A highway of death
Travelling down NH24 in Uttar Pradesh, one of the deadliest roads in India
Bhura lives in an ambulance. He parks it by the side of National Highway 24 (NH24)—a 438km stretch of road that connects New Delhi with Lucknow via Bareilly—at Gajraula, in Uttar Pradesh. Bhura’s makeshift ambulance is just that—makeshift; a modified and rusting Maruti Gypsy in which the rear seats have been converted into stretchers. One of them is fixed, the other can be lifted out. Other than this, the car is stripped bare. Apart from the red and blue beacons on the roof and a loudspeaker, there are none of the other things you would associate with an ambulance—life support systems, saline drips, medicines. Nonetheless, Bhura, whose real name is Israr Ahmed, is more often than not the only hope for anyone who has an accident in these parts of NH24.
A 45-year-old widower, Bhura is a lean, tall man with large hands, a tough stubble and wide-set eyes. His ambulance service is free. He has been keeping this lone vigil for 16 years now, and in that time, he has built a network of informants—highway dhabas, hotels; even the police call on him when there is an accident.
“I distribute pamphlets with my number to people on NH24," he says, showing us the red and blue pamphlets that have his name and number. “Victims of highway accidents are the worst. They are critical most of the time and no one wants to help them. There is seldom anyone left to call for an ambulance or pay for the service," he says.
Over the years, he has lost count of the number of accident victims he has rushed to the nearest hospital, but he has a number for those who survived: 800.
The stretch that Bhura patrols is one of the worst in India.
There are 500,000 road accidents a year in India, in which around 140,000 people lose their lives, observed Union home minister Rajnath Singh while launching the Road Safety Week in New Delhi on 11 January. In absolute terms, there is no country in the world that has higher fatalities from road accidents.
In January, Union road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari said the government has identified 726 “black spots" on national highways around the country on the basis of fatalities in 2011-13, and added that ₹ 11,000 crore has been earmarked for corrective action at such spots.
Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have the highest number of black spots (100 such spots each) followed by Karnataka (86), Telangana (71) and Rajasthan (58). According to a road ministry report, 3,955 people were killed in accidents at black spots in Tamil Nadu in 2011-13, followed by 2,587 in Uttar Pradesh and 1,356 in Telangana.
The district of Amroha, under which Gajraula falls, has 11 black spots—two of them Priority 1. As many as 689 died at these spots over the 2011-13 period, more than 26% of Uttar Pradesh’s total, on what is essentially a mere 5.5km of roadways.
We are driving down to Amroha from Delhi on an unusually warm January morning.
The drive is smooth and, barring a bottleneck or two, there are no traffic snarls. The road is free of rough patches and potholes.
But as we near Hapur, about 60km from Delhi, we get a glimpse of what lies ahead. A Chevrolet Tavera stands next to the divider, its front end smashed to pulp. We stop to enquire. The accident had happened early that morning. A lorry loaded with iron plates, coming from the opposite side, was trying to reverse. It hit the divider, jutted out on the other side of the road and hit the oncoming Tavera, pushing the car’s steering wheel deep into the driver’s seat. Luckily, the driver of the Tavera survived.
“It was very early in the morning and there was some fog around," says Prahlad Kumar, who owns the Tavera and was driving it. The lorry driver fled.
It is 9.45 am and Kumar is still waiting for assistance.
The good thing is that Kumar escaped unhurt. The bad thing is that not many survive such crashes on NH24.
After leaving Kumar, we continue on NH24 towards the Gajraula police station.
Black spot numbers UP-032, 034, 035, 037 and 038 fall under its jurisdiction. Together, these accounted for 286 deaths in 2011-13. UP-037 is on the Badaun-Bijnaur road on NH51. The rest are on NH24.
Every ingredient required to make the deadly cocktail of a black spot is present here. There are no streetlights, no road signs, very low or no dividers, no precautionary measures at the intersections of small roads and the national highway, casual, criminally reckless driving, and, in the absence of proper crossings, pedestrians and all manner of vehicles, including school buses and bicycles making U turns or crossing the four-lane expanse of the highway. Add winter fog and drunken drivers, and you have an accident waiting to happen.
About 5km from the main gate of Jubilant Industries’ manufacturing facility on the highway, there is a sharp left, a road that takes you to Tigri. Two kilometres down that road is the Gajraula police station. Built in 1914, the building merges so well with the dusty surroundings that it is easy to miss it. The blue and red board indicating the police station sits in one corner, bent and dusty.
Inside the U-shaped police station premises, a new, swankier wing is being constructed on the left. The old structure houses rooms for computers and files, a lock-up, and chambers for senior police officials. Outside, makeshift desks have been set up for policemen to enjoy the last burst of winter sun.
In the backyard lies a large pile of vehicles damaged in road accidents, metal mangled into heavy, sharp structures.
Station officer Upendra Singh Yadav, who has been posted here since 2012, talks to us between calls and visitors, all the while chewing paan masala.
“Forget the unauthorized cuts, even the authorized ones are major killers," he says. Lack of safety measures such as speed breakers or traffic signals on the smaller roads intersecting the highway, the complete absence of street lights on these stretches and winter fog amplify the problem, he rues.
In an effort to reduce the number of accidents, Yadav’s team has put cement boulders at a place called Chopla (UP-034) which, despite being an authorized cut, saw 83 deaths in 2011-13. Despite ad hoc measures like this, 62 people died in 2014, and 46 in 2015, on the stretch of NH24 that is under the jurisdiction of Gajraula police—in 2011-13, the figure was 286.
On 7 January, 50-year-old Chhattar Singh, a farmer from Naipura village, and his son Rajendra were returning home from their fields around 5pm when an Uttar Pradesh Roadways bus hit Singh at the Chopla crossing. It braked briefly, Rajendra says, but when the driver saw that Chhattar wasn’t moving, he fled.
Horrified, Rajendra held on to his father in the middle of the road. Soon, people gathered and took Chhattar to the local hospital which, in turn, referred him to a hospital in Meerut.
He died the next day.
We leave the Gajraula police station and drive towards Tigri. After 3km, we turn left on a kutcha road. There are farms on either side of the road, with alternating crops of mustard and sugar cane in full bloom.
Our ride is interrupted by a railway crossing. While waiting for the train to pass, we can hear a generator pumpset on a distant farm. A couple of kilometres later, we reach the Shahbazpur Dor village and meet Faheem Ahmed, a former village head, who introduces us to the family of Rashid Ali.
On 7 December, 25-year-old Ali was riding his bike from his village Dhawarsi to Shahbazpur Dor, his wife’s village, with a friend. The two villages, 40km apart, lie on either side of NH24.
Ali was crossing the highway when a speeding car hit him from behind. It was around 11am. Mehdi Hasan, Ali’s father-in-law, was out to buy diesel at that time, not far from NH24.
A crowd gathered. Some people recognized Ali and informed Hasan. Ali was taken to Gajraula hospital. He was referred to Meerut and, 24 hours later, Delhi.
“We eventually took him to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, but Rashid couldn’t make it," says Hasan. Ali’s wife Shabnam was at her father’s home that fateful Monday. Their children, eight-year-old Bushra and six-year-old Qasim, were keeping her busy. Till she learnt of what had happened.
Hasan’s home is a humble, mud-and-brick village house with a tin sheet for a gate, flanked by a huge jamun tree on one side.
In the courtyard are several charpoys. Hasan brings out two chairs and dusts them for us to sit. There is a hookah lying nearby, smoke rising from it. On another charpoy, wheat has been spread out to dry in the sun. A woman in her 20s lies on a third charpoy. Another woman, in her mid-40s, stands at a distance, holding a baby.
Hasan asks us to sit while he calls his daughter Shabnam. Shabnam is 23, with clear almond-coloured eyes.
She’s back at her parents’ home after her husband’s chaliswan, the 40-day mourning period. Her body language is languid, her voice listless. She talks to us in no more than a whisper. We ask if she will be comfortable answering our questions or being photographed. She nods slowly.
How did she get to know about the accident?
“When his bike was hit, Rashid suffered major injuries to his head. The friend, who escaped with minor injuries, called his mother, who, in turn, informed me," she says.
They rushed to the spot to see Ali lying in a pool of blood. “We did everything we could, but he never opened his eyes," says Shabnam.
Shabnam and Ali had been married for over 11 years. He was a good husband, she says. He was a daily wager, but never failed to provide for his family of four. “Rashid was like him," Shabnam says, pointing to her elder brother Ehsaan, who has come and taken a seat near her during our conversation. Ehsaan, 35, runs a private school in the village that teaches 700 children up to class VIII.
“It is strange…the feeling that Rashid isn’t there any more," says Ehsaan. “I can’t get him out of my mind. I still feel sometimes that he will come, put a hand around my shoulders and we will talk and joke like we used to. He was a happy man."
Bushra, Ali and Shabnam’s elder child, has beautiful, bright eyes, and smiles easily. She talks to us about her school, and her favourite subjects. Bushra wants to become a doctor. Her brother Qasim, with two teeth missing, looks impish.
As we get ready to leave, Hasan asks us if anybody can help his daughter and her family.
The hospital in Gajraula is a community health centre (CHC). A CHC is the third tier of the network of rural healthcare institutions. It acts primarily as a referral centre. CHCs are supposed to have specialists in fields like surgery, paediatrics and gynaecology, 30 beds, an operation theatre (OT), a labour room, an X-ray machine, a pathological laboratory, a standby generator, etc., along with the complementary medical and paramedical staff.
The Gajraula CHC has 20 beds. It doesn’t have any specialists. The OT is not operational.
“On an average, we see 30 accident cases per month, half of which are critical," says a doctor at the CHC on condition of anonymity. “We give them primary aid. If there is a fracture, for example, we put a slab in place and then refer the patient to a better equipped centre."
But there is no guarantee that if a victim survives a crash and a referral from the CHC, he would be treated at the Amroha district hospital, the nearest big hospital (about 30km away).
“We don’t have a surgeon or an MD at the Amroha district hospital. So depending on the condition of the patient, they have to refer him to Meerut (around 95km from Amroha)," the doctor says.
It is imperative to have at least one surgeon and an orthopaedic doctor wherever there are emergency response services, he says. Unfortunately, the Amroha district hospital, started some five years ago, has never had either on a permanent basis.
“What we really need here is a trauma centre," the doctor says.
Under the 108 ambulance service in the state, every CHC has been allotted an emergency vehicle. According to a UP government website, the 108 service started on 14 September 2012 and has had a fleet of 988 ambulances since February 2013. There is a provision for one ambulance in every block, two ambulances for a district headquarter, and two additional ambulances for bigger towns. The service is operational through private service provider GVK-EMRI. But there are times when there aren’t enough 108 ambulances in the vicinity, and the victims are forced to call private ambulances, even though these are expensive.
It is at times like these that Bhura steps in.
A native of Bukhara locality in Bijnaur, Bhura studied till class VIII before financial troubles at home forced him to drop out of school. He did several odd jobs—he worked as a driver for several people and small offices. Then, sometime in the 1990s, he got to know that the Rotary Club was looking for drivers for its ambulances. He applied and got a job.
But their “money-collecting practices", as he calls it, put him off. “How can someone who is lying in the middle of the road in a pool of blood, and is possibly dead, pay for the ambulance service?" says Bhura. “Even if there is someone who is not as badly hurt, their focus won’t be on paying off the ambulance."
Then one day in 1997-98 (he doesn’t remember the exact year), destiny decided the course of his life.
“I was returning from Dehradun when I saw some victims lying on the road. It was late at night and I could not ignore their cries for help," he says. “I took them to a nearby hospital."
“The Rotary Club people told me they will charge me by the kilometres for this." This was his breaking point. He decided to quit his job.
Some days later, the accident victims’ relatives came searching for Bhura and, as a token of thanks, gave him ₹ 5,000. Soon after, Bhura left his job, sold off his cattle and other belongings, bought a vehicle and started on his mission to help victims of road accidents.
Bhura asked around for the most vulnerable spots on the highway. Some people told him that the stretch near Gajraula was one of them. From that day on, Gajraula has been his home. He lives at the Chopla police post, all the time dreading a call about one more accident.
The Maruti Suzuki Gypsy cost him ₹ 3.8 lakh then. He took a loan from Canara Bank and kept paying monthly instalments for three years. When Bhura’s work started getting noticed, monetary help started coming in, he tells us.
Bhura doesn’t rue the fact that he hasn’t received any support from the government. The support from the local administration in Amroha, the police and the locals sees him through.
The only thing he worries about is people getting killed in accidents. “I pray every day that no accidents should happen. I keep telling people not to use their mobile phones while driving, to wear a helmet, to not drink and drive," he says. “But often people don’t take me seriously."
Bhura is right. Forget pedestrians or bikers, at Momdhabad, about 10km from the Chopla spot in Delhi’s direction, we saw a school bus packed with children taking an unauthorized U-turn even when an authorized one was only about 500m away. This is usual, the villagers told us.
Momdhabad is a Priority 1 black spot (UP-032) that claimed 124 lives during 2011-13. There are smaller roads on either side of the highway that lead up to small villages. For people turning into or from these roads, there are no traffic lights, no speed indicators and no speed breakers.
Amroha district, spread across 2,249 sq. km, has 1,133 villages on either side of NH24. Villagers often cross the highway for work. The rate of accidents is very high.
“Even if a villager travels a couple of kilometres extra and tries to cross at an authorized crossing, there is no guarantee of his safety," says Moin Khan, a paan shop owner whose shack is right next to a Priority 1 black spot (UP-030), which claimed 124 lives in 2011-13.
The Union roads ministry earmarked ₹ 500 crore for the financial year 2015-16 to fix these black spots and even established a road safety cell.
“Short-term measures like installation of road signs, road markings, speed-reduction measures and repair of damages causing unsafe conditions on national highways shall be taken up immediately and completed within three months of identification of the black spot," the ministry said in a memorandum dated 28 October, adding that “the progress of the execution of these remedial measures should be regularly reported to the Road Safety Cell."
Accordingly, the top priority for the regional transport office in Gajraula is to ensure that road signs are put up prominently on the highway. “We have also asked for speed breakers on the smaller roads that intersect the highway at various places," says Himesh Tiwari, assistant regional transport officer (enforcement), Amroha.
“Radium plating on dividers on both sides of the highway could make a huge difference," says Yadav of the Gajraula police station. “And unauthorized cuts need to be closed permanently."
He says the police has also installed reflectors on 3,000 trucks and trolleys and put up CCTV cameras on the highway to reduce the number of accidents.
But these measures aren’t enough.
We saw just one board, with National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI’s) name on it, on a 30km-stretch en route to Gajraula listing the important numbers in case of an emergency. We tried calling the mobile number. It was incorrect. The landline went unanswered.
There is a national helpline, 1033, that NHAI says it is advertising. The number does work and NHAI says the response time is less than 30 minutes. The only problem is that none of the people in Amroha we spoke with were aware of the number.
Till awareness comes, there is Bhura.
Bhura’s children don’t support what he does. His two sons, Shadab (16) and Shehzad (14), and daughter Raveena (12) live in Bijnaur with his mother. “My children don’t support me. The thought of me carrying the dead traumatizes them. They don’t even like it when I go home to visit them and my mother," Bhura says. “They asked me to quit all this. When I didn’t, they stopped saying anything at all. Thankfully, my mother understands me," he says, adding: “Back at home, I have two cows now. The milk they give provides for my children. So I don’t have anything to worry about.
“I keep reminding myself of Sikandar badshah (king Alexander)," he tells me. “Before he died, he asked for his hands to be kept outside his shroud for the world to see that he came empty-handed and he is going empty-handed.
“And this is why I do what I do."
FIRST PUBLISHED26.02.2016 | 11:01 AM IST
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