Dying to travel

Ninety-four people lost their lives in air crashes in the past 12 months, but the number of people killed on Nepal’s roads was 30 times higher

Armymen try to pull out the bus that fell into the Madi River in Tanahu in 2013. Photo: PAWAN PAUDEL/NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

The question everyone has been asking after the tragic crash of the Yeti Airlines flight in Pokhara on 15 January is why airline accidents are so frequent in Nepal. 

The answer may lie in the question itself. It is a mistake to call them ‘accidents’ — which are unfortunate incidents that happen unintentionally. The fact is that most deadly air crashes in Nepal over the past 60 years have been found by investigation committees to have been caused by negligence, carelessness, over-confidence, or not following rules. This means they should not have occurred. Lives need not have been lost.

As we reported in last week’s edition of this paper, 92% of the fatal crashes since 1962 happened when airworthy planes flew into mountains obscured by clouds. Despite strict rules about flights maintaining visual at all times in the mountains, planes kept being operated in no-go weather en route or at destination airports.

The Pokhara crash did not follow this pattern. Early clues point to possible lapses in the pre-landing cockpit procedure during a checkout flight for the co-pilot. We will have to wait for the investigation report to know what went so horribly wrong in those final moments. 

But that will be too late and of no comfort to the relatives of those who died. Entire families perished in the Seti Gorge that Sunday morning. The dead included promising surgeons, musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, journalists. Besides the unbearable individual tragedies, this was an incalculable loss to the whole nation. 

There are many factors that contribute to our inability to learn from past mistakes. It may sound deterministic, but at a deeper cultural level there is a tendency to blame ‘accidents’ on ‘fate’ — factors beyond human control. But most crashes could have been avoided if rules were followed.

In many aspects of modern life, Nepalis have not come to terms with the rapid advance of modern technology, and the conventions that must be followed in operating them. It is manifested in the carelessness in handling electric wires, LPG cylinders, and how building codes are flouted. 

Earthquakes in Nepal cannot be called ‘natural’ disasters. As we saw in 2015, it is not earthquakes that kill people, but poorly designed houses, and owners knowingly using sub-standard materials to cut costs.

Also, look at the way we drive. There were more than 4,000 road traffic ‘accidents’ in Nepal last year, resulting in nearly 2,800 fatalities and at least 5,000 people with serious injuries. Ironically, this figure would possibly be much higher if the roads were properly built and maintained, because that would encourage over-speeding.

The Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 paradoxically saved thousands of lives that may have otherwise been lost on roads and highways. There is an epidemic of what are called ‘road traffic accidents’, and it has become the number one cause of disease burden among young Nepalis. 

A week after the Pokhara air crash, four people were killed and 15 injured when a jeep plunged into a gorge in Surkhet. On 11 December, 11 died when a bus veered off the road in Jajarkot. On 12 October, a passenger bus plunged down a mountain in Mugu, killing most of the 40 people on board.   

Ninety-four people lost their lives in air crashes in Nepal in the past 12 months, but during that same period the number of people killed on roads was nearly 30 times higher. Bus and jeep crashes have become so routine that they do not even make it to the front pages of newspapers anymore. Each is reported as a separate event, not as a trend showing the sharp increase in road and highway fatalities in Nepal year-on-year.

News is defined as whatever is negative, or out of the ordinary. It is the nature of the news ‘business’ that aviation disasters get more priority. People who travel by air tend to be better off, there is more international interest because foreigners may be involved, or the aircraft type is in operation all over the world. 

Policy decisions and rules save lives. Proof of this is the dramatic drop in fatalities in Kathmandu Valley after the crackdown on driving under the influence. Time cards to control speeding along highways have also been effective. Better maintenance of roads and their safety features could prevent many road mishaps.

As with other disasters, it is the poorest Nepalis who are most vulnerable to dangerous roads, and this is a criminal lack of responsibility on the part of the state. We expect the new coalition government with a crop of young technocrats in the various ministries to swing into action to ensure the safety of the travelling public.

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