Between 11-26 October this year, 38 people died in various traffic-related accidents on our highways. Even as we go to press there have been two more fatal highway accidents. More than 265 people sustained injuries. When you collect these numbers tracking 15 day updates on Nepalnews.com and Kantipuronline.com, you can't help wondering why it is that the news about highway accidents seems to appear with a mind-numbing regularity, thereby making Nepal the country with the worst record on highway safety in all of South Asia.
Still, news about such high rates of accidents does sit oddly with the fact that long-distance transport companies, what with their politically connected all-Nepal federation and various zonal and regional divisions, have long been among the most organised and vocal private sector industries in Nepal. So strong is their network that they can call an all-Nepal chakka-jam and have the highways bereft of vehicles within hours. But, as in any industry made up of members who form a cushy cartel to look after their own interests, such a concentration of power inevitably goes side by side with a tendency to give a short shrift to customers' major concern: safety.
That neglect is allowed to fester into a dangerous habit in at least three different ways by the private sector news media and the government.
First, most news about highway accidents rarely mention names of bus and truck companies. (Strangely, the license plate of the stricken bus is always cited.) This omission ends up shielding companies from having to address a dented reputation.
Second, though passengers are, in some cases, insured against accidents it is never clear from the news reports whether they get their insurance money or not. Most likely, they don't. Still, the transport cartel sticks to increasing fares to pay for what one suspects to be non-existent travel insurance premiums, and that adds only to the burden of passengers.
Third, the government is lax when it comes to ensuring bus companies hire competent long-distance drivers who are trained on basic safety procedures. Driving licenses can easily be obtained by anyone willing to pay, and the highway police are known to look the other way on seeing speeding buses and trucks with passengers on the roof.
Conclusion: other than bad road conditions, one reason why highway accidents seem to take place is that the cost of surviving as a company in the long-distance transport industry in Nepal is very low. Accidents do not harm a company's reputation. They also do not make the company start paying higher travel insurance premiums. And, as a card-carrying member of its politically connected federation, it can always count law enforcement officers as loyal friends. The result is that the transport companies face little incentive to reduce highway accidents, fatalities and injuries on their own. If anything, after accidents, they are likely to gain insurance money for themselves to repair old and buy new vehicles.
Those who are often left dead, injured and bereaved by accidents are usually poor and anonymous Nepalis with neither the voice nor the influence to seek justice. Here's hoping that when Urba Dutta Panta, state minister for Labour and Transport Management, forms 'a high level commission to investigate road accidents and recommend measures to contain them' by 8 November, he puts the difficulties of the victims squarely in the centre and those of the bus companies on the side. Anything less would only lead further down the road to hell.