On August 7th this year, transport workers waged a nation-wide strike in protest against the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which was passed by the Lok Sabha and is awaiting passage in the Rajya Sabha. The stir saw support from two state transport corporations of Kerala and Haryana as well as unions across party lines through the country.
While the proposed law has largely been welcomed by experts as one that will bring about greater focus on road safety, several proposed changes to the existing Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 do not seem to have gone down well with the opposition parties and transport workers. The grievances of the workers and unions relate primarily to the increased scope for private participation in what has largely remained a state-controlled domain.
They have also said that some of the changes proposed will have far reaching implications for centre-state relations with regard to transportation, vesting greater power at the Centre. So what are these contentious provisions in an otherwise progressive Bill whose passage is much awaited by civil society?
Entry of private players
Apart from the section that makes third party-insurance mandatory, thereby hiking premium and increasing the burden on state transport corporations, the bill also allows for private player entry in the areas of licence, spares and repairs. This implies that the work of the Regional Transport Office (RTO) could be outsourced to private third parties, raising fears of increased corruption.
The bill mandates the use of branded company spares, which effectively renders small auto-parts businesses redundant and affects many livelihoods. The bill also adds that servicing and repairs must only be done in company-authorised service centres.
With the proposal to do away with licences to operate on certain routes and the liberalisation of routes, transport workers foresee the imminent entry of private bus operators on a large scale. Workers in the sector foresee large scale job insecurity as a consequence, with private competitors hiring at lower wages, with non-existent safety nets.
There is also considerable apprehension that the entry of the private sector will prevent state transport corporations from providing much-needed service at low cost, as the financial health of these state-owned entities does not allow them to undercut the competition. The losers will be the masses.
Opposition parties have termed the provisions of the bill anti-federal, while refusing to lend their support. Provisions such as section 88A, which allows the Central Government to “make schemes for national, multi-modal and inter-state transportation of goods or passengers,” have been opposed vehemently. Inter-state agreements can now be superseded by central schemes by the new amendment.
Section 66A allows the central Government to develop a “National Transportation Policy” to decide on matters of granting permits, which has historically been an exclusive domain of the states. This has also come under the scanner, with states alleging that this will lead to erosion of their autonomy.
Section 74 of the new law allows the RTO to waive any statutory conditions for contract carriage permits to certain vehicles as specified by the center. Such a permit allows a vehicle to be driven from one point to another on a fixed route with a predetermined list of passengers and the stated amendments have been made in the interest of last mile connectivity. This move has also been criticised as last mile connectivity is an issue that may vary from place to place and depends on regional factors. Opponents have therefore questioned how the Centre may be allowed to take unilateral decisions on something that is so obviously local.
License to aggregators such as Uber and Ola can be issued by the state government, but only according to the guidelines issued by the central government, as per changes to Section 93. Blanket regulations or guidelines are again seen as a move to infringe on the powers of the state and legislate on matters that may vary from state to state.
Speaking on these amendments to the Act, A Nayanar of CITU says, “These are anti-people policies. The centre is only citing a few provisions on road safety to put pressure on the passage of the Bill, while ignoring the large number of people who will be adversely affected by it. Private players taking over such an essential service will hugely affect the common man. We cannot allow this to happen. They will only look at it through the lens of profit while transportation and connectivity are so vital to every citizen. The wresting of control from the states also does not augur well. The centre cannot hold so much sway over these decisions. The autonomy of the states must be preserved.”