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Above: Union minister Thawar Chand Gehlot (centre) distributing licences at a training programme on motor driving in 2015/Photo: UNI

The Rajasthan High Court has ordered the cancellation of all light motor vehicle driving licences issued to illiterate persons, saying they will be a menace to pedestrians

By Asif Ullah Khan in Jaipur

Having worked in Dubai for more than a decade, I know the importance of a driving licence. The UAE has one of the most stringent driving tests in the world and getting a licence after four to five attempts used to spark celebrations in office because there were times when some could not clear it even after 20 tries. That is the reason I never thought of trying for a Dubai driving licence. But even under such stringent circumstan­ces, one never heard of anyone not being allowed to apply for a driving test be­cause of minimum educational qualifications. Even the developed world does not follow such ridiculous rules.

Recently, a Rajasthan High Court judge raised the issue of educational qualification for a light motor vehicle driver. In the judgment, which will be impossible to implement, Justice Sanjeev Prakash Sharma ordered the cancellation of all light motor vehicle driving licences issued to illiterate people. He was hearing a writ petition of a person seeking a licence to drive a transport vehicle on the ground that he had been issued a licence to drive a light motor vehicle 13 years ago. But when Justice Sharma noticed that the person was illiterate, he rejected his plea saying that motor vehicle rules are required to be framed not only for the benefit of the person seeking the licence, but also taking into consideration the public using the roads.

“The license cannot be allowed to be issued for driving any kind of vehicle to an illiterate person as he is virtually a menace for the pedestrians as he would not be in a position to understand road signs and notices of caution written on boards for human safety on the highways as well as on the roads in the cities,” observed Justice Sharma.

“The license of Light Motor Vehicles issued to the petitioner and similar persons also must be therefore withdrawn,” Justice Sharma said and directed the state transport authorities to issue appropriate instructions in this regard. He said action should also be taken where licences were issued to persons who were unable to read and write. He asked the government to file a compliance report within a month.

Neha Khullar of Muskaan Foundation for Road Safety said that Justice Sharma had raised a pertinent question about the educational qualification of vehicle drivers. Even for admission into a welding diploma course in an Industrial Training Institute, a candidate requires a minimum qualification of 10th standard (SSLC/ matriculation) or equivalent to obtain admission. But the Motor Vehicles Act or the Central Motor Vehicle Rules do not prescribe any minimum educational qualification for possessing a driving licence for light motor vehicles. Minimum educational requirement is prescribed only for those wanting a transport licence, which is Class VII pass.

Khullar said that on the face of it, the judgment seems impossible to implement for two reasons. First, as directed by the judge, licenses issued to illiterate persons cannot be cancelled with retrospective effect. How can transport authorities withdraw licences which have been issued earlier? “Even for argument’s sake, if this order is implemented in Rajasthan, then what about driving licences issued by other states,” she asked. “As far as a court’s powers to disqualify anyone from driving are concerned, only Section 20 of the Motor Vehicles Act in certain circumstances gives it the power to order cancellation or withdrawal of the licence of a convict,” she said. Second, the state transport authority which issues driving licences has no power to make amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act as it is an Act of Parliament. As for reading road signs, Khullar said most of them were images and to read them, one needs to be just “literate” rather than “formally educated. Of course, education broadens one’s outlook and it can certainly help the drivers who are harassed by the police as they do not have proper knowledge of the offence they are accused of violating. But educational qualification has never been made part of the rules.”

Khullar said Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari had tried to include a minimum educational clause in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment Bill), 2017, but this could not get a Rajya Sabha nod. But the select committee to which the Bill was referred to rejected the minimum education clause, arguing that it would create massive unemployment. She said the committee felt that the person should be literate enough to read, write and understand road signage.

A former Jaipur traffic police commissioner told India Legal on condition of anonymity: “The role of the police is confined to just enforcement as road traffic in India currently operates within the legal framework established in the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.” He added that the Act was enacted about 28 years ago when vehicular traffic was not so high. But with liberalisation, there has been a deluge of vehicles on Indian roads and a number of factors which contribute to road accidents are still not within the purview of the Act. “I appreciate the judge’s verdict as he has talked about the safety of pedestrians, which is not covered by the Act, and they are the real victims of rash and negligent driving,” he added.

That is why, he said, one judgment cannot change the entire system. “Instead, there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system and like the developed world, we need to make driving tests more stringent. We have a written test in India also but everybody knows it is meaningless. In the western world, you’re only allowed to take driving lessons after you have cleared the written test,” he added.

Khullar said that though the role of the police is confined to enforcement, they need to make sure that drivers observe and follow traffic rules and the violators are punished. “In the western world, violations of two road safety rules—speeding and drunken driving—are dealt with like a criminal offence. We read in newspapers that even celebrities are not spared and some have even served prison terms for traffic violations,” said Khullar.

The former police commissioner said rash and negligent driving is one of the main reasons for road accidents, but there are other factors like road design and engineering. Developed countries such as Sweden, Japan, the UK and Netherlands have been able to reduce accidents by up to 60-70 percent mainly through proper and efficient road design. Land use and road activities must be the main consideration while designing roads. Road design should include the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. In Sweden, many measures have been taken for zero tolerance policy on accidents and urban and road design have been transformed for safety.

He said in 1997, the Swedish parliament adopted “Vision Zero” as the official road policy. This was based on the premise that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for mobility. Rather than holding drivers and other users of the transportation system responsible, Vision Zero places the core responsibility for accidents on the overall system design, vehicle technology and enforcement. This approach has helped Sweden achieve one of the lowest annual rates of road deaths in the world (three out of 1,00,000 as compared to 12.3 in the US). Not only that, fatalities involving pedestrians have fallen almost 50 percent in the last five years. India, like many western countries, should adopt Vision Zero as it has the highest road accident rate worldwide with over 1,40,000 deaths annually, beating even China.

Even the parliament select committee expressed alarm at the high number of accidents. After hearing stakeholders, the committee concluded that there were many factors which cause accidents—road designing/engineering, potholes, wrong signage, high speed and inferior driving skills.

However, it noted that the present Bill failed to address the issue of accidents caused by faulty road design and non-maintenance of roads.

The committee recommended that a penalty provision (Section 198A) be inserted in the Bill to hold road contractors and concessionaires accountable for faulty design, construction and maintenance of roads.

Khullar said India needs a more holistic approach with strong compliance strategies to prevent road injury and deaths. Along with punitive action, it requires stronger preventive action. “As far as the judgment of the Rajasthan High Court is concerned, it has again brought the issue of educational qualification into focus,” she added.

—The author is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times

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