Campaigning to Make India’s Roads Safer: A nice How Change Happens case study

July 7, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

A smart How Change Happens case study by David Bornstein in the New York Times’ ‘Fixes’ series (highly Indian RTArecommended). Bornstein looks at the advocacy of the SaveLife Foundation, set up by Piyush Tewari, a businessman, after his cousin Shivam was knocked down by a jeep then left to bleed to death by the roadside. Excerpts + commentary from me in italics.

“India has surpassed China as the global leader in road accidents. Last year it had 146,000 deaths. The Indian government has estimated that half of the deaths could be prevented if victims received timely medical care. Most of them are very poor – rickshaw wallahs, cart pullers or daily laborers who walk or bicycle home from work after dark. Ambulances are still unreliable or unavailable in many areas, so it often falls to bystanders or police officers to act quickly if crash victims are to be saved.

Getting to the roots of the problem often means understanding the history of an issue

In trying to comprehend why Shivam hadn’t been helped, Tewari discovered that a major problem was fear, and it went back a long way. During the 19th century, the British had established a law requiring India’s hospitals to record the identity of anyone who brought in a person for care. “It was used by the British police when someone brought an injured freedom fighter to the hospital, so they could track down others,” said Tewari.

Good research is essential to problem definition

Today, Indians remain reluctant to intervene on a victim’s behalf because they worry about legal harassment. In a national survey commissioned by the SaveLife Foundation, three-quarters of respondents said they would be unlikely to assist a road victim with serious injuries; of those, 88 percent said they feared repeated police questioning and a prolonged obligation to appear in court as a witness; 77 percent added that hospitals unnecessarily detained good Samaritans and refused treatment if money wasn’t paid. A vast majority of respondents agreed that India needed a “supportive legal environment” to enable people to help injured victims on the road.

then a miracle happensAnd then a miracle occurred……

It finally has one. In March, India’s Supreme Court issued a judgment requiring governments across India to comply with a set of guidelines to protect good Samaritans. Indians who assist others in need will no longer be required to disclose personal information or be subjected to questioning by the police; they cannot be detained at hospitals for any reason, and they are protected from civil or criminal liability. This could prove to be a major step forward.

The miracle was possible due to India’s tradition of judicial activism. After 2 years of fruitless lobbying of government

SaveLife  started petitioning India’s Supreme Court directly. Article 21 of India’s Constitution states that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty. And Indian law states that if the government is not acting to preserve a constitutional right, the Supreme Court can order it to do so.

In 2014, the Supreme Court, persuaded by SaveLife’s petition, ordered the government to draft guidelines for a good Samaritan law. They were issued in May 2015 as an advisory to India’s states and union territories, but without legislative force. “We went to the Supreme Court to ask if it could exercise its special powers to convert these guidelines into the law of the land until the Parliament actually enacts legislation,” said Tewari.

The next stage is to ensure implementation, which is where SaveLife must switch tactics from insider advocacy to public awareness-raising, with lots of social media.

The foundation is raising money for a national radio campaign to inform the public. A website,, and a Facebook page, provide platforms at which to learn about the law and how to help in an emergency, report harassment, or share stories of human kindness and courage.

Of course, this isn’t the whole solution – SaveLife is also training police officers in providing trauma care, and pushing for tougher enforcement of seatbelt and helmet laws. Beyond that there are major governance issues, but new technology can help:  

In many parts of India, an untrained driver can receive a driver’s license simply by paying a bribe. “You don’t have to

Needs sorting

Needs sorting

even appear for a test,” says Tewari. “It’s like ordering a pizza.” Another problem is standardization. “We don’t have a national driver database,” adds Pillai. “Each state issues its own license with all-India validity. A large number of drivers have multiple licenses. They don’t mind if you suspend one, they’ve got 3 or 4 more in their pocket.” India’s biometric identification system could solve that problem.

There are also positive examples from elsewhere

Globally, a combination of better education, enforcement and road management has been a key to improved safety. In preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government invested in bike lanes and mass transit, tightened licensing, and instituted major punishments for serious traffic offenses. Between 2005 to 2010, the country’s annual road deaths dropped by a third.

Like any good campaigning NGO, SaveLife has generated some pretty impressive Killer Facts:

He contrasted India’s intense focus on terrorism with its focus on road safety. The government spends 20 times more to combat terrorism, he estimated, while road crashes kill 75 times more people.

Final great advice from Tewari:

“It requires being flexible, understanding how the government works and thinks, being data driven. If you’re able to get your agenda to become part of their agenda, you can have big impact. But it takes a while for policies to come through, and to have impact — so you have to sacrifice instant gratification.”