It is fine to punish the driver and compensate the family of the road accident victim. However, the government needs to also accept responsibility. It has not dealt with homelessness, poverty and ignorance of the people sleeping on the roadside. There are no easy solutions but let us not exaggerate the difficulties either.
When a vehicle hits somebody on the road, there are three aspects that deserve attention. Two are familiar and I will mention these quickly before I explain at length the third and the less familiar aspect. First, the driver (and possibly also the owner if the latter is different from the driver) needs to be punished – more so when the driver is under the influence of alcohol and he or she does not have a driving license. Second, the family of the road accident victim needs to be compensated substantially. These two aspects are familiar. Let us now turn to the third and less familiar aspect. The rest of the article will deal with this.
People do not sleep on the road- side out of choice. This is primarily due to poverty, homelessness, and ignorance. Let us deal with each of the three factors separately. Let us begin with poverty.
Poverty is both an individual problem and a social problem in the sense that society at large has a responsibility. The government has the responsibility to take care of the poor. This immediately implies that the government can take two actions in the context of a road accident. It can, of course, contribute to the compensation to be given to the family of the road accident’s victim. Also, the government can take the blame for the accident in two ways.
First, government policies are responsible for the scale on which poverty exists in an economy. The government could have taxed the rich adequately so that it has funds to make direct transfers to the poor or it carries out public works programmes that provide jobs and incomes to the poor. This is consistent with the leftist view of economic policy of the government. Second, the government can provide an enabling environment in which the private sector creates jobs so that poor have reasonable income and they are not compelled to sleep on the road side. This is consistent with the rightist view of the economic policy of the government in dealing with poverty.
It is true that taking care of poverty is not enough. It is also important to consider homelessness in the context of the problem that some people sleep on the roadside and are vulnerable to being hit by a passing vehicle. Though homelessness is related to the problem of poverty, it has distinct features in urban India and in Mumbai in particular. Housing in urban India is expensive; this is even more the case in a city like Mumbai. Expensive housing in urban India or even in Mumbai is, however, not a natural or inevitable outcome. It is again a function of economic policy in general and housing policy in particular.
Firstly, there is a ‘license-permit-quota raj’ in the housing sector, which makes housing scarce and expensive. This kind of a raj used to prevail in the manufacturing sector as well before the early 1990s which is when a policy of liberalization was adopted. However, this policy change did not extend to the housing sector with the result that the kind of situation that prevailed with regard to, say, the automobile industry till the early 1990s exists till today in the housing sector (the middle-aged and the elderly will recall Ambassador and Fiat cars and the Vespa scooters, and the argument that all this scarcity and low quality is inevitable in a poor country like India!).
Secondly, the housing shortage is often discussed in the context of the given number of cities and the given size and infrastructure of such cities. However, there is a need to set up altogether new cities with fresh planning and new infrastructure. This policy needs to be accompanied by a policy of carrot and stick (but not brute force) to induce people to shift from congested cities to new and futuristic cities. The upcoming GIFT City is a step in the right direction.
Both poverty and homelessness can take a lot of time to cure. However, there is an ongoing problem of accidents on the roadside in cities. What to do in the short run? Consider ignorance on the part of the poor and the homeless people who sleep on the roadside. This is again not just an individual problem but also a social problem. Some people are too poor to have been educated and the government did not do enough to ensure that they receive education.
More important, they can be myopic and may not realize the possibility of an accident which can have fatal consequences for individuals and their families. The government is much better placed in this regard. It knows the overall picture and is aware of the vulnerabilities. So, the government needs to carry out an awareness campaign to educate people to sleep where the risks are minimal. Also, there is a need to regulate ‘housing on the roadside’.
The public authorities need to restrict people from sleeping on the roads where the possibility of an accident cannot be overlooked. This is not to say that the government needs to suddenly ban sleeping on the roadside; this is unrealistic and possibly not even desirable. However, what the government can do is to separate the more vulnerable from the less vulnerable places in a phased manner. It can induce or even force people to shift from the more vulnerable places to less vulnerable places – without asking them to leave sleeping on the roadside altogether.
Finally, there is a need to make the vehicle owners more aware and conscious of the possible harm to people sleeping on the roadside. There is a need to more strictly check over-speeding and driving after drinking in cities like Mumbai (post more honest and competent people on such duties).
It is often said that there are no easy solutions to persistent problems. However, they are also not as difficult as they are made out to be.
By: Gurbachan Singh