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39 dead as Indian bus veers off road into canal

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Onlookers stand along a canal as rescue teams search for survivors after a bus plunged into a canal killing at least 37 passengers, in Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh state on February 16, 2021. (Photo by Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP)

Thirty-nine people were killed Tuesday when a bus plunged into a deep canal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, officials said, with seven others managing to swim to safety.

The accident happened when the bus, which was carrying more than 50 passengers, veered off a bridge and crashed into the 30-feet (9.1-metre) deep canal in Sidhi district early on Tuesday morning.

It was unclear what caused the bus to swerve, but India’s vast network of roads is poorly maintained and notoriously dangerous.

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Local media reported the bus was completely submerged, and images showed officials in orange life jackets using rescue boats to look for survivors.

Officials said the driver and six others swam to safety. Several other people remain missing.

“The death toll in the bus accident has risen to 39,” district magistrate Ravindra Kumar Choudhary told reporters.

Sixteen women and a child, whose age was not released, were among the dead. Some of the men who died were on their way to an employment exam for a job at Indian Railways.

The state government has ordered an inquiry.

An initial investigation suggested the driver lost control of the privately-owned bus, reports said. The vehicle then hit the boundary of the bridge before crashing into the water.

Local officials stopped the release of water into the canal, which sped up rescue operations by divers and allowed cranes to pull the blue bus out.

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Treacherous roads
The Times of India newspaper quoted sources saying it took three hours to lift the vehicle out.

Images showed bodies lined up on the banks of the canal as distraught relatives hugged each other and cried.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office tweeted that the families of those killed in the “horrific” accident would receive 200,000 rupees ($2,750) in compensation.

“The entire state is standing with those affected,” Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said in a video message.

High-speed vehicles jostling with motorbikes, pedestrians and cyclists combine with poor infrastructure and poorly maintained vehicles to make India’s roads treacherous.

In 2019 more than 150,000 people died — 410 every day or 17 an hour — in almost half a million accidents, according to the government.

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The United States sees nearly five times more accidents than India every year but the number of deaths in India is four times higher, according to the Times of India.

The main causes are excessive speed, not wearing helmets — sales of two-wheelers far outstrip those of cars — and not using seatbelts.

Earlier this month, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari inaugurated Road Safety Month, saying that the government aimed to halve road deaths and accidents by 2025.

In the same month an out-of-control dumper truck crushed 15 people to death as they slept by the roadside in the western state of Gujarat.

The dead included a baby girl, eight women and six men. The truck collided with a tractor carrying sugarcane just after midnight at a crossroads.

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