributed the product, he said.But private manufacturers are offering the product at half the price for bulk orders. Singh remains unfazed.On the cards is a radar surveillance system that will bring the entire stretch of the highways under watch.More reforms are on the way.To make the department more people-friendly,e-payment of taxes and fees has been introduced,says joint transport commissioner Alex Paul.According to Singh,the transport department could bring about a change mainly because of the help that it received from the police department.They helped in enforcing law, he says.More important,there was no interference for once from political parties.In fact,I received the support of all politicians in this venture, he says.For anyone familiar with Keralas prickly political minefield,that can make a huge difference.

thanks to a Six-Point Reforms Agenda

In a statewide awareness programme,drivers of different types of vehicles ranging from school bus to lorry are being trained 24x7 control room in the head office to receive suggestions from public on how to reduce accidents Effective checking by the transport departments field staff on all days,including holidays Speed governors made must for bus and other heavy vehicles like tipper lorries Helmet compulsory for twowheeler riders (and soon for pillion riders too) Radar surveillance system throughout the state 

Date of Article: 
Friday, February 21, 2014
Source: 
The Economic Times