The Bharatiya Janata Party government is fond of passing itself off as a party with a difference. Albeit, the difference appears once again to be more in appearance than in essence. Because the habit of enacting laws or announcing policies without proper homework and preparation or caring for the consequence seems to be ruling party’s signature tune. Take the new Motor Vehicle Act (2019).
The Act has garnered a great deal of concern at the very sharp hike in penalty for traffic violations (see the table below). The idea behind imposing heavy penalties is justified in the name of leading to better driving discipline and making roads safe. India boasts of one of the highest road fatalities and injuries accounting for no less than 12% of the global total in 2016 with the number reaching 1,50,785. In 2017, Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) had reported 4,64,910 accidents and 1,47, 913 fatalities.
The new MV Act 2019 replaces the MV Act 1988 and among other things, encourages body cams on traffic police and RTO officials to check for corruption, increases punishment for drunken driving causing death to seven years from earlier two years among many changes introduced. It also makes third party insurance mandatory for all vehicles apart from jacking up penalties for traffic violations.
The act may also be well motivated, as it seeks to reduce road accidents as well as incidents of road rage. Stiff penalties are considered so onerous that it is believed that this would deter people from violating traffic rules and they will become more disciplined. The first few days of the new regime, for instance, has seen the Delhi Police claim a noticeable reduction in traffic violations. Everyone, including me, has rushed to make sure that all the documents pertaining to their vehicles were in order and everything required was there in case of any surprise check.
However, while waiting for hours to get the pollution certificate in the queue, I found, while conversing with people, that it was not so much the new Act but rather the stiff penalty which most found disconcerting. For those dependent on their vehicles for livelihood, the stiff penalty was seen as a life-ruining Act which disproportionately places onerous penalties on those whose earning is low and who live a precarious life of uncertain earnings. It was also common to hear people say that now that the M V Act 2019 has increased the penalty, there will be an increase in the amount of bribe. If Rs 10,000 are demanded for not having pollution certificate, then tendency would be to strike a deal and pay, say, Rs 1000 or more to get away.
However, while Gujarat has shown the way forward by reducing penalties by 10-90% and other states are likely to follow this trend, what the Indian lawmakers have once again failed to take into account is the woeful state of a viable enforcement mechanism for this new Act. Bringing a law is one thing, sending people into tizzy to ensure that their vehicle papers are up to date may be welcome too. But how does one ensure proper enforcement when there is woeful lack of traffic police persons across India?
BPRD, in keeping with BJP’s practice of denying information to Indian public, has removed all the data that would have exposed the government. However, even Times of India [perceived to be a pro-BJP daily] carried a story based on BPRD reports for 2017 to show that there were no more than 72,000 traffic policemen in India. (Soon thereafter, the BPRD blocked this report). The story provided figures for some of the states and the strength of traffic cops and that is revealing in itself.
The state with the highest number of traffic persons is West Bengal with 8500, followed by Rajasthan – 6,713, Karnataka – 6,000, Delhi – 6,010 and Gujarat – 5,818. The story shows that the BPRD recommended for Delhi a minimum of 15, 345 traffic persons to monitor 8.5 million vehicles. What is significant is that even this figure is padded by including home guards to make traffic police strength somewhat better. See the table below:
A poorly staffed traffic police force is one side of the problem. The other side of the problem is that traffic police do not manage traffic and ensure that people obey traffic rules as much as they are there to impose and collect fines. They keep themselves hidden to catch by surprise anyone violating the traffic rules rather than regulate and manage traffic.
What should also concern Indian public is where the sanctioned strength is 22.8 lakh, the actual strength is short by 5.6 lakh or by nearly 25%. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that in 2013, India had 138 police personnel for every 100,000 persons and was ranked among the five lowest among 71 countries.
While these figures bring out the woeful state of policing in India what is rarely acknowledged is that India, like other post-colonial States, has privileged armed police over the civil police. It is the latter which accounts for crime detection and traffic management. Yet, a closer look at police in India would reveal that para-military formations and recruitment for them has been prioritised over civil police. Indeed, while periodically media channels come out screaming about woeful state of policing and how India falls behind global average of police personnel per 100,000 of people, there is lack of proper analysis about what makes up Indian police force. The reason for that is also known. The pre-occupation with fighting terrorism has been responsible for the spectacular rise in the armed police’s strength since 1970s – something which Sarakaria Commission in 1980s had warned against.
But to come back to MV Act and traffic police, what we need to know is that the machinery for its enforcement does not match the requirement. It is this that would allow for violations to either get ignored or enable corruption to thrive under the new M V Act regime because of woeful shortage of traffic police read together with onerous penalty. Indeed, corruption could rise. Consequently, even when one welcomes lowering of penalty, the objective of bringing down traffic accidents and fatalities may not get realised. Because there are not enough traffic policemen to begin with!
Views are personal.