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Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019: Road Anxiety

Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019: Road Anxiety
Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani was the first to water down the fines in the new Motor Vehicles Act/Photo: UNI

Above: Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani was the first to water down the fines in the new Motor Vehicles Act/Photo: UNI

The softening of some of the stringent penal provisions of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 in Gujarat has as much to do with quelling public anger across the country as with BJP politics at the highest level

By RK Misra in Ahmedabad

In August 9, 2019, President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, that had earlier been passed by both houses of Parliament. The amendments were made in consultation with transport ministers from 18 states along with discussions with other standing committees and it was widely believed that with the brute majority that the Narendra Modi government enjoys at the centre, its implementation would be a cakewalk.

And yet, just days before it was to take effect, the first setback came from the most unlikely of places. Gujarat—the prime minister’s home state as well as that of his powerful party chief and Union Home Minister Amit Shah—stalled and watered down its penal provisions. Soon other BJP-ruled states followed suit. Was the all-powerful Modi, the man fabled to stand unswayed in a raging storm, now bending to a breeze, or was he cutting one of his own to size?

There is a section of opinion within the BJP which believes that the penalties were deliberately kept steep to provide for scaling down and yet keep the final figure high enough. If that is the case, then Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari did not seem to be aware of the strategy for he kept going out on a limb to aggressively market the exponential increase to the ultimate detriment of his own political stature. This seemed quite a let-down for a seasoned politician and a focused minister, once seen as a prime ministerial replacement had the BJP failed to get a clear majority in the Lok Sabha polls this year.

How else does one account for the fact that there was hardly a demurring state when the centre was moving on the need for increased penalties. They were in agreement when the amendments were notified. Gujarat, which was the prime mover in backtracking and reducing the fines, had even hosted meetings for other state ministers to discuss related issues. The Transport Development Committee held five meetings since 2016 to discuss amendments to the new Act and there were no dissenting notes.

Gadkari has long been on record stating that such a law is the need of the hour as 55 per cent of road fatalities occur in the 18-35 year age group and the lack of fear of the law is the prime reason for the present state. “There was a due process of consultation, then cabinet approval and thereafter parliamentary clearance before the law was to take effect,” he said.

But Gujarat Transport Minister RC Fardu seeks to duck the volte-face issue by attributing it to popular complaints pertaining to difficulties in getting Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificates and necessary government documentation, even shortage of helmets.

Gadkari was bravado personified when he stated that he was not afraid of protests. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani apparently did not concur and was the first to water down the fines. He was followed soon after with dissenting noises emerging from Uttarakhand, Goa and Karnataka seeking reconsideration of the measure and voicing their resolve to slash it. Maharashtra, Jharkhand (both BJP-ruled states) and West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab (all opposition-ruled states) are still deliberating while Kerala has reduced it.

The opposition Congress was quick to wade into the turbulence. The Gujarat Congress announced a “missed call” campaign urging people to give a missed call to protest against the new law. “This is just another way of harassing the public. Accidents may reduce but both the centre and the state government have moved to implement the law without any preparation. The government itself is ill-equipped to cope with the rush for documents, prices of helmets have soared, people are wasting endless time queuing for PUC certificates. Roads are in a tattered state and bovines are making driving a tryst with death. The government is imposing heavy fines without providing a safe driving platform,” said Amit Chavda, the Gujarat Congress chief.

The BJP’s internecine politics notwithstanding, the high fines did lead to a rising tide of popular disquiet. As social media began reflecting the latent anger, Rupani first moved to announce that the new rules would take effect only from September 16 as against September 1 and later announced the new watered down rates. He could not have possibly done so without concurrence from the top—Shah or Modi himself. “The state government has the powers to make changes in the fine structure brought out by the centre in the Motor Vehicles Act, 2019,” said Rupani.

However, the Union Ministry of Roads, Transport and Highways does not agree. It has apparently sought the law ministry’s opinion on whether state governments can reduce the lower limit for fines as enshrined in the law. The centre contends that Gujarat has breached the lower limit prescribed in the amended Act and also altered fines, which the Act does not permit.

Article 254 of the Constitution is clear that if there is a point of contention between the centre and the state on a provision of law that falls in the Concurrent List, then the central law shall prevail. Section 200 of the Motor Vehicles Act gives the state government powers to decide on penalties for 24 sections and Gujarat as well as other states are amending these to suit needs. However, Gujarat is also violating Article 254 by moving into the domain of non-compoundable offences and this may not stand in a court of law.

Under the amended fine structure in Gujarat, the penalty for not wearing a helmet has been brought down to Rs 500, from Rs 1,000 in the amended Act. The violations of not wearing seat belts will now invite a fine of Rs 500 as against Rs 1,000 in the amended rules. Similarly, driving a vehicle without a licence will attract a fine of Rs 2,000 in the case of two-wheelers and Rs 3,000 for the rest, as against Rs 5,000 under the new rules. If the licence, insurance, PUC and RC book are not there, the fine will be as per the new Act. For the first offence, Rs 500 will be charged as fine and the penalty is Rs 1,000 for the second offence. For riding triples, the fine will be Rs 100 as against Rs 1,000 in the new Act. Driving a polluting vehicle will incur a fine of Rs 10,000 under the new Act, whereas in Gujarat it will be Rs 1,000 for small vehicles and Rs 3,000 for large vehicles.

There is a section of opinion which strongly believes that “fear” is the only factor which can bring some semblance of order to the killing chaos on Indian roads. However, the inappropriate timing of implementing the provisions of the amended Act has directed popular ire against the lack of basic services.

People have been quick to demand a similar fine structure and action against officialdom for pot-holed roads, polluted drinking water, cattle impeding traffic on thoroughfares and hawker-laden pavements edging out commuters onto roads. Overnight, posters appeared in Rupani’s home town, Rajkot, while a motorcyclist pasted copies of all the essential documents on his helmet in Vadodara as a novel way of protest.

A citizenry already groaning under a heavy load of taxes and cess on the one hand and the profligacy of government and officialdom on the other has now begun to stridently demand accountability. If the number of accident deaths in Gujarat has gone up to 8,000 annually (says the chief minister), the India figure for 2017 stands at 1.47 lakh, which is higher than the population of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The incidents of traffic cops being beaten up by enraged commuters has also been rising steadily. And needless to say, this is less due to booking of traffic violators and more because of the harassment and “extortion” by bribe-seeking cops.

The implementation of the new rules, it is feared, will only ensure a manifold rise in the appetite of the bribe-seeking policeman and, therefore, ensure more grease for its top brass. Both newspapers and the social media have been packed with pictures of cops going around without helmets, thus flagrantly violating the very rules they are supposed to implement. This forced the Gujarat director general of police to send out a circular directing strict adherence to rules by cops.

With news of reckless levying of fines streaming in from states where the full force of the new law has been unleashed, the mounting anger is seeing other states also wade into the concessions current. News reports point to an auto-rickshaw driver in Odisha being fined Rs 40,000 and a truck driver in Rajasthan over Rs 1 lakh—all for traffic rules violations. The Goa government has now made it clear that the new rules will only be implemented after all pot-holed roads in the state are repaired. Similarly, the Karnataka chief minister has also gone on record to state that he has asked for details from Gujarat and will move to water down the fines thereafter.

When the BJP-run state governments start overruling diktats from their own central government, all that can be said is: “It’s a good sign.”