By Tashi Lundup and Murtaza Fazily, Stawa 07-19
Ladakh is famous for its beautiful landscape, which attracts thousands of tourists each year including bikers and motor enthusiasts. However, road safety is emerging as a major issue in Ladakh with an increasing number of fatal and non-fatal vehicular accidents. Nobody seems to bat an eyelid now when they hear of road accidents, head on collisions, and drunk driving. While roads are an important aspect of physical connectivity, what has turned them into death traps that claim many lives each year?
The dramatic increase in the number of vehicles in the summer seems to be one factor that has contributed to the increase in road accidents. In the tourist season, thousands of tourists are concentrated on the two towns of Ladakh and the volume of traffic increases dramatically. There is a related increase in the number of accidents and fatalities.
Senior Superintendent Police (SSP), Leh, Sargun Shukla said, “The quantum of traffic increases in summers. For instance, suppose we have three vehicles plying on a road each minute in the winter, this number increases to 42 vehicles per minute in the summer. This is a significant difference. The commercial traffic in winters is almost zero, whereas the road is full of commercial vehicles in the summer. We have commercial taxis, two-wheelers, and big vehicles on the road in the summer.”
Once the Leh-Srinagar and Leh-Manali roads open in the summer, there is a sudden influx of vehicles in Ladakh, especially bikes. Hundreds of bikers visit Ladakh each year. Unfortunately, some of these bikers meet with road accidents some of which turn out to be fatal. According to the data available with District Police Headquarters, Leh, a total of 52 First Information Report (FIR) related to road accidents have already been registered till June this year. As many as 25 people have died and 80 injuries were recorded in these road accidents. In 2018, 128 FIRs were registered in Leh district with 32 deaths and 142 injuries. In 2017, 82 FIRs were registered and 36 people died and 123 were injured in road accidents in Leh district. In comparison, the number of accidents recorded by District Hospital, Kargil is much lower. We were able to get data for 2018 and 2019. In 2018, fiyr major accidents and 39 minor ones have been recorded with four death. In 2019, three major accidents and 42 minor accidents have been recorded with one fatality.
Dr Tsering Samphel, Medical Superintendent, Sonam Norboo Memorial (SNM) Hospital, Leh said that a majority of the accident cases in Ladakh involve bikers. ‘A large number of these bikers are from outside Ladakh,” he added.
According to J&K Traffic Police 31 and 25 cases of road accidents were recorded in the months of April and May this year in Leh and Kargil districts respectively. The number of persons in this period was 58 and 36 for Leh and Kargil respectively. As many as four people died in road accidents in Leh in April and May compared to two deaths between January and March in Leh district. Total number of road accidents from January to March was seven each in Leh and Kargil.
Dr Tsering Samphel confirmed the dramatic difference in accident incidents in summer and winter. He said, “We receive an average of one accident case at the SNM Hospital in Leh in winter. The number shoots up in summer due to the influx of tourists and tourist activities. A majority of these cases involve two-wheelers.” This is evident in the hospital records that show that nine road accidents victims were admitted to SNM Hospital between January and April this year. The number increases to 44 in May and 49 by the third week of June. Two deaths each were registered in May and June. Dr Tsering Samphel explained, “These figures are for patients with major cases who were admitted to the hospital. There are numerous minor cases in which the victims get a medical check-up and treatment in the OPD. So the actual number of road accidents will be much higher if you take major and minor cases into account.”
A similar pattern is evident in Kargil too, though the numbers are comparatively lower. Senior surgeon at District Hospital, Kargil, Dr Sajjad Hussain explained, “In road accidents we find injuries to the head, neck, spine, and limbs. Some injuries are life-threatening and require immediate attention.”
Playing with lives
Besides the seasonal changes, rash driving and negligence are two major causes of accidents in Ladakh. According to the 2011 Census, Leh has a population of 13,487 individuals and Kargil is home to 140,802 people. Leh averages a little more than seven persons for each registered vehicle. According to the J&K Motor Vehicles Department, a total of 17,979 vehicles were registered in Leh district till March 2018, including 6,510 cars, 4,010 two-wheelers, and 3,487 taxis. Kargil had a total of 6,525 vehicles registered till March 2018. If the number of second-hand cars is included then the total number of vehicles in Ladakh would easily exceed 20,000. This number is relatively high in the context of Ladakh. However the manner in which people drive is a bigger concern than the number of cars.
For instance, Stanzin Nurboo, a driver by profession, expressed fear of rash drivers. “I am scared of driving in the night. I see young kids driving rashly and trying to overtake others without following any traffic rules. Even when I have some important work at night, I think twice before stepping out.”
SSP Leh Sargun Shukla acknowledges that a majority of the accidents occur due to rash and negligent driving. “We book culprits engaged in rash and negligent driving under relevant rules. We are not only taking punitive action but also trying to increase awareness level among the people. We are now recommending cancellation of license for rash driving and negligence so that it serves as a deterrent for violators. Issuing challans (fine invoice) for ₹500 does not seem to work as an effective deterrent. Drivers must understand that the purpose of such sanctions is to instil a sense of responsibility and safe driving in people. The District Police is trying to balance preventive, punitive, and educative actions,” she explained.
In addition to rash driving, SSP Kargil, Dr Vinod Kumar mentioned that road engineering also contributes to accidents. “We focus on spreading awareness and enforcing various rules. We also conduct police-public meets and ensure that police posts sensitise drivers.”
Recently Assistant Regional Transport Officer (ARTO), Leh suspended the route permit of a driver who had hit a pedestrian and caused grievous injuries. During the investigation, they found out that the driver was driving without a license. When asked about the provision of cancelling a license, Khadim Hussain, who serves as ARTO for Leh and Kargil, said, “The driving license is permanently cancelled in drunken driving cases. If the person is a criminal then the concerned SSP can forward the case to cancel the license. In the past, there was no way to test passengers till they submitted the form. Now, every applicant has to clear an examination before receiving a learner’s license. They can apply for a permanent license only after six months.”
The ease with which people get driving licenses also contributes to the rise in road accidents. Khadim Hussain explained that road safety remains the top priority of his department. “On numerous occasions, I have requested the government to make it mandatory to conduct thorough verification of each applicant. Trends are changing in traffic-related acts and the process of getting a license should not be easy,” he added.
Ignorance of traffic rules has emerged as another factor that contributes to accidents in Ladakh. This includes over-speeding and use of mobile phones while driving. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), drivers who use mobile phones at the wheel are four times more likely to be involved in accidents.
Phuntsog Angmo, a teacher by profession, rued the fact that there is little traffic sense among people. “A majority of the drivers don’t use seatbelts while most people drive while speaking on their mobile phones. People do this despite knowing that it is against the law. They quickly disconnect the phone and immediately put on the seat belt when they see the traffic police. We must remember that these rules are for our own good,” she said.
At the same time, under-age driving has also emerged as a factor in many accident cases in both districts. These minors take the wheel without full knowledge or experience, which poses a huge risk to other drivers and those accompanying him or her.
SSP, Leh, Sargun Shukla confirmed this trend. She said, “There are several accidents cases involving minors. There is a provision in the Motor Vehicles Act that if a minor is caught driving a vehicle then the owner of the car is liable for prosecution. I personally feel that parents lack awareness about this issue. In some cases they are ignorant as well as arrogant. Some parents buy cars for their children simply because they have the money. We are trying to address the ignorance and arrogance through counselling. One has to provide counselling to the parents and the child. Merely issuing challans will not reduce the number of accidents. We also need to address things such as road engineering designs, improve driving skills and increase awareness among people. One needs to have a holistic approach to improve road safety.”
In addition to this, people need to ensure that vehicles have the necessary safety features. For instance, Dr Sajjad Hussain said, “Parents should be concerned about their children. They must discourage their children from riding and driving without a license and awareness of safety issues. People should ensure that their vehicles are fitted with air bags and use seatbelts and helmets to reduce the risk of injuries in the case of accidents. It is very disheartening to see children dying at such a young age.”
Khadim Hussain suggested that drivers must be forced to undergo training in safety and etiquette. “In Srinagar and Jammu, our department has initiated a programme to train drivers about driving techniques and etiquette on the road. A proper syllabus is drafted for that purpose. In our country, it is very easy to get a license, which needs to change,” he added.
He also linked traffic discipline with the social values and culture. “Good traffic discipline shows that the people of an area are cultured and have certain social values,” he explained.
Shortage of traffic police
Another factor that has contributed to the number of accidents is the shortage of traffic police in Ladakh. As a result, many traffic violators manage to escape punishment. The District Police in Leh and Kargil have been trying to bridge this shortage by deputing police-persons on traffic duty. However, when an accident occurs, the police is unable to record the human, infrastructural, and vehicular aspects that play an important role in each incident. Sargun Shukla said that she has been stressing on the shortage of staff from the beginning of her tenure. “The district police is trying to provide as much support to them as possible. I had sent a proposal to recruit more staff in the traffic division. After the recent recruitment process, traffic police have finished their training and are reporting to their respective battalions. I hope we will be able to manage traffic better with their help,” she explained.
In addition to this, SSP, Kargil, Dr Vinod Kumar felt that there is a need to involve social and religious organisations to spread awareness about road safety. “Different stakeholders like social and religious organisations must help sensitise about violating traffic rules. Violators are risking their life and that of others. Traffic violations account for a maximum if crime cases in Kargil. We can reduce the number of accidents and causalities only by sensitising and enforcing the law,” he added.
Religious scholar and Vice President of Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, Sheikh Bashir Shakir echoed Dr Kumar’s suggestion. “We must raise issues related to traffic rules during religious sermons and congregations. Then people will recognise them as legal as well as a moral issue. We do advice people to follow traffic rules? In fact, we had planned a programme on this topic last year but it did not materialise,” he added.
Poor design of roads
As mentioned by several people during the investigation, bad maintenance and poor road designs are also major factors that contribute to road accidents. While a lot of effort is invested in designing roads in urban areas and national highways, roads in remote areas in Ladakh are poorly developed with unattended hazard zones. The death of four members of a family on the Khaltse-Batalik road in June 2019 underlined the cost of poor road design. The four of them were travelling in a car to Gumta area when their car went off the road and fell into the Indus.
A similar accident claimed lives of six members of a family close to the same spot between Takmachik and Domkhar in November 2017. Sarpanch of Domkhar, Tsering Namgail reported that there have been three major accidents near Takmachik village in which all members of the respective families were killed. “The main problem is that the road is very narrow. Furthermore, some patches of the road need to be repaired and widened. There is an urgent need to double-lane some stretches of the road, especially where there are blind turns. Right now, the road is a single lane even along the blind turns, which increases the risk of accidents. I am very concerned about the situation along this road. Our councillor has already submitted a request to the Governor to address this issue. However, most roads in Ladakh are maintained by Border Road Organisation (General Reserve Engineering Force or GREF) and we request the governor to take up this matter with the relevant officials,” he added.
In the wake of these accidents, safety barriers have been installed along some stretches of the road. However, this will not mitigate the risks till the road is widened. Councillor from Lamayuru, Morup Dorje confirmed that he had written to the governor about widening the road between Batalik and Khatltse. “However, in the short term we need to install safety barricades along the road. I intend to meet the Chief Engineer of GREF once I hear back from the Governor as they are responsible for this road,” he added.
Meanwhile, in response to the dramatic increase in road accidents and fatalities, the state government introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Safety Council Act in 2018. This act advocates the formation of a State Road Safety Council. According to the bill, the proposed council will be responsible for ensuring road safety across the state and to advice the state government about safety measures. The council, headed by the Minister of Transport, will be involved in charting safety policies, enforce road safety standards and conduct awareness programmes. However, this remains on paper and nothing has so far materialised on the ground.