“If you think that the neighbouring village is just an overnight journey away, you couldn’t be more mistaken,” says Manish Kumar, Program Manager of IndiaUnheard on the condition of rural transport in India. Manish spent his childhood in the hinterlands of Bihar and has travelled extensively through villages across India. “Typically you will spend half a day waiting for the elusive bus to arrive and when it does, you will be crammed inside a dangerous rickety vehicle filled to tremendous overcapacity, fighting for every inch of space against hundreds of co-passengers, barely able to steal a breath. The rest of the journey will be over mud roads and potholes and after an eternity when you finally reach your destination you will thank your stars that you made it safely to the other side.”
India has just observed the 23rd national road safety week from 1st to 7th of January 2012. With “Accidents bring tears, Safety Brings Cheers” as the official slogan the Road Transport Ministry and the National Safety Commission held road safety campaigns across the nation. Mainstream newspapers picked up on the campaign and published in depth editorials and expert analysis on the science and practicalities of road safety. The focus was almost exclusively on urban transport. It is estimated that over four and half lakh people lose their lives in road accidents in India. But what most of the government and the mainstream media left out in their weeklong campaign was the fact that off the four and a half lakh unfortunate deaths the majority were causalities of rural transport.
“When a sizeable income for the nation comes from its villages, it is a shame that the government and the media are turning their backs on rural development,” says Manish. “India is definitely heading towards becoming a country of cities like the rest of the world but as of today, India still resides in the villages. It is impossible to think of national development without thinking of connecting the villages to the national grid.”
A survey in 2000 by the World Bank pointed out that over 300 million Indians lacked access to all-weather roads. A large part of 2.7 million kilometres of road in rural India were in poor condition. Keeping these figures in mind, the government initiated the ambitious Prime Minister’s National Rural Road Program and bankrolled it with over two billion dollars in an effort to develop road and transportation in Rural India. Under the program, previously unconnected villages would be evaluated and all-weather roads would be constructed. The workforce for this massive public undertaking would be sourced from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act thus ensuring an inclusive process for the all round development of rural India.
Even as the program moves towards completion, the monitoring of the process has left a lot to be desired. Mr. Jairam Ramesh, the Rural Development Minister of the country has been openly critical of the manner in which the rural roads are being constructed. In a recent press conference he described the roads as being constructed in one monsoon only to be washed out by the next.
IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent Vipin Joshi from Bagheshwar, Uttarakhand has produced a video on a new road that crumbled within months of its construction and inauguration. “The Chief Minister was arriving in the village for a visit and the local authorities got the road built in a hurry,” says Vipin, “No sooner did the Chief Minister’s helicopter take off and the road came tumbling down. This very same situation has been repeated over the years.”
Compounding the difficulties of rural travel are the private transport parties who capitalize on the shortcomings of public transport. They openly flout rules, regulations and guidelines putting the lives of the passengers who have been left with no other option, in great peril.
IndiaUnheard Correspondent Shambhulal Khatik produced a video on the overloading of buses and trains in his area. Daily wage labourers in his village have to make a arduous daily commute to their places of work in or on top or even hanging dangerously on the sides of the overstuffed and bad maintained buses and trucks. “The road passing through is a single-lane potholed strip of loose gravel that passes between a mountain and a deep ravine,” says Shambhu. “Every day these buses move along the thin line between life and death and once or twice in a year, a small mistake will cause one to topple over resulting in tragedy. This has been going on for year and no change has been forthcoming.”
Bhan Sahu, Community Correspondent from Ambagadh Chowki, Chhattisgarh speaks on a rarely discussed aspect of rural transport- the safety of women. “The seats that are supposed to be reserved for women are hardly ever acknowledged. Stuff as many as you can, wherever you can is the motto of rural transport. People are treated like cattle,” says Bhan. “Pregnant women are highly vulnerable. Not everybody can afford personal vehicles or taxis. You can’t expect them to be jostled around in the crowd. The crowd is almost always overwhelming. I keep hearing stories where women are teased and groped in the middle of a crowded bus. The safety of women in rural transport in India is non-existent.”
With inputs and footage from IndiaUnheard Correspondents in villages across India, Manish compiled the special video with a definite purpose in mind. “Roads are access routes. When roads are absent these people are denied their rights to education, health, livelihood and other basic amenities. If the government is not volunteering to monitor the condition of roads and transport in rural India, our network of Community Correspondents will do that. This video will be sent to the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways in an effort to implore them to look into this serious issue that affects hundreds and millions of Indians in every corner of the country. I would also sincerely ask the viewers and readers to send an email to the Office of the Ministry addressing the Joint Secretary N.R. Gokarn at firstname.lastname@example.org asking them to look into the matter.”
“Change is possible. And to our advantage, we already have the majority on our side. It is time for the numbers, for you and me, to speak out.”