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Road safety: India needs to raise the bar

Sanjay Pillai | August 16, 2003

What's the most ambitious project launched by the Vajpayee government? It could be argued that there's nothing more far-reaching than the mammoth road-building projects that are snaking across the country.

But, while new roads are being built, and newer, faster automobiles and trucks are racing out of the factories, India's record when it comes to road safety is abysmal.

According to H Ansari, chair professor, general insurance, National Insurance Academy, Pune, "From 300,000 vehicles on a road network of 400,000 kilometers in 1951, the number of vehicles has gone up nearly a 170 times till 2000, whereas the road network has expanded by only nine times."

But, as India's motor industry grows to maturity, it's also desperately clear that the country needs to raise the bar on safety.

The modern automobile industry has made tremendous strides on safety, but only a few have filtered through to India.

Safety features like airbags, crash sensors and crumple zones are all far in the future on Indian roads.

And, remember that the world's top manufacturers -- Ford, GM, Suzuki, Hyundai, Fiat, Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen -- are now selling automobiles every day on Indian roads.

But neither they nor Indian manufacturers have to put in safety features that are mandatory or the norm abroad.

When it comes to road safety, the first stop in India is the quasi-official Automotive Research Association of India, an organisation overseeing testing and research for the entire industry.

The association has an unusual structure -- it has been floated by the automobile companies and it is affiliated to the Government of India.

The ARAI is the nearest this country has to an independent safety regulator. But it works under severe limitations.

"ARAI does not have any powers vested in it to mandate safety rules," says Balraj Bhanot, director, ARAI. Should ARAI be an independent regulator? Should it have power to mandate regulations? That's a subject on which the industry is sharply divided."

"With the way the Indian automotive industry is maturing and charting out global plans the march towards safety will be natural and driven by manufacturers themselves," says Dr V Sumantran, executive director, Tata Motors, the country's largest automobile company.

There are equally distinguished voices on the other side of the fence. Industry players like Venu Srinivasan of TVS Motor and B V R Subbu of Hyundai favour the setting up of an independent safety regulator who will also be financially independent.

Says Srinivasan, "We need an independent national regulator and if ARAI needs to be converted into a financially independent regulatory body, then so be it."

Adds Hyundai's Subbu: "We need to move towards having an independent safety regulator with public representatives to protect consumer interests."

While they may argue about what needs to be done, everyone agrees that - in one way or another -- ARAI will be a prominent part of the picture in the future.

Today ARAI works in consultation with the CMVR technical committee of the ministry of road transport and highways in evolving safety standards. The ministry, in turn notifies the relevant changes in the Central Motor Vehicles Act.

So can an association formed by automobile companies, like the ARAI, drive the safety roadmap when it is not an independent body?

"How can the tested party be part of the testing authority, violating all principles of equity," asks the head of an automobile manufacturer who did not wish to be identified.

Don't think that India is entirely unmindful of international standards and what is happening abroad.

Interestingly, India has taken an in-principle decision to harmonise its safety standard with the regulations prevalent in the European Union I.E. ECE regulations.

Also, India has also become an observer on WP-29, a UN committee which deals with road safety (WP stands for Working Party, and 29 is the number given to the transportation industry).

However, since it isn't a full member of WP-29 it isn't obliged to comply with the ECE regulations.

Also, India has been taking steps to bring safety standards in line with international rules. In the last 10 years it has introduced 43 standards that match ECE regulations, out of the total 115 ECE regulations. But crucial standards related to crash tests and airbags are yet to be harmonised.

If the industry is to have an independent regulator, ARAI is clearly the chief candidate. But it has many shortcomings that will need to be rectified.

Apart from being financially independent, automobile manufacturers should, at no point, of time be in a position to influence or stall the introduction of safety measures in automobiles in the country.

On the issue of funding, ARAI, which is affiliated to the ministry of commerce and industry, is dependent on the government funds that would go in for the creation of facilities.

At last count ARAI had submitted a Rs 900 crore (Rs 9 billion) wish list to the government.

The Rs 900 crore would go into creation of facilities which would enable testing of crash worthiness of vehicles, crash testing of vehicles with dummies, air bags etc, evaluation of seats, seat belt anchorages, facilities for CNG/LPG, fire risk, etc.

Says Bhanot, "Today we do not have the facility to conduct a 120-kmph durability and speed test. We need at least Rs 600 crore (Rs 6 billion) for a full-fledged testing facility. We do not have the financial muscle to create these facilities ourselves."

Clearly resources need to flow in from cess fund as also from Plan funds. "SIAM (the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers) and ARAI are working together to find these resources," says R Seshasayee, president, SIAM and managing director, Ashok Leyland.

SIAM has been mandated by the ministry of heavy industries and public enterprises to draw up a plan for the upgrading of automotive testing facilities.

The logic of why an organisation like SIAM was mandated by the ministry of heavy industries and public enterprises to submit a plan, when the government should be driving testing and safety standards in the country, is not clear. Since SIAM represents industry interests, this could be construed as a conflict of interests.

The SIAM president though defends the government. "It is the responsibility of ministry of road transport and highways to enforce and chart a safety road map and the ministry is fully seized of the requirements and is actively working towards evolving and implementing the same in consultation with all stakeholders," Seshasayee says.

But according to the head of the automobile company who declined to be identified, "An independent safety regulator can be set up immediately. The issue is finding the funds for testing. For that let all the stakeholders, the government, the insurance industry and the manufacturers come together for creation of world-class testing facilities.  One solution for the interim period is that the government should mandate an internationally acclaimed testing agency abroad from where vehicles sold and serviced in India need to get certificates on safety compliance measures."

SIAM according to Seshasayee has also proposed the creation of an additional technical cell under the ministry of road transport and highways consisting of members from the government and industry, on the lines of JASIC in Japan.

Some manufacturers fear that an excess of bureaucratisation will have an adverse effect on road safety.

Says Sumatran: "The creation of an independent safety regulator should not end up bureaucratising the whole safety and testing process."

"We need to be careful about proliferating agencies either for safety or testing purposes. At a time when there is a natural progression towards better emission and safety norms, one should be careful about how these issues are approached. At the same time one should not mandate solutions that are not economically viable," Sumantran warns.

The Indian automotive industry in the absence of an independent safety regulator and a mandated safety roadmap has been able to set its own sedate pace on the issue of automotive safety.

But it's intriguing that the safety issue in India is being forced off the road.

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