In an unusual, historic and collaborative move, organisations across Southasia have sent a joint letter on road safety to the United Nations. Additionally, activists in different countries of the region have sent similar letters to their respective ministries seeking action around this human issue.
The Southasian region records 25 percent of the world’s road crash fatalities despite having only 10 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet. Half a million people across the region are reported to die in road crashes annually. The actual number of casualties is likely to be more than double the reported numbers.
Most of those who die in such crashes are nameless, faceless members of the general public whose tragedies barely merit a mention in the news media or attention in the corridors of power. This changes occasionally when prominent citizens are involved, or if the crash is particularly horrific involving large numbers of people.
One such crash in Bangladesh on 13 August 2011 killed prominent film director Tareque Masud, cameraman Mishuk Munier and three more including the driver. Five passengers survived. The tragedy catalysed a road safety movement in Bangladesh that bears lessons for all countries of the region.
The nature of vehicle ownership and fleet composition in the region, and Southasia’s distinctive road infrastructure requirements also call for a coordinated regional approach on the issue.
The initial joint letter titled ‘Southasians for Road Safety: A statement of alignment with the cause by activists across the region and a request for UN intervention’ went to Jean Todt, UN SG’s Special Envoy for Road Safety, ahead of the High Level Meeting held in New York, June 30-July 1, 2022.
In his response to the letter addressed to Sapan road safety group coordinators Dr Fauzia Deeba and Dr Mridul Bhasin, Jean Todt conveyed his gratitude for the correspondence. He added: “Please let me convey my deepest solidarity for the critical road safety fatalities’ figures registered in your Southasia region. At the same time, I wish to praise your relentless efforts aimed at addressing this crisis.”
He said he was “fully determined to keep pushing for solid commitment from all stakeholders, including Governments and UN relevant parties”.
Members of Sapan’s sub-group on Road Safety cited this correspondence in letters sent to their respective ministries of transport, roads, and infrastructure in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
The letter states that Southasians for Road Safety is a group “committed to road safety, its human aspects and the need to find solutions by working together across the borders of Southasia”.
It states that as Southasian countries, “we share various characteristics when it comes to the dangers of road and highway travel”. It notes that road infrastructure and its associated issues are “an important domain where our common problems can find solutions through a joint representation in the United Nations and through sharing best practices, skills and experiences with each other.”
The letter incorporates the joint declaration endorsed by dozens of activists across the Southasian region advocating collaboration for addressing road and highway Safety.
Dr Mridul Bhasin of Muskaan Foundation for Road Safety, who lost her 17-year old daughter to a road crash in Jaipur, 1999, and Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties addressed Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport & Highways, India.
In Pakistan, Sapan founder members and activists Khawar Mumtaz and Irfan Mufti reached out to Asad Mehmood, the Federal Minister for Communications and Highways.
The Nepal letter addressed to the newly appointed Minister for the Roads and Infrastructure Mohammad Ishtiyaq Rayi, signed by surgeon Dr. Ashok Banskota and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, urges the establishment of the “long pending Council for Road Safety”.
Dhaka-based feminist activist and Sapan founder member Khushi Kabir sent the letter to Obaidul Qauder, Minister of Roads, Transport and Bridges, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Despite the turmoil in Sri Lanka, analyst and researcher Uditha Devapriya in Colombo, sent the letter to Sri Lankan Minister of Transport, Highways & Media, Bandula Gunawardena.
The letters sent to ministries in government around the region hope for collaborative efforts of all Southasian countries for the sake of the people impacted by lack of road safety. Those endorsing the campaign hope that their countries will work together for the United Nations Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030.
Note: Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word which means ‘dream’. And, borrowing from Himal Southasian, we use ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”.