Yet Another Horrendous Tragedy on Indian Roads

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A bus going to Hyderabad from Bangalore burns as it hits a culvert around 5.20 a.m. near Palem in Kottakota mandal of Mahabubnagar district, about 150 km from Hyderabad on Oct. 29, 2013. 40 passengers were burnt alive in the accident. (Photo: IANS)
A bus going to Hyderabad from Bangalore burns as it hits a culvert around 5.20 a.m. near Palem in Kottakota mandal of Mahabubnagar district, about 150 km from Hyderabad on Oct. 29, 2013. 40 passengers were burnt alive in the accident. (Photo: IANS)

A speeding bus loaded with passengers catches fire burning 45 people to death. Why Indian roads have turned into a death trap killing 120,000 people a year?

By Taha Mohammed
Our Correspondent

HYDERABAD, Oct 30, 2013 –The mishap of a Volvo bus catching fire and killing 45 Hyderabad-bound passengers on Wednesday has once again brought the unscrupulous and dangerous ways of the private travel agencies running bus services parallel to those of state owned Road Transport Corporation.

The air-conditioned luxury Volvo bus, belonging to Bengaluru based Jabbar Travels, was one of more than 250 such buses which ply regularly on the lucrative Hyderabad-Bengaluru route.  Hundreds others ply between other major cities with in Andhra Pradesh as well in other neighboring states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Police said the ill-fated bus burst into flames after hitting a culvert in the course of overtaking another vehicle. As the fuel tank of the bus caught fire the entire bus was engulfed in flames within minutes. “Most of the passengers were sleeping when it happened”, said Nagendar Kumar, Mehbubnagar district superintendent of Police quoting the eyewitnesses.

A pall of gloom has descended on the families of the victims in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and several other districts. Many of the passengers, including five software engineers were returning home for Diwali festival later this week.

One of them Veda Kumar was to celebrate his first wedding anniversary while another family was going to Hyderabad to distribute invitation for a wedding.

Against a capacity of 43 passengers, it was carrying 50. Only five of them could survive with burn injuries while the driver and his assistant were able to come out unscathed. Why others could not survive is one of the numerous questions begging for answers. Police was questioning the two crew members to find out the cause of the accident and so many gory deaths.

The five passengers jumped out of a window but others could not make it. Both the doors of the buses were locked. While the door separating driver’s cabin from the passengers’ section was routinely locked form outside, the exit door also kept locked only to be opened by the crew.

Officials suspect that as the bus caught fire, the panic stricken driver and his assistant jumped out of the bus without opening the doors.  The truth will come out only after the crew gives it version to the authorities.

State Transport Minister Botsa Satyanarayana stated the obvious when he blamed the accident on over speeding by the Volvo bus driver.

“We have been urging the people to avoid travelling by these buses as they throw caution to the wind and travel by more secure RTC buses but they did not heed”, he said.

Volvo and other buses run by the dozens of Private companies run at a speed of 120 to 150 kilometers per hour on the highways in the mad rush to take the minimum time in covering maximum distance. The building of new four lane express ways linking Hyderabad to Bengaluru and other major cities has made such a speed possible.

All the attempts by the Transport Department to put speed limit system in these buses have failed as these companies believe the shorter the time they take, bigger will be their market share and financial gains. Secondly installing such system cost money. They will have to spend Rs 15000 per vehicle. For them human lives are much cheaper than spending Rs 15000. They also don’t want to forego the upper hand they enjoy over the RTC thanks to their high speed.

The RTC buses on the other hand have speed lockers limiting their maximum speed to 70 kms per hour, making them less popular among the travelers in a hurry to reach their destination.  They find the private Volvo buses more attractive as they take only six to seven hours to cover the distance of 550 kms between Hyderabad and Bengaluru against up to nine hours by the RTC buses.

Such a high speed has caused many deadly accidents in the past. 30 people died when a Volvo bus of Kaleshwari travels plunged in to a deep valley in Osamanabad district of Maharashtra while going from Hyderabad to famous Hindu shrine of Shridi.

Then the question is why the authorities were unable to control these private agencies running buses as per their rules endangering the lives of the people. The answer lies within the system.

The private travel agencies, most of them owned by politicians or their families, are a law unto them and have found to be in nexus with the officials of the Transport department. They were often found flagrantly violating every rule on the book, often running regular bus service without valid permissions or licenses.

For instance the last major drive against them, triggered by the Osamanabad accident, revealed that Kaleshwari travels was running many buses with the same registration number to avoid paying taxes to the government.

Even in the latest incident, the Volvo bus was running without valid license as it had expired last year. The bus was originally owned by the Diwakar travels owned by the family of former minister J C Diwakar Reddy. But it was later sold told Jabbar Travels without transferring the ownership.

Insiders say this was routine with the travel agencies.

Though the illegal operations of these private agencies has bled the state owned Road Transport Corporation to death as they weaned away the passengers on financially lucrative routes, successive governments failed to curb these activities. It was a win-win deal for the owners of the travel agencies, the politicians and the corrupt officials of Transport department. It is the same story in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and other states. Some of the bigger companies have gone to extent of operating their own private bus stations in Bengaluru grabbing the market on the lucrative routes leaving only less profitable rural routes for the state owned corporation.

Chief Minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy has ordered a probe in to Wednesday’s mishap.

State Transport Minister Botsa Satyanarayana said that stringent action will be taken against those found guilty. But given the fate of the past drive against the unscrupulous and unauthorized operations f these travel agencies, anybody can hazard the guess that the latest drive will also meet the same fate. The nexus behind these agencies is too strong for a hapless government to take on.

The ghastly accident has also served as a grim reminder of how unsafe the Indian roads were. Every year almost 120,000 people die in road accidents in the country.

The accident on Hyderabad-Bengaluru highway came close on the heels of another round of bloodletting on the roads. On Monday 35 people died in a road accident on Mancherial-Laxatipet road of Adilabad district. On Tuesday six people died 31 others were injured on Outer Ring Road around Hyderabad when a DCM van hit a stationary truck.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, 418,657 road accidents took place in India in 2007 in which 114590 people died and many were injured. The figures have gone up significantly in the subsequent years

The statistics for the year 2009 showed Andhra Pradesh alone witnessed more than 50000 accidents killing more than 15000 people.Interestingly Andhra Pradesh has only 5.9% of the national highways but it accounts for 36% of the deaths in road accidents.

Experts say it was a combination of pathetic road conditions, violation of traffic rules by the road users and nexus of corrupt officials and politicians behind the arbitrary and selective implementations of rules and regulations responsible for this bloodbath.

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