On Tuesday 6 August, in Kottuli, part of Kozhikode city, a scooter slipped into the pothole on the road, and the rider, KC Ajitha from Malaparamba Housing Colony died after she was knocked off and run over a lorry coming from behind.
Ajitha is just one among the thousands of two-wheeler riders who die by falling into potholes. In 2018, Supreme Court had appointed a committee headed by former judge KS Radhakrishnan to look into the subject of road safety and submit a report. The committee found that during the five year period from 2013 to 2017 alone, 14,296 people died in similar accidents across the country. That committee's report is the most authentic one in the country related to pothole deaths. It was with this report before them, and while hearing a case related to a road accident that a division bench comprising Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta remarked in 2018 that more people have died due to potholes than by terrorist attacks. That means Ajitha from Malaparamba is only one among thousands of lives falling due to reasons other than their own.
Ajitha's case stands out for one more reason. Following her death, the police filed a case against Assistant Executive Engineer, Kerala Water Authority (KWA) Vinoj Kumar under IPC 304-A and arrested him. Medical College police registered the case as per the directions of Kozhikode district collector Sreram Sambasiva Rao. The pothole into which Ajitha fell was made by KWA. It is rare in the country for a case to be registered against officials for death due to pothole. Earlier, in September 2018 in Kuthiran, Thrissur, following some passengers falling into a pothole and dying there, a magistrate court asked Peechi police to file a case against officials of National Highway Authority for culpable homicide. In another case involving a bike falling into a pothole near Padamugal Junction, Kakkanad, Ernakulam, in October 2018, resulting in the death of bike-rider Abin, Public Works Department (PWD) suspended two officials. But apart from such special cases of action, there are no examples of action against officials responsible for pothole deaths. And in our land, there is also the queer story of a husband who was booked for the death of his wife when his scooter hit a pothole! The victim of this tragedy is the husband of Shajida who died on 18 June 2018 in the accident. But here again, there was no action against the officials responsible for the pathetic condition of the road.
Those who get thrown off vehicles hitting pothole, mostly die by being smashed by vehicles from the opposite or the same direction. When a passenger falls off suddenly, no one can control his vehicle within the seconds without hitting the falling person. But the strange thing is that, in such cases the the driver/owner of the hitting vehicle gets caught for the death. And that happened in the case of Ajitha too. For, her death happened after she was hit by the lorry in the same direction from behind. The lorry driver TK Biju from Thamarassery was booked under IPC 279 (driving dangerously), and 337 (causing injury).
IF ther roads were all damaged, and full of potholes, such accidents would not happen. For, then motorists would drive very slow and carefully. Such deaths, however are caused by the potholes that appear all of a sudden in good motorable roads where speed driving is possible. This happens not only after rainfall. It is only that in places where proper pre-monsoon maintenance is not done, such potholes may be more in number. The major lacuna is that there is no machinery or protocol to cover potholes as and when they form. If they cannot be covered, at least there could be some preventive warning signs. In railways, there are employees assigned to check the security of tracks by traversing in trolley. But in our highways, is there any such machinery? It is only thanks to the banana plant stems and branches put up in such spots as warning, that major accidents are averted.
The root cause of such tragic deaths is in fact the unforgivable slackness on the party of National Highway Authority and PWD, who behave with no concern for human lives. This cruel indifference has to be ended. The faulty approach cannot be corrected by moral lectures alone. For that very reason, in instances of death from potholes, cases of homicide should be filed against relative officials. District Collector, Kozhikode has issued a warning that if accidents recur, legal action will follow. This should not be confined to Kozhikode district alone. They should be made part of standard operating procedures. No doubt, well defined protocol should be set for road safety and maintenance.