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How are social enterprises helping address road safety and transportation challenges in India?

Ten countries account for more than half of the world's annual 1.2 million road deaths. Across the developing world, enterprises and governments are exploring new approaches to transportation and road safety problems causing these deaths. This happens equally at civic and policy level.

Traffic in Bangalore Taken by Meera Vijayann in Bangalore. Some rights reserved.

In late October, a luxury bus travelling to Hyderabad from Bangalore caught fire while overtaking a car on the highway. In what was called “one of the worst-ever road accidents” in Andhra Pradesh, 45 people died while eyewitnesses looked on helplessly. Accidents like this are not uncommon. Over 1.24 million people are believed to die in road accidents around the world every year. Of these, it has been found that only 10 countries account for more than half of all road deaths. Back in India, a new class of social entrepreneurs have already begun to rely on innovation to tackle the problem through models that encourage smarter transportation and safer road use.

The complexity of India’s road safety problems is not new; potholes, open drains, poor civic infrastructure and stray cattle remain pressing challenges that citizens face everyday. Companies such as Honda and Volvo have now begun campaigning often to promote awareness among the Indian public towards safe and sustainable transportation choices. Emerging innovative transportation enterprises and social enterprises have taken up various challenges on Indian roads.

“The opportunity to do top-down infrastructure in India is a catastrophe. There is a need for a bottom-up approach to infrastructure,” argues David Back, co-Founder of Zoom Inc., a membership-based car sharing and rental service in Bangalore, “We saw a huge opportunity in terms of taking cars off the road, reducing carbon emissions and democratising transportation in India”. Zoom Inc. allows people to hire cars by the hour or by the day on a need-basis similar to the popular Zipcar model in the United States.

Increasingly, this high demand for cars is opening doors for the companies focusing on smarter transportation. In certain cities, there has also been a focus on innovation in NMT (Non Motorised Transport) methods. Ecocabs, which was initiated in Fazilka, a town in Punjab is a great example. Since there are a huge number of cycle-rickshaw users in Punjab, the Graduates Welfare Association Fazilka, which founded Ecocabs, saw the potential to introduce safer, eco-friendly and affordable transport complete with certified licensing, insurance and medical aid for drivers. The successful concept has been replicated in 21 other towns in Punjab.

Smart transportation choices are also helping strengthen social enterprises working in the deeper, more complex areas of road safety in India. Piyush Tewari, Founder of SaveLife Foundation, an organisation that focuses on involving various stakeholders, right from the government to bystanders, towards ensuring road safety, talks passionately about working with citizens. “The entire logical premise is that to save someone’s life, you have what is called a chain of survival. Given the traffic congestion in India, in many cases, ambulances are unable to reach victims in the first ten or fifteen minutes which are crucial for a critically injured person. Bystander care therefore plays a huge role in the chain of survival,” he says.

Intervening at both the civic and policy level, the SaveLife Foundation has already achieved commendable results. Not only has the organisation helped over 6000 bystanders in emergency care, it has also been instrumental in urging the government to set up a panel that will look into the legal protection for bystanders who help accident victims. Besides this, it is now working closely with the police to ensure that they are trained in basic emergency care and pushing for the Indian government to adopt the “Good Samaritan Law” that could help empower and protect bystanders legally.

With growing populations, developing countries such as Brazil, India, China and Côte d'Ivoire are struggling to cope with the demand for vehicles for personal use, as there seems no room to accommodate the needs of a population on the road. Worse, there has been an acute ignorance shown in areas of basic safety measures by companies and automobile manufacturers alike because of the costs that it would incur. India, for instance, still does not have a mandatory crash safety tests in place.

For emerging enterprises, it seems that a possible way to weave through the complexity of problems is to tackle the issue by working together on the ground as well as push for policy level change. A good example is India’s national highway rescue helpline, established by the Lifeline Foundation, founded by Dr. Subroto Das. The toll-free “108” EMS (Emergency Medical Services) helpline has enjoyed support from several state governments in India. The SaveLife Foundation, on a similar note, is working towards pushing the government to form a single agency that will monitor implementation and look into violations on Indian roads.

Across the developing world, enterprises and governments are exploring new approaches to transportation and road safety problems. In China, the city of Shenzhen passed the country’s first “Good Samaritan Law” this year to encourage citizens to participate in helping each other in public in case of road emergencies. In Hong Kong, Diamond cabs, an initiative supported by Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVhk), turned things around by promoting inclusivity with disabled-friendly taxis. In Brazil, the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre are working on incorporating better road design for the safety of cyclists. With interventions that tackle transportation and safety problems both at the ground and at the policy level, there is no doubt that countries across the world are keen to learn more about new solutions. It will be interesting to see where this leads us in the coming year.


About the author

Meera Vijayann writes on social development and gender issues in south Asia. As the current Youth Ambassador for India on Sexual Violence in Conflict, she reports on gender-based violence in India. Her articles have appeared in the Guardian, openDemocracy, Forbes, and CNN. Follow her on Twitter @meeravijayann


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