Who is responsible for the deaths of 57 people in the Telangana bus tragedy?

Mediocre engineering, neglect on the part of authorities and local pressure to ignore safety norms all came together and led to the tragedy.
Who is responsible for the deaths of 57 people in the Telangana bus tragedy?
Who is responsible for the deaths of 57 people in the Telangana bus tragedy?
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Just last Sunday, footage of a public transport bus in Telangana that was turned into a ‘mobile bar’ for activists of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) went viral. The TRS cadre, that was being ferried to the public meeting on the outskirts of Hyderabad, was consuming alcohol inside the bus. On 2 September, the party had booked 7,300 of the 12,000-odd buses in Telangana, depriving the people of public transport for the day. The behaviour of TRS workers epitomised ‘who cares?’ attitude. 

On Tuesday, an RTC bus turned into a coffin for 57 people, including its driver, Srinivas. The accident took place in Kondagattu, in Jagtial district, in Telangana, while the bus was plying from Shanivarpetta village to Jagtial town, a distance of roughly 30 km. Incidentally, 53-year-old Srinivas had been awarded the best driver award on Independence Day this year. 

An analysis of what went wrong points to neglect by authorities, mediocre engineering by the Roads Department, local pressure ignoring safety norms and the tendency of Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) to not to take into account passenger demand.

Let’s look at the terrain of the area first. The ghat road where the accident took place has a far sharper gradient than another section, which is considered safer. But since the second route is 6 km longer, there is a tendency among locals to prefer this route, even though it is accident-prone. In the last two decades, three accidents have taken place on this stretch, but Tuesday’s tragedy was the worst. 

Six years ago, the Roads Department had declared this ghat road dangerous for heavy vehicles and had erected a barrier as height restriction, so buses and trucks did not ply on this route. But following local pressure, the restriction was removed.

All four accidents, including the one on Tuesday, occurred when the vehicle was coming down the road. The angle is difficult to negotiate and the blind curve makes it a huge challenge for drivers. It was so even for Srinivas, who had been driving on that stretch for many years.

“In order to discourage speeding, someone in the Roads Department had erected five speed breakers. But they were not as per the standard measurements. They were very steep, which meant that the bus jumped up and down, even as the driver negotiated the curve. According to eyewitnesses, after the third speed breaker, the driver was no longer in control,” says Krishna Prasad, Chairman of the Road Safety Authority in Telangana, who visited the accident site for an on-the-spot understanding of the issue.  

Srinivas reportedly dodged other smaller vehicles like autos, trying not to hit them even as he struggled to regain control of the bus. Adding to his problem was the fact that the bus was overloaded. As against a capacity of about 60, the bus was carrying close to 90 passengers. Many of them, according to eyewitnesses, were seated on the engine and the footboard. 

The rush was because most of the passengers were pilgrims who had gone to visit the Hanuman temple, Tuesday being an auspicious day for locals. Most vehicles on that route were crowded with devotees. The question that arises then is when the local management of the RTC knows that Tuesdays see more passengers, why didn’t they ply more buses on that route?

Though the real picture will emerge only after the bus is brought out of the gorge and tested, eyewitnesses have claimed that they saw Srinivas struggling with the brakes between the third and the fifth speed breaker, which are about 200 metres apart. This suggests that the brake may have failed, leading the driver to lose control completely. 

“This bus was 8 years old. Usually, we run buses till they are 13 years old,” says M Ravinder, Executive Director of TSRTC. But officials who have worked in the RTC admit that the newer buses are invariably deployed on city routes, leaving the older vehicles to ply in remote parts of districts. 

The TSRTC also claims that the audit is mandatory for every bus and is done regularly. But insiders admit that the revenue time of a bus puts pressure on how much time it can be taken away from the roads for a fitness test. 

The condition of the ghat road is not great either. The precautionary signage are missing as is the barricading on curves more dangerous than the one where the accident took place. 

Incidentally, despite the dangerous nature of the road, vehicles are allowed by the administration till 9 pm. This is likely to be curtailed now, with no vehicles allowed after dusk. A crash resolution team with representatives from the RTC, Roads Department, the police and the administration has been formed to analyse the problem in micro detail, formulate an action plan and implement it at the earliest. One of the suggestions given is to deploy smaller buses that will find it easier to negotiate the bends on the ghat road.  

To show it means business, the government has suspended the manager of the Jagtial bus depot, even though he was not around when more passengers were allowed to board the bus. 

But what is worse is the manner in which the victims of the tragedy were treated. All the bodies were lined up on the ground, covered vaguely with sheets, which were struggling to stay in place with the strong winds. This, even as ministers flew in from Hyderabad to console the next of kin. 

The dead were marked in the most insensitive manner, with chits of paper bearing D1, D2, D3 and so forth stuck on their chests, reducing human beings to emotionless statistics. Would the government have allowed the body of a political VIP to lie on the ground and mark him as D16?

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