At a hotel in Dehradun last week, I heard a man scream into his phone: “Ek dum best treatment chahiye. Saara staff aage peeche rahe. Akhir hum VIP hain!” As he spoke within earshot, I gathered that the man and his family were heading for a five-star property in Mussoorie. A top hotel, it would have anyway offered best hospitality. But our man couldn’t resist but demand more. After all, he was a Very Important Person.
VIP is the much desired status in India. A red beacon-flashing vehicle to zip past through gridlocked traffic, guns-totting bodyguards, free passes to a sold-out concert or a cricket match, VIP parking space, VIP train-ticket counters, and even VIP jail cells… the list of special privileges accorded to this coveted category are amazingly organised and exhaustive even though much of it is not on paper.
The use of the red beacons with flashers is restricted to only the top ranks on the list of precedence and only when these persons are on official business. But it is not unusual to see ‘lal batti’ cars dropping VIP kids off to school or taking VIP wives shopping. Then there are the imposters. The ones who are not entitled to this concession or those with a lesser entitlement (there are categories of red, blue, amber, flashing and non-flashing lights depending on the official rank) upgrading their traffic privilege to a higher category.
This March, hearing a public interest litigation on the misuse of red-beacon lights, sirens and hooters, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to “enlighten” it with the origin of the term Very Important Person (VIP). “What is its (VIPs) place in democratic polity?” the bench of judges asked.
Last Monday, the SC went a step further, warning the Centre that if it failed to enforce the law and stop rampant misuse of red beacons and sirens within two weeks, it would pass an order for its strict implementation. No action is visible in Delhi yet. The last police drive was in March and yielded over 200 tickets. The fine slapped on a violator was a paltry Rs. 100 and the red light atop their vehicle was confiscated. But in no time new ones were bought.
The union law ministry has mooted a proposal to shorten the list of VIPs using red beacons. But the Ministry of home affairs is reluctant to do it because of security reasons. Members of Parliament have repeatedly requested that they be upgraded on the precedence list so they can use the red lights. There have been similar demands from Delhi MLAs and government officials who feel they can’t make it to public engagements on time because they don’t have red-beacon vehicles.
In a city that has seen political assassinations and an attack on Parliament, concerns about VIP security are not unwarranted. But there is no reason why the list has to include so many. Except for a few top dignitaries and emergency vehicles such as ambulances, police patrols, fire engines, there is no reason why anyone else should enjoy such privileges. After all, VIP takeover of public roads violates our fundamental right.
Not too long ago, residents of Moscow launched the blue bucket movement. They stuck buckets on top of their cars to imitate the blue beacon lights, or migalka, on VIP vehicles. Although you can still see luxury cars with sirens speeding along in the special lanes and even driving in the wrong lane on Moscow roads, the movement forced President Putin to cut the number of those who enjoyed traffic privileges. Maybe Delhiites should take inspiration and find out if our leaders are too thick-skinned to be shamed into action.