A penalty of Rs 47,500 imposed on an auto driver in Bhubaneswar; another in Gurgaon fined Rs 32,500, both on multiple counts of violation; a whopping 2 lakh in fines to be shared by the driver and owner of a truck in Delhi for overloading and other violations, and the vehicles involved in these cases impounded till the penalised can pay the amounts… Over the past two weeks, since the amended Motor Vehicles Act came into effect on September 1, these and similar headlines have dominated news space. Stories of unheard-of penalty amounts have been reported and shared on social media time and again, creating considerable outrage, even as they led to some clever memes going viral online.
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In this noise, however, a number of other stories seem to have been forgotten. For example, of the newly engaged couple in Jaipur who died when an overloaded truck overturned and fell upon their car in 2017, or that of the two youth in Kolkata who died when a speeding bus jumped the signal and rammed into their bicycle in February 2018, leading to violent mob frenzy against public vehicles. Or even more recently, in July 2019, of 29 people killed on the Yamuna Expressway between Delhi and Lucknow as the driver of their bus dozed off at the wheel.
In a country where close to 1.5 million people have died in road accidents in the last one decade alone, how many stories can one remember? In the end, each story is just a statistic. Yet those who have lost a loved one, or those who have been championing the cause of a more stringent, holistic road safety law for years are deeply concerned at the disproportionate mindshare that the fines under the new Act have been hogging.
The ones who suffer
On September 11th, SaveLife Foundation (SLF) – a Delhi-based non profit at the forefront of policy advocacy efforts to improve road safety and emergency medical care – organised a speak out session where road crash victims and their families came together to make themselves heard. In an open dialogue held at the India Women’s Press Corps, they demanded rapid implementation of the new road safety law, which they feel could be very effective in protecting vulnerable road users. In their thoughts and stories, it was reiterated time and again why one must not, in the fixation over fines, forget why this law is so important.
Shilpa Mittal lost her brother in a tragic crash caused by a juvenile driver. Her words echo the grief and frustration of many who have seen their losses turned into mere statistics.
“We take the word ‘accident’ so lightly that somebody’s death in a road accident doesn’t even shock us anymore.” – Shilpa Mittal, who lost her brother in a road accident.
Another road accident victim, Pratishtha Deveshwar, was deeply upset about the jokes and memes being circulated on higher fines. “We might laugh at these jokes but what we don’t realize is that road crashes are not a laughing matter. For victims and their families, it is a cruel social reality. Families of victims have to borrow loans and beg for money for the treatment of victims.”
To fine or not to fine (so harshly)
While such voices touch us deeply, one cannot just ignore the debate on penalties completely. When people protest traffic fines, the first question that arises is, what exactly are opposers trying to say? That they will simply continue to flout road safety rules and expect immunity for their offences even as they put human lives — their own and others’ — at risk?
Accident survivor Harry Singh was incredulous at the SLF event, “Why are people focusing on higher penalties? Is the life of a citizen not important?”
It is also true that the very idea of ‘reasonable fines’ is counterproductive. As Founder and CEO of SLF Piyush Tiwary has said, “The human and economic cost imposed by the issue on lakhs of families is far more than a few thousand rupees of increase in fines. We should not think about trying to lower the fines where it becomes affordable. If it’s affordable, it’s not a fine.”
Ranjit Gadgil, Programme Director at Parisar, a Pune-based NGO that also works on issues of road safety, says, “The sudden jump in fines has caused consternation, perhaps understandably so. However, the Central Government has rightly adjusted the fines to be about five times the fines in 1988 – which is very much in line with the inflation index in the same period.” However, he also adds, “To ease people into the new fine regime, the State Governments can increase compounding fees gradually so there isn’t a ‘sticker shock’.”
Yet, in a country where distrust between people and law enforcement agents run deep, it is not easy to convince naysayers. Voices have already begun to emerge, alleging that violations by police and government vehicles or bigger private vehicles are often being overlooked, even as two-wheeler riders and drivers of public transport or commercial vehicles are bearing the brunt.
In such a scenario, the consistency and fairness of enforcement, rather than the amount, is what might act as a more effective deterrent to violations. “Internationally, enforcement theory holds that enforcement works best when it is comprehensive, consistent and visible. This means that more than the quantum of the fine, the certainty of getting caught matters a lot,” says Ranjit.”
“The idea is not to punish/demonize drivers, but to create an atmosphere where it is understood that you are likely to get caught if you don’t wear a helmet, use a seat-belt, drink and drive, speed etc…“ – Ranjit Gadgil
Can the new law can make that happen?
The provision of Section 136A in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act puts the responsibility on the Central Government to make rules for electronic monitoring and enforcement of road safety. State Governments are supposed to ensure implementation of the same.
In an analysis of the new law, SLF points out that a robust electronic enforcement system including speed cameras, CCTV cameras, speed guns and such other technology will ensure that violations are captured at a greater scale, and also dispel to a large extent the scepticism around human error or corruption on the part of traffic police while penalising road users.
Ranjit, however, is not a great believer in the effectiveness of electronic monitoring in reining in errant behaviour in the long term. “Seeing others get caught on the road is a much more effective deterrent, hence the increasing reliance on cameras (at least in the Indian context) may not be as desirable,” he says.
According to Piyush, the immediate priority of the states should be to make rules for the law, which would spell out the specific mechanisms, frameworks and jurisdictions for ground implementation.
This is true not only for electronic monitoring but for several important provisions in the new legislation — such as Section 210D, that calls out the need for State Government to make rules for design, construction and maintenance of roads. Or the insertion of new sections and amendments that look at very critical aspects of road safety — such as legalisation of protection to Good Samaritans, regulation of activities of pedestrians and non-motorised road users in a public place, enforcement of child safety systems etc.
It is a different matter, of course, that many states — including some under the BJP — are instead busy trying to either scrap or significantly dilute the provisions relating to revised penalties.
Meanwhile, let’s hold on to the stories…
…for in the end, they are the ones that have the greatest power over us.
It was another September — in 2014 — when Bengaluru-based couple Dr Shubhangi and her husband Sanjay Tambwekar lost their 24-year-old daughter and medical student Arundhati to a gruesome road accident. They set up the Arundhati Foundation that raises awareness about road safety with special focus on accident prevention and seeks to influence policy to ensure safer roads for all citizens.
In a deeply moving Facebook post on the occasion of her death anniversary this year, her parents wrote:
“It is difficult to live the death of Aru every time we give our awareness lectures. But we do see that it does make a difference. We tell our story, it is not impersonal as a news item and thus, people sit up and think…
We have been involved in supporting and getting the New Motor Vehicles Act that is finally out and being implemented from 1st September 2019. We hope it brings a change. It is indeed unfortunate that the citizens of the country need to be punished and punished heavily or they do not do what is right. There will be pros and cons as with every other matter but in the long run, things will improve.”