Life comes cheap in India, and our legal system appears to vindicate this stance. Five months ago, Alistair Pereira, a young man in Mumbai, mowed down seven pavement dwellers, injuring another eight, while driving under the influence of alcohol. While the trial that followed had a refreshingly speedy conclusion, the court was inexplicably benign when it came to sentencing Pereira — six months’ simple imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5 lakh. As with other high-profile hit-and-run cases, like those involving Salman Khan and Puru Raj Kumar, he was seen not to possess any ‘intention to kill’ and so, was found guilty merely of rash and negligent driving —— never mind that his case involved 15 labourers on whom entire families were dependent. As for the other two, Kumar, who killed two and injured two more, was let off after having paid Rs 30,000 each to the families of the deceased, while the trial of Khan, who killed one and injured four, continues.
Poor investigation and prosecution clearly cost victims of rash driving heavy. The Sanjeev Nanda hit-and-run case in Delhi practically tumbled like a pack of cards when eyewitnesses suddenly turned hostile. Yet, what has tilted the balance in favour of the accused in all these cases are the glaring loopholes in an outdated set of laws. Unless an intention to kill is demonstrated, the accused cannot be convicted for culpable homicide, which alone can put them away for a maximum of 10 years. Under both the Indian Penal Code and the Motor Vehicles Act, therefore, causing fatal accidents due to rash and negligent driving invites a maximum sentence of two years. As things stand, Pereira’s victims neither receive enough compensation, in some cases to even pay their medical bills, nor have the satisfaction of knowing that he will serve a sentence commensurate with his crime. As they attempt to salvage their lives, Pereira will have moved on without any remorse.
Such judgments will not act as a deterrent in the face of the rising number of fatal traffic accidents — an average of 269 per day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. As a first and most important step, our laws could begin to attach some value to human life and not allow the powerful to get away with murder.