The world suddenly tilted. Even before Haneesha’s eyes
snapped open, her ears registered the sudden silence in the car, as if everyone
was holding their breath. Before she could lift her head from the lap of the
girl sitting on her right, the car staggered on its wheels. She found her eyes
level with the windows.
Diagonal is the only word Haneesha can find to describe the way the highway looked as the Maruti Swift lurched towards the divider at over 120 kilometres per hour (kmph). The driver swerved to the left, managing to avoid crashing into the divider.
There were four people in the backseat. Haneesha was thrown off Aishwarya’s lap towards the right side of the car, while Aishwarya and a male friend—who was sitting near the right window—were hurled towards the left. Later, Haneesha remembers that the girl on her left was thrown onto the front seats. Haneesha was slammed against the window and ripples of pain shot through her body as her ribs cracked. The swerve made the car skid to the other side of the road, along which ran a wide pit. Realising that they were travelling too fast for the car’s power brakes to make a difference, the young man at the wheel aimed for a small dirt road that led off from the highway.
They didn’t make it.
Around the time Haneesha lost consciousness, the car plunged into the pit.
t wasn’t supposed to be this way. Haneesha Bandaru, Aishwarya Reddy and her four friends were not even supposed to be on the highway near Shadnagar, around 50 kilometres from Hyderabad. The three girls, all architecture students in Hyderabad, were a few weeks from their graduation. Aishwarya, an ambitious and vivacious 22-year-old passionate about her subject, was moving to the United States to enrol in a postgraduate course in architecture. She would live with her sister, a software engineer.
Haneesha and Aishwarya were childhood friends and though they joined different colleges, their bond remained strong. The third girl in the group was a classmate of Aishwarya’s. One evening in January she invited Aishwarya and Haneesha to celebrate her birthday with two engineering students, one of whom was her boyfriend. The group was completed by another young man, Aishwarya’s neighbour as well as classmate.
The gang met in front of Aishwarya’s house in Banjara Hills at 10.30 p.m. A second group turned up in another car. After they started, the boys picked up beer and Breezers, which they loaded into the boot. “Whenever we drove, we took her neighbour’s car. But that day, since it was her birthday, Aishwarya’s classmate had brought her car. Her boyfriend rode shotgun while the other engineering student took the wheel.”
They set off towards Shamashabad airport. The Hyderabad airport is on the Bangalore-Hyderabad highway, the NH-7. The food court at the airport was the gang’s usual birthday spot.
Almost an hour later, they realised they had left the airport behind. “Then the boys suggested we go to a dhaba instead, one on the highway near Shadnagar. It was never part of the plan to go there,” says Haneesha. So they drove on. They were driving at nearly 100 kmph, and Haneesha wanted to tell the driver to slow down. But she did not.
The group reached the dhaba before midnight and as they ate dinner, the alcohol also started flowing. Haneesha says she just had Breezers; the boys drank the beers. The group stayed at the roadside dhaba till 2 a.m.: taking pictures, chatting, laughing. Haneesha remembers that Aishwarya was happy.
She also remembers a conversation about who would drive back. It was decided that the birthday girl’s boyfriend, who wanted to drive, should not as he was too drunk to do it. A sleepy Haneesha went back to the car as the gang continued the party. She locked herself in the car and slept, till she was woken by knuckles rapping on the window. She let her friends in and as Aishwarya pulled her head onto her lap, they were on their way back.
She dozed off again.
What she did not know was that it was the boyfriend—who she claims was extremely drunk—who had taken the wheel. Just as the group was getting ready to leave, he had snatched the keys from his friend’s hand and insisted he was going to drive. There was another thing Haneesha wouldn’t know of until much later—the young engineering student did not possess a licence. It would be too late by then.
aneesha came to amid a chaos of voices, sights and sounds. Hands were pulling at her, trying to get her out of the wreck. The vehicle was lying on its side. The left half of the roof had caved in, like aluminium foil. Aishwarya was lying under the roof, blood leaking out of her head. People were shouting that she was dead.
The car had toppled into the pit and its velocity had carried it forward, till it crashed into a compound wall, demolishing it. The roof, which had absorbed most of the impact, lay like a knotted bed sheet over the body of the automobile. It was completely detached from the rear. The front windscreen was punched in and shards peppered the front seats. A headlight was sitting on the driver’s seat.
Except for the driver, all the survivors had injuries of various kinds: broken bones, flesh wounds, contusions. The driver had escaped almost unscathed, with only a minor wound below the eye. He was able to use his mobile phone and call their friends in the second car. The six youngsters lay trapped in a dark pit on the side of the highway, till their friends could turn around and reach them.
When Haneesha was hauled out of the wreckage, she was in a state of shock. She started walking aimlessly down the highway, till one of her friends grabbed her and brought her back. She sat down on the road, her blank stare fixed at the nothingness of the night, and didn’t speak a word. She could hear the boy who was Aishwarya’s neighbour screaming at the driver. “You killed Aishwarya! You killed her!”
The next few hours were a blur of images, feelings and conversations that she didn’t seem to understand. Her friends called an ambulance which took them to the Shadnagar government hospital. She remembers a male doctor trying to give her first aid. “I would not let him. I told him to look to Aishu first. All my friends refused treatment. They just wanted them to save Aishu.”
Speaking four months after the incident, Haneesha thinks they were only hysterical, that they all knew what was apparent even before the duty doctor made it official. Within minutes, Aishwarya was declared “brought dead”, from a massive head injury.
he World Health Organisation released a report on road accidents in 2013, which put road traffic injuries as the eighth leading cause of deaths in the world, with an impact similar to that caused by malaria. Over 10 lakh people die every year on the world’s roads. The figure for 2010 is 10,24,000.
According to the report, road accidents are the top cause of death among young people in the age group of 15 to 29 years. Tellingly, the cover page of the report has a photograph from some unknown Indian city, of a yellow and black auto rickshaw crowded with schoolgirls. One girl is sitting on the metal bars separating the driver from the passengers, facing the back of the auto rickshaw, her legs resting atop a tyre. The selection is appropriate. In absolute numbers, India has the most accidents in the world.
In 2011, India reported 4,97,686 accidents. Twenty-four per cent were fatal and 1,42,485 people died. In other words, one person dies in a road accident in India every four minutes. There is an accident almost every minute.
The trend in India is part of a worldwide increase in accidents over the years due to increasing motorisation, rapid development of road networks, rise in population, and lax safety norms for cars in India and other parts of the developing world. Though several countries have adopted measures—including new laws—to bring down the number of accidents, the rate has remained steady over the last decade. But when this is set against a 15 per cent increase in global motor production, it points to successful intervention in road safety by many countries.
Africa and low-income countries report the worst accident and fatality figures, followed by middle-income countries like India. Eighty per cent of accident deaths in the world occur in middle income countries.
“While road traffic fatality rates are decreasing in some high-income countries, the rapid increase in low- and middle-income countries has driven an overall global increase in deaths and injuries,” the report says.
These countries have seen rapid motorisation without an accompanying investment in road safety. In January, the Global New Car Assessment Programme (Global NCAP) conducted the first-ever independent crash tests of five of India’s most popular cars: Maruti Suzuku Alto, Tata Nano, Ford Figo, Hyundai i10, and Volkswagen Polo. The conclusions showed that safety levels in India were “20 years behind the five-star standards now common in Europe and North America”. Many cars made for India would not be allowed on the streets of a European country.
On the other hand, many developed nations like Australia, UK, Canada, the Netherlands and France have brought down their accident rates significantly in recent years.
Figures released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways show a steady increase in accidents on Indian roads, from 4.07 lakh in 2002 to 4.97 lakh in 2011. In the same period, the annual death toll increased from over 84,000 to 1.42 lakh. The number of people injured has risen from about 4.8 lakh to 5.11 lakh. The severity of accidents has also seen a marked increase. Calculated as the number of fatalities per 100 accidents, severity has risen from 20.8 in 2002 to 28.6 in 2011.
However, the number of deaths per motor vehicles has decreased—from 80.2 deaths per 10,000 vehicles in 2000, to 35.1 in 2011. This is the only positive parameter in a graph that is steadily inching towards red.
Acting on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the Supreme Court (SC) in April this year, constituted a three-member panel, headed by then sitting judge K. S. Radhakrishnan, to study the problem. The panel would make remedial recommendations, oversee implementation, and will also be empowered to make state governments accountable.
In its judgment, the court said: “Indian roads have proved to be giant killers demanding immediate attention and remedial action.” The committee has been tasked with submitting its findings within six months.
India has a road network of 47 lakh kilometres. Approximately 27.5 lakh kilometres are rural roads and 10.05 lakh kilometres are Public Works Department (PWD) roads. Approximately 79,100 kilometres are national highways and about 1.56 lakh kilometres are state highways. However, in terms of accidents, national highways accounted for almost 1.5 lakh of the 4.97 lakh accidents reported in 2011. While national highways constitute only 1.69 per cent of total road length, they account for over 30 per cent of accidents. Over 52,000 people perished on national highways in a single year. State highways too recorded very high figures of accidents and fatality, with more than 39,000 people dying in road accidents.
In total, highways accounted for 54.7 per cent of road accidents and 64.5 per cent of deaths.
H-7 is a major north-south highway, starting from Hyderabad Gate in Varanasi. At 2,369 kilometres, it is the longest highway in India and connects Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the north, through Maharashtra, to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south. It passes through Jabalpur, Rewa, and Nagpur before it reaches Hyderabad.
From Hyderabad, the road is referred to as the Bangalore-Hyderabad highway, as it connects south India’s two major IT hubs.
Traffic is heavy and includes a large number of professionals travelling between the two cities; it is a particularly busy route for private Volvo bus operators as well as the Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh states’ own transport corporations. The route Haneesha, Aishwarya and their friends travelled took them to the town of Shadnagar in the neighbouring district of Mahbubnagar (Telangana).
From Kothur, around 12 kilometres before Shadnagar, the road is maintained by the GMR Corporation. After Shadnagar, where there is a toll booth, the highway was built by GMR and leads to Jadcherla. GMR maintains this stretch too.
According to figures provided to Fountain Ink by GMR, there were 346 accidents on the 46-kilometre stretch of NH-7 from Kothur to Jadcherla in 2013. Seventy-six people died while 613 people were injured. The worst month was November, in which 97 people were injured and 9 people died in 38 accidents. In December, 74 people were injured while 13 people were killed in June.
Though on the higher side, these figures are not atypical. The numbers of persons injured per 10,000 kilometres of road length has risen from around 590 in 1970 to 1,105.6 in 2011. The death rate per 10,000 kilometres increased 2.5 times, from 122 in 1970 to 308.1 in 2011.
In 2008-11, five large states accounted for 54.8 per cent of all accidents in India—Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Andhra Pradesh was third in the country in terms of fatalities and injuries.
ften called the gypsies of India, the Banjaras are a nomadic tribe believed to be originally from Rajasthan. Over the centuries, they migrated to other parts.
Their largest population is in Telangana, where they are called Lambadas. A sizable population of Lambadas live in small settlements called tandas (originally meaning camps) which dot the sides of NH-7 on its way through Mahbubnagar district. While there is some agriculture, most men and women work as daily labourers in nearby factories or construction sites.
The highway came up in 2006 and had a disastrous impact on the lives of the Banjaras. In the numerous tandas from Kothur to Shadnagar, they talk about losing an alarming number of people to accidents on the highway. A majority of fatalities have been people trying to cross the highway on foot. They complain that many families have been left without a bread winner, and women lament that they have been left to fend for themselves.
An iron factory is situated near a flyover is notorious for accidents. A long, rectangular building with soot-covered tiled roofs and chimneys spewing black smoke, the factory employs several people from three Banjara settlements on both sides of the road, collectively called Dhansingh tanda. There are more tandas a couple of kilometres down the road. The total population of the tanda runs into hundreds. Locals and police say 30 to 50 people from these scattered communities have died on this small stretch of road in the last eight years—in addition to a large number of accidents involving non-locals.
As a standard of comparison, the average fatality rate for road accidents in India is 42.3 per one lakh population. It is 52 for Andhra Pradesh. At a conservative estimate, the fatality rate in Dhansingh tanda is 100 times more than the national average.
Seventy-year-old Salamma says she is the granddaughter of Dhansingh, after whom the tanda is named. She is sitting on her haunches as she talks to me in the large open courtyard of her daughter-in-law’s kuccha home. Salamma wears the traditional Banjara attire whose colourfulness is almost shocking to the outsider’s eye. An array of large mirror chips and silver necklaces decorate her red jacket, while her gnarled feet show off silver rings on every toe and outsized brass bangles on her ankles. Huge white bangles run down her hands.
Vehicles zip past on the highway a few dozen metres behind her. “I don’t cross the road anymore, I have grown too afraid,” she says.
Her daughter-in-law and son explain that she witnessed an accident that shook her up. “The man was thrown up like a football into the air. The car was coming from the Hyderabad side and going at an incredible speed. Most accidents here happen like this,” her son says.
Salamma nods and says she has been scared of accidents ever since her other son died crossing the road. But he was not the first in the family to die on the highway. Salamma’s surviving son Harya says, “My brother-in-law was a construction worker on building the flyover. He was killed when his motorcycle ran under a tipper lorry.”
But what really shook the family was the death of Harya’s brother Mudavat Sithiya in 2010, at the age of 30. Sithiya’s widow Mudavat Komdi says: “He had got up in the morning and went out to wash his face. He saw a neighbour from the opposite tanda and went across to greet him. A car came out of nowhere and hit him. He broke a leg and his back was also injured. We treated him for over a year. For several months he was at a private hospital in Shadnagar. When things did not improve, we shifted him to a nature cure centre. But three months of treatment there also could not save him. After we brought him back home, he died within two weeks.”
The family says it cost them ₹3.5 lakh for treatment—money raised by selling land jointly owned by several siblings. Komdi’s eyes brim with tears as she continues. “How can I take care of things alone? I now go for coolie work to look after my three children. But I have health problems and I don’t know how long I can keep it up. I have no idea what will happen after that.”
Things did not end there. Komdi claims that the driver of the car that killed her husband was the then sub-inspector of the Kothur police station. The ensuing altercation with the police cost the family greatly, she says. “Two months back, there was another accident. A man from the opposite tanda died. Many of the tanda people blocked the traffic and stopped the police from taking away the body. The entire traffic from Hyderabad onwards was jammed from evening till the night.”
Komdi says the police arrested her, Harya, and three others from the tanda. “We had only gone to the road to see what happened. But the police targeted us over the earlier case. At the police station, we were beaten with lathis. Later, they sent us to Warangal jail. We got bail after a week,” says Komdi.
The police case continues, as does the accident case in which Komdi’s husband died. She says, “We have not got any compensation. The sub-inspector gave `5,000 to some tandalders who had gone to settle the matter. We did not see any of the money.”
he people in the tanda across the road are also Lambadas. But the settlement is smaller and the people more urbanised. They live in spacious houses with concrete roofs, large courtyards and iron gates. The men own motorbikes and the women are no longer in traditional Banjara attire. But the rest of the story is the same.
The incident in which Komdi was arrested was the result of a motorbike accident on February 19, 2014, in which two men from the second tanda died. Mohan and his brother-in-law Harya died entering the road from the tanda on a Splendor motorbike. They were hit by a speeding Swift car, which went by without stopping.
Both men, in their mid-thirties, died on the spot.
The protests that followed and the anger of the family is understandable. With these deaths, the family has lost five people to the same road. Mohan’s younger brother Naresh died in 2008 when, trying to cross the highway on a motorbike, a tipper lorry struck him. Naresh was 16 then, and below the legal age to drive. Their uncle Gopal died in 2011. A few years earlier, a cousin died near the flyover when his motorbike was rammed by a truck.
Mudavat Ravi, Mohan’s brother, says: “Harya owed `30,000 to a person in a nearby village. They were going to give it and Mohan was the one driving. By the time we got there, people had made off with the money. Some people who saw the accident managed to get the number of the car. We have filed a case but we have not got any compensation.”
Mohan’s widow Lakshmy is now working as a daily labourer in a nearby factory. She has two small children. Ravi shows me a copy of a Telugu newspaper that carried reports on the accident. A grainy black-and-white photograph shows a wailing Lakshmy huddled around her husband’s body on the highway, imploring cops who have gathered around. Other pictures show a trail of blood leading up to the accident site.
Ravi—who was arrested for blocking the road and had to shell out `6,500 for the bond—says, “The car was travelling so fast that Harya’s body was torn to pieces. His leg was found several metres away. Some pieces of his body were found on the bike and his brain was splattered all over the back of the bike.”
The problem facing the tanda people is that the highway is the only way to access other tarred roads and markets. To go anywhere, they have to cross or travel along the highway. Ravi says eight people have died in the tanda—which according to him has a population of just over 60—after the highway came up.
In spite of the accidents, underage boys from the tanda continue to ride on the motorway. Convenience overrules both fear and prudence.
he tanda people say GMR representatives have visited them several times. “There are no lights anywhere here. So it becomes very dangerous at night. Neither the police nor the politicians have done anything. We asked them to build a bridge so that traffic does not go right in front of our homes. They said they would but nothing has happened. We asked them for speed breakers. While they gave us assurances, nothing has been done,” Ravi says.
GMR officials, police personnel, doctors, and motor vehicle department officials consulted for this story gave a number of reasons for the high rate of accidents on NH-7. The major ones were overspeeding, not following traffic rules, drunken driving, and faster vehicles. In the case of the Shadnagar stretch, the police said lack of traffic signs, message boards and lighting increased the chances of accidents happening.
Shadnagar motor vehicles inspector A. Nagaraju says, “Rash and negligent driving is the major reason. The numbers are going up because there are very good and fast cars on the road now. And the highway is in very good condition. So when an accident happens, fatalities go up. The largest number of accidents on the highway is new model private cars. Many people don’t follow basic rules like slowing down near curbs. Many people drive on the fast lane even when they are going slow, and other drivers are forced to overtake them. Lorry drivers usually don’t use the parking space provided. They say it’s not convenient and park on the side of the lane. This can cause back collisions, especially at night.
“We need more signage as most drivers are uneducated. There are only a few small signs on the highway right now. Lights are also very few. There is also the problem of drunken driving and people driving without licences. All this can only be changed by awareness campaigns.”
n 2011, Andhra Pradesh had the second highest number of people killed in accidents due to consumption of alcohol or drugs, with 778 deaths.
Nirmala, the circle inspector of Shadnagar town police station, say the police are helpless. “Some 50 tanda people must have died on the road in front of the iron factory. Their families come here and protest and the women lament that they have been abandoned. It is not easy to watch. In some places small children have died. We have talked to GMR several times to put up more street lights. Right now, there are street lights only at the major intersections. They always say they will do it, but never do. They also told us they cannot put speed breakers because it is against the rules of the National Highway Authority of India. Finally, the department spent its own money on speed breakers at a few crucial junctions. We cannot just let people keep on dying,” she says.
Records at the Shadnagar government hospital provided to Fountain Ink indicated that the largest number of accidents occurred between 7 p.m. and 12 p.m.
“The presence of dense human settlements by the roadside is not uncommon in India. Because of a lack of adequately-designed service roads, people travelling short distances often go the wrong way on high-speed roads. Pedestrians too cross major roads unsafely. It is clear that current road design practices do not account fully for the diversity of travel modes that need to be addressed,” says S. Velmurugan, head of the Traffic Engineering and Safety division, Central Road Research Institute, in New Delhi.
Hemanth Rao, GMR’s manager at Shadnagar, rubbishes police allegations. “Who says we have not provided adequate lights? We have given more lighting than anywhere on the NH-44 (the newly-designated name for the NH-7). We have given as many lights as required per the detailed project report (DPR). If the police are saying this, it is because they do not know anything about the highway. They have contributed nothing to road safety, and their patrolling and checking is lax,” he says.
Road safety and traffic experts consulted for this story point to a number of systemic factors as responsible for the unacceptable level of accidents. Key among them are widespread traffic indiscipline, non-enforcement of traffic rules, government apathy, non-adherence to best safety practices in engineering, ignoring pedestrian needs when constructing roads, and lack of road safety audits. Though several government committees (the last one was the Sundar Committee) have given recommendations for a coordinated approach by the central and state governments, most of the steps have not been implemented.
The solutions include creating a central agency for road safety, adopting best international safety standards across the board, designing roadways keeping pedestrians and local populations in mind, changing laws regarding traffic offences, and promoting road safety education. But none of this can happen unless the government makes it an urgent priority, experts say.
“India is a prime example of a developing country where growth in motorized vehicles has followed economic growth and has negatively impacted road safety. In recent years, India has invested heavily on road infrastructure but it is still inadequate,” says Velmurugan. “For example, the National Highways (NH) network—which constitutes only 1.69 per cent of the total road network in India and carries 40 per cent of the total traffic—is only two lanes wide, or narrower, for 75 per cent of its extent. The NH network accounted for 30 per cent of total road accidents and 36 per cent of fatalities in 2011. Reckless driving coupled with gross indiscipline, traffic offence on high-speed roads and driving under the influence of alcohol or drug are some of the major causes of these terrible road tragedies.
“On the engineering side, there are many other unsafe features in the NH and SH (state highway) road network, such as open drains with steep side slopes, inadequate design of intersections, and lack of separation between slow-moving or non-motorised vehicles and heavier or faster motorised vehicles,” Velmurugan says.
Velmurugan also thinks the figures reported by the government are an underestimation. Police apathy in registering FIRs, as well as non-reporting by hospitals, means the real number of accidents—as well as fatalities—could be higher. For 2011, the official death count is 1.42 lakh, but Velmurugan reckons it could be as high as 1.75 lakh.
“There is no institution at any level of government that is entrusted with the sole responsibility of ensuring minimum safety standards are met when planning, designing, and constructing roads or during operation,” he explains. “There is no governmental body for safety audits. Depending on how a particular road segment was financed, either NHAI or a concessionaire maintains and oversees traffic operation on the segment. Enforcement of traffic rules is entrusted to the respective state police. Violations are common and enforcement is lax.”
Velmurugan says that at present, the government is going through a highly ambitious road development programme which has major policy orientation towards public private partnership (PPP) projects. “However, if one looks at the projects delivered over the last decade, none of them incorporate all the safety features required by international standards. Multi-lane divided highways are meant for higher speed; why are these not access controlled? And if there is no access control, why are the required ancillary safety features like grade separation of motorised and non-motorised traffic not included?”
In the interest of making the projects viable for PPP (by
keeping the total
project cost lower), many safety features like service roads, grade separations, and so on are excluded from the detailed design. “Moreover, the projects implemented by government funds and those implemented through PPP are required to follow different standards, which is very strange, and probably is done only in India,” Velmurugan says.
Nishi Mittal, a road safety expert, is part of the Supreme Court-appointed panel on road safety. The other members are S. Sundar, a former transport secretary and retired Supreme Court judge K. S. Radhakrishnan, who heads the panel. While they are waiting for the government to allot an office and staff, Mittal says the committee has already begun work. “We have sent pro-forma requests to the central and state governments. We have asked for information on why road safety measures have not been implemented by various agencies. We have also asked the state governments to give information on the various traffic laws being followed. They have two months to reply, after which we will start the process of analysing the data and coming up with recommendations. In the meantime, we might also invite presentations from research institutes and NGOs and take their input.”
Mittal agrees with Velmurugan that bureaucratic indifference is the prime reason why safety standards remain on paper. While existing standards have to be implemented uniformly, the standards should be raised to internationally accepted levels. “Developed nations have been able to bring down road fatalities because they have realised it is a multi-disciplinary issue and have tackled it in a co-ordinated way. Immediately, we need a central safety board responsible for the entire road network in the country. It should come directly under the Prime Minister’s Office. The effort has to be co-ordinated between the transport ministry, the law ministry, research institutes and NGOs in the field. Different states have different traffic rules, for example on helmets and seat belts. What then is the point of the Central Motor Vehicles Act? There should be a uniform law applied nationally. The previous government had announced five years back that they will reduce accidents by 50 per cent. But the numbers have just increased. We need to set real and meaningful targets and take concrete steps to reach them.”
“We are not in touch with Aishwarya’s friends. Only Haneesha
visits us,” says Devender Reddy. Aishwarya’s father is seated in his apartment in Banjara
Hills, an upmarket residential area in Hyderabad. He is a politician. A former
councillor, he started out as a lawyer before becoming a full-time activist for
the BJP. When the movement for a separate Telangana state gathered momentum he
left the BJP and joined the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).
A thin photo album lies on a coffee table in front of him. It was a gift from her friends to Aishwarya on her birthday. Its pages are filled with snaps of Aishwarya with her friends. Dancing on stage for a college function, on vacation, at a Christmas party, painting a house, at a beach—if photographs do tell a story, this is of a girl who lived life with zest.
What the photographs don’t reveal is a core of serious ambition and dreams that she would never pursue. “She was going to move to Chicago and stay with her sister. She wanted to do her masters degree in architecture in a university there. There was a particular course she was interested in doing on planning, structure, development and interiors.”
Haneesha visits Aishwarya’s parents out of a sense of duty. “It is painful for them to see me because it makes them remember Aishu. Yet I feel I must go, because they get some comfort seeing her friends,” she says.
She is also motivated by guilt. In the hours Haneesha spent waiting in Shadnagar for Aishwarya’s parents to come, the rest of her friends persuaded her to lie about what happened in the car before it veered off the highway. “They all came up to me and told me that when Aishu’s parents come, they will say she was the one driving the car. Otherwise, the boy driving the car could end up in jail. He did not even have a driver’s licence. They asked me not to change the story when her parents asked me.”
Devender Reddy did not believe his daughter could have been driving the car. “Aishwarya was an excellent driver. I could not believe she would cause an accident like this,” he says. Reddy questioned Haneesha at the hospital, but she stuck to her story, even as she refused to let the doctors treat her broken ribs. The next day, she was admitted to a private hospital in Hyderabad. After her convalescence, she went back to Shadnagar to give her statement to the police. She told Aishwarya was at the wheel during the accident. There was no case against the actual driver.
As the months went by, however, Haneesha’s conscience cracked. “Finally, I went to Aishu’s parents and told them the truth. That it was not her fault. That she was killed because someone else was driving the car. That he had no licence and was drunk.” The official records remain unchanged.
The irony, according to Haneesha, is that Aishwarya was the only occupant who had not consumed any alcohol and who possessed a licence.
Devender Reddy has little hope that road safety in India will improve in the near future. “Several committees have submitted reports before. Nothing will change. We have to tell youngsters not to drive on highways alone, unless they have an expert driver. However,” he says, “we never let Aishwarya go anywhere far. If there were parties we would ask her to celebrate at her friends’ houses. But that day, she said it was their last celebration before college got over. In spite of all the precautions, we lost her.”