Mumbai biker's Leh death exposes regulation lapse

Updated: Jun 30, 2019, 11:48 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

Jojy Cherian's family raises questions about tour operators who make hay in biking season

(Left) Jojy Cherian; (right) the extremely risky routes that bikers take on these expeditions
(Left) Jojy Cherian; (right) the extremely risky routes that bikers take on these expeditions

On June 21, 57-year-old Jojy Cherian, who was in Kargil on a motorcycle trip, sent a message at 6.53am to his son Rohan back in Navi Mumbai that he would soon be in a no-network area and that he was headed to Leh. Seventeen hours later, his family received news of his death in a road accident there. The incident that shook Rohan and his mother, Jessy, has also raised questions on the unorganised two-wheeler expeditions to Leh-Ladakh, which are turning out to be more a ruthless business and less an adventure sport.

The incident is an eye-opener and calls for regulators and law-enforcment agencies to tighten the noose on a flourishing industry that pays little heed to safety. According to his family, Jojy was passionate about biking and had always dreamt of going on a motor cycle expedition to Leh. He had no health issues and had an active lifestyle.

He had been using two-wheelers for over three decades and was known for being a safe rider. Eight months ago, he bought his dream bike BMW G-310R motorcycle for R3.60 lakh and safety gear worth a lakh, said his son Rohan, who works with an IT firm in Pune.

Jojy with his wife, Jessy
Jojy with his wife, Jessy

Rohan said, "My dad was so passionate about this bike that he had put the bike image as his computer screen saver. He had done extensive online research about the expedition to Leh. We were apprehensive considering his age and the high altitude risk involved in such expeditions, but he was determined."

The journey begin

He had finally decided to join Fakira Riders from Versova on their expedition to Leh. "My husband had even attended a few sessions. The trip was from June 14 to July 6 and he had paid R60,000 for it. They had also created a special WhatsApp group and he had even showed us some photographs of the group members, some of whom were from Pune and Kalyan," said Jessy, who is still finding it difficult to come to terms with his death.

"Jojy had gone on many small rides to Lonavala, Pune and so on but this was his first long ride from Thane to Leh Ladakh, and he was very excited about it. We finally had to bow down before his passion," she said.

A bike trail
A bike trail

The accident news

Rohan said his father would be in touch with him every day and whenever he came into an area that had phone network. He would also send photographs and the last conversation was through a WhatsApp message he had received on June 21.

Jessy, who works with a large media group, had just returned home late at night on June 21, and Rohan was in Pune. A friend who stays in the adjacent building visited their house around 11.20pm, which was surprising for Jessy, but he left after taking Rohan's contact number and inquiring about Jojy's whereabouts.

Jessy recalled, "A few minutes later I got a call from Rohan, who was contacted by the family friend [who had visited their house], informing him about the accident and demise."

Body came on June 23

Both Jessy and Rohan did not have any contact numbers of the group who had accompanied Jojy and managed to somehow get the contact details of Fakira. The organiser then persuaded the family to spend another R75,000 to bring the body through air ambulance accompanied by one of the organisers. But, close family friends told them that even after paying the money, the body was dispatched without anyone accompanying it.

Nor did the family get any original papers in order to get an NOC from the Sahar police. "The family trusted the words of the organisers and sent the entire amount and still had to run from pillar to post to get the body released," said a family friend. Jojy was finally laid to rest on June 24 and the family is still awaiting his belongings and are clueless about the how exactly the accident happened. mid-day tried to speak to the organiser, Fakira, but as they were still on the expedition in Leh Ladakh, they could not be contacted.

Police speak

Head Constable Mohammed Shafi, attached to Khaltsi police station, Leh said, "In this case, the truck driver Mehraj Uddin, 35, who hails from Kashmir, was returning from Leh after unloading goods. The motorcyclist [Jojy] was driving solo and from the opposite direction. Near Suspol, a hilly area, which usually sees instances of falling debris/small stones with change in wind conditions, the two-wheeler skidded and was hit by the rear of the truck."

Preliminary inquires conducted by Shafi show that soon after the incident, the truck driver and some locals offered water and took Jojy to the primary health centre, at a distance of 4km. "The injured man was conscious when taken to the local hospital, but was shifted to the district hospital in Leh owing to a serious head injury. He was, however, declared dead before admission," said Shafi.

While the police have registered a case against Mehraj Uddin, under section 279 (rash and negligent driving) and 304 (A) (death caused due to negligence) , they are still probing the case and have seized the truck. They are awaiting the postmortem report.

When asked about Jojy's personal belongings, the policeman said, "We have handed over all belongings found at the spot to the tour organiser Fakira, though we haven't found any papers pertaining to the motorcycle."

Shafi said, "We have a tough time trying to handle bikers who come to Leh-Ladakh during the June-August season and they seldom listen to us. We keep informing the bikers at check points that the place is not safe — the roads are not like Mumbai or Delhi where you have six lanes — but they also know that once they cross the check post, the next police post will only be 100 km away. This season the number of deaths in two weeks has crossed 15 so far. Some bodies continue to remain in the mortuary, as we have to wait for two independent panches to complete the formalities."

Expert speak

"It's unfortunate that local companies provide motorcycle expedition packages at cheap prices luring tourist and adventure seekers. The cheap quotes must act as a warning as they point to compromised safety standards, poor condition of motorcycles, unhygienic accommodations. On the other hand, professional outfits provide experienced road captains, certified mechanics and technical team who accompany motorcycle enthusiasts on such expeditions taking the utmost safety measures. One should focus on company credentials, their experience in conducting such tours instead of price," said Baljeet Gujral, Founder — Enfield Riders.

4km
Distance of primary health care centre from accident site

Rs 60k
Cost of the expedition to Leh

Rs 3.60 lakh
Cost of the BMW motorbike

Jojy's family wants to know

  • Who controls the mushrooming organisers of such trips?
  • Why is the government not coming down heavily on such groups organising cheap yet unsafe trips?
  • How will amateur riders know the risk involved and stretch of road at that high altitude?
  • What are the insurance terms and conditions and is there any insurance at all?

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