It was January the 13th. I had an important meeting lined up for the day. I called up my mother in the morning and told her that I would be busy during the day and won’t be taking calls. She informed over the phone that they were preparing for Magh Bihu, which was two days later. My brother had joined the team of young guys to get wood for the ‘Mezi’, while my aunt was getting the necessary things needed to prepare pithas and ladoos.
After a brief conversation, I cut the call and got ready for the meeting. By 1.30 pm my mom called anyway. I picked it up reluctantly, thinking it could be an urgent matter. And it was. My mom was sobbing on the other side, while she somehow managed to tell me that my uncle was killed in a road accident. The accident happened on National Highway 15, on the stretch from Bogibeel to Kulajan in Assam’s Dhemaji district.
My uncle, along with a friend, was on his way to Silapathar, the nearest town, when a speeding bus collided with them, instantaneously killing them both. He left behind three teenage kids and a grieving wife, who stare at an uncertain future, as he was the only bread earner in the family.
The Bogibeel Bridge, which connects the districts of Dhemaji with Dibrugarh, with a length of 4.94 km is the longest rail cum road bridge in the country. It was inaugurated amidst much fanfare and pompous celebrations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who opened it for public use on December 25, 2018. People of the region, including I were very happy. And why should not we be? The construction of the bridge took an agonising 16 years. The bridge and the newly constructed highway effectively cut short a journey for more than 2 hours to only 30 minutes.
However, Bogibeel and NH 15, especially the 15-km stretch from the Bridge to Kulajan has been in the limelight for the number of accidents that has taken place over the years. Within days of inauguration, a young child was hit in the bridge by a speeding SUV. The whole incident was captured in a video by a co-passenger in the SUV. The video went viral on social media and the child had to undergo a long battle for his life. But not everyone was as lucky as him. In 2019 itself, more than 50 accidents took place in the stretch with more than 40 losing their lives.
The accident that took my uncle and his friend’s life was the second fatal accident on the road. Two more bikers were killed in the same spot a couple of days before my uncle’s accident. And while I was in the process of writing this, another young man was killed in a similar accident on January 20, 2020. That’s five fatalities in 22 days, which is a very high number.
Assam tops in the number of road accidents in the entire Northeast region. A report titled, ‘An analytical glimpse on road accidents in Assam; highlights that in each 100 accidents, 30 people lose their lives while 89 were injured. According to the NCRB, there were 7180 cases of road accidents in 2018, out of which 2,712 people lost their lives. According to a newspaper report, there were 296 cases of road accidents on National Highway 15, in which 83 people lost their lives and over 270 injuries were reported.
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Considering the sheer number of fatalities, one would assume that the administration would have taken up drastic steps to ensure safety and security of the passengers on the road. But very little is actually done. There is minimal media attention, with more than 80% of the incidents not being reported. A Google search for accidents in Bogibeel Bridge will return you only a few results. The local police outpost confirmed the large number of accidents that took place on the road. When I questioned their inaction, they highlighted that they needed clear instructions from the district administration’s office.
I started interacting with the local population, car and bike drivers, and the local police outpost to understand the cause behind the accidents. I concluded that the following reasons give rise to the accidents.
Non-use of Helmets: Almost all the motorbike riders, including the pillion riders did not use helmets. Even though it is illegal to drive without helmets, there is no police presence to monitor and ensure that the drivers wear helmets, don’t engage in drinking and driving.
Over speeding: There is no check on the speed limit in NH 15. Majority of the traffic in the road comes from autos, motorbikes, private cars and ultra-buses which ply passengers to and fro from Silapathar, Dhemaji, Jonai, Gogamukh, etc, to Dibrugarh. Often buses cross over the speed limit and collide with bikes and autos leading to accidents. Most of the fatalities are reported in collision with motorbikes due to the non-use of helmets. Also, there is not even a single speed limit hoarding on the road.
The Exit to Mechaki Tongani: The nearest village to Bogibeel bridge is Mechaki Tongani, and there is an exit to the village on NH15. Most of the accidents take place near this exit. The exit itself is very badly designed with no proper markings or speed controller near it. For people trying to get onto NH 15 from Mechaki, a very sharp turn has to be taken which increases the probability of getting hit by speeding vehicles from the other side.
Selfie and photography in Bogibeel Bridge: The Bogibeel bridge has served as a boon for the people of Sissi-Tongani, Silapathar, and other neighbouring regions. In the recent times, it has also become a very popular tourist spot. At any given moment, cars, bikes and even privately hired buses stop midway in the bridge for people to post for photos and selfies. This quest for photography leads to increasing number of accidents.
Many of the accidents are actually avoidable if some strict actions are undertaken by the local and police administration. Some activities, that I believe would go a long way in reducing the number of accidents:
- Ensure checking of all vehicles for licenses, helmets and drunken driving in NH 15 and ensure that road safety laws are followed by everyone.
- Put up speed limit signboards on the entire stretch from Bogibeel to Kulajan at various important points. The signboards should be put up in Assamese and English so that everyone can understand those.
Have a scientific evaluation of the Mechaki Tongani exit and ensure a safe exit and entry system to NH 15 from Mechaki, which I believe would drastically reduce the number of accidents.
Declare Bogibeel Bridge a ‘non-stoppage area’ and disallow photography in the bridge. Special spots for photography can be created before entry into the bridge.
Strict instructions should be given the police force, especially Silapathar PS and Dambuk Outpost for strict actions against offenders and vigilance like checking of licences and helmets at various points on NH 15, which will automatically reduce the number of accidents.
Conduct road safety campaigns by liaising with local organizations which will enable easier access to the local communities.
Two very distinct phenomena have been happening in the region due to the rise in accidents. First, a cottage industry of motor accident claims has emerged in the accidents. Within 24 hours of my uncle’s death, more than four people visited us, with each one offering to get more money for the family. Each one implied that the other was inefficient. There is almost a competition to get more cases. Even some police personnel suggested some ‘good persons’ who can handle the claims.
And second, it has given rise to some rumours and superstitious beliefs among the local community. The local community, along with the bus drivers, talk of the ‘presence of a supernatural spirit’ in the spot where most accidents take place and are in the process of constructing a temple near the spot. All the people I interacted with highlighted that their cars and buses skidded at that spot, which I believe could just be a design flaw.
Almost all the motorbike riders in the area are people from the nearby region, who are either on their way to nearest town or back from it. Almost all of those who lost their lives to the accidents are sole bread-earners for their families. So, their deaths leave behind a trail of grieving families. I sincerely believe that the local and the state administration should treat it as ‘urgent’ and take up all the necessary steps to reduce the number of accidents, if not completely eliminate them.
(Manoranjan Pegu is the regional coordinator for south Asia at Trade Union Solidarity Centre of Finland and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal)