The horrific tragedy at Kondagattu, probably the worst accident in recent history involving a state roadways bus, comes as a grim reminder of the gaping holes in the administration of road safety. The fact that the ill-fated bus, carrying pilgrims from the popular hill shrine, was overloaded nearly three times its capacity was an invitation to disaster. A majority of the passengers, including women and children, died due to suffocation as they fell over one another after the vehicle swerved off the road and overturned four times before falling into a 30-ft gorge. The ghat road that the vehicle took was not suitable for plying heavy vehicles. In fact, it was closed nearly five years ago following a similar mishap on this stretch involving a truck that had claimed 20 lives. It has now emerged that driver Srinivas, who also died in the mishap along with 57 others, was persuaded by the local depot officials to take the route to save a distance of just two kilometres. This is nothing short of criminal negligence. The protocols governing passenger safety and periodic inspection of the fleet to ascertain their fitness are observed more in breach than in practice. Failure to learn from past mistakes has proved costly several times and the hapless passengers had to pay the price with their lives. One wonders what happens to a series of operational guidelines issued to the public transport authorities every time a tragedy hits the roadways buses.
The condition of the state-owned buses across the country is generally poor. The tendency to cut corners when it comes to getting fitness certificates for the fleet and replacing spare parts, fixing unreasonable targets for drivers in terms of number of trips and failure to phase out ageing vehicles are contributing to the growing number of mishaps. Last year, road accidents in the country involving buses had, on an average, claimed 29 lives per day. With more than five lakh road accidents occurring every year, leaving nearly 1.5 lakh people dead, the safety record of the Indian roads is pathetic. The Union Transport Ministry has identified 53 stretches on highways in Telangana and 140 in Andhra Pradesh as vulnerable to road accidents. National Highway 65, a busy corridor that connects the two Telugu States, accounts for 21 such vulnerable spots. There is an urgent need to take corrective measures, including design changes, to prevent mishaps in the future. RTC bus drivers are mandated to complete a stipulated number of rides during their shift which is adding to their work pressure. Experts have called for a radical shift in the approach and regulatory mechanism to ensure compliance with safety standards.