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Safety doesn’t happen by accident

On a cloudy afternoon at the tail-end of what has been another dangerous monsoon in Nepal, Dolalghat looks deserted. Damage on the Araniko Highway—caused by the 2014 Jure Landslide and then by last year’s series of quakes—has meant that business at this once-bustling highway town has dried to a trickle. Local fish shops, boasting fresh catch from the Sunkoshi, remain open but vacant, only a few odd vehicles rumble through.

From Dolalghat, a dusty road forks from the highway and up to Kartike Deurali, the site of a recent fatal accident that killed 27 passengers. The one-lane road, carved onto hills with red mud for top soil, looks ominous with dark monsoon clouds looming overhead, and Nain Bahadur Thapa, the driver of the four-wheeler that I am on, is chatty with nervous energy.

“Red mud is tricky,” he tells me, as we snake up the hillside, “If you hit the brake, the vehicle will slip. The key is maintaining a slow, but constant pace.”

The road we are on was built in 1998 and became motorable in 2008. Today, four bus routes ply on the road that links together dozens of far-flung settlements in Kavre and beyond. And though Kartike Deurali is just 15 km from Dolalghat, it will take us up to two hours to get there.

“There are a few professionals that can’t deny an assignment, one is a journalist and another is a driver,” he tells me as the rain begins to beat down on the highway. His smile belies his tenseness and he keeps reassuring me that this is his fourth time driving this road. In light of the recent tragedy, we both are well aware that driving on Nepal’s treacherous mountain roads can be dangerous business.

All the while we banter about how over-crowded buses could possibly be allowed to ply here.

Toying with lives

Thirteen-year-old Namrata Gautam is still convalescing from the August 15 accident at the Dhulikhel Hospital. She tells me the bus stalled on a steep incline before skidding off a precipice and tumbling 300 meters below. “They were already having to push the bus to get it to start in Dolalghat,” she says.

It is frighteningly common for vehicles to meet with accidents on Nepal’s mountain roads, causing tremendous loss of life. Much of Nepal’s terrain is precariously difficult and the roads are poorly constructed. There has been a great increase in the number of vehicles plying long-distance routes, leading to a corresponding rise in the number of accidents. A large number of the accidents are blamed on the galling amount of negligence, both on part of the authorities and the owners of transport vehicles and cartels, commonly derided as ‘syndicates’.

Tej Prasad Gautam, 52, who survived but lost his brother in the accident, says that the bus, at the time of the crash, was carrying more than 80 passengers, nearly three times the number of its seats. It also carried weight in form of sacks of rice and commodities being ferried to the villages and had passengers sat on the roof.

“As the bus was moving uphill, the engines suddenly stopped,” he recalls, “The driver was frantically yelling at his helpers to place support under the tyres.” But before anybody could react, the bus slid backwards and off the cliff.

Those deceased and injured were from Goshthani VDC, Kartik Derail VDC, Madan Kudari VDC, Brita Deurali VDC of Kavre District and Lakhanpur VDC, Ramechhap District. Many of the passengers were earthquake survivors en route to their villages to collect the government’s rebuilding grant.

Devnath Gautam who has a house near the site of the accident was involved in the rescue effort. “We pulled out the victims by fashioning ropes out of clothes,” he says, “We had some difficulty collecting the dead bodies as it started raining. It was a terrible situation.”

Institutionalised inaction

Road accidents are not new in Nepal. Every year, particularly during the monsoon, hundreds of people die or get injured in road accidents. According to reports, more people have died in road accidents in the last decade than in the Maoist conflict. In the last four months alone, more than 800 people have lost their lives in road accidents in Nepal.

There are 51 different roads in Kavre that are of same or even worse condition like the one that runs through Kartike Deurali. Chief District Officer of Kavre Bal Krishna Panthi admits that these roads aren’t constructed to any engineering standard. Which is why, a recent decision by his office to open the roads to transport entrepreneurs is starling. The syndicates are currently lobbying with the Department of Transport Management (DoTM) to acquire route permits to the said roads.

“We need a greater implementation of law, and those who violate it should be punished,” says CDO Panthi, without citing any particular plan of action to curb accidents on Kavre’s dangerous roads.   Almost a month since the Kavre accident, the government is yet to roll out any concrete steps to improve infrastructure or the vehicles that ply these dusty, peripheral roads that pepper the Nepali landscape. And while these all-too-frequent accidents are accompanied by a slew of media coverage and public outcry, the outrage seldom amount to any change.

“The condition of the roads is poor in rural areas. Most of the roads aren’t maintained properly either. One reason for the accident is this. Syndicate is another reason. The transport entrepreneurs aren’t following the laws and are instead using their political power as cover,” says Madhav Timilsina, the president of the Consumer Right Investigation Forum, “The government should make sure that the transportation entrepreneurs follow the rules and regulation. If the entrepreneurs don’t, they should be punished. Most of the roads, like those in Kavre, are constructed without proper engineering. All the roads in those areas should be managed systematically.”

This year’s bloody monsoon is now finally on the wane. But as things are, next year’s thunders will again sound a death knell for hundreds who have no option but to chance fate on the dangerous ‘highways’. Nepal may have been blighted with some of the roughest terrain in the world, but there is little doubt most of these roadside tragedies are not just of nature’s doing.

By Rajneesh Bhandari

The writer is an independent multimedia journalist and filmmaker based in Kathmandu. He tweets @RajneeshB