The Bombay high court on Wednesday struck down Maharashtra government’s circular which stipulated knowledge of Marathi for autorickshaw and taxi drivers seeking new licences, and of the area for which a permit is sought.
A division bench of justices Abhay Oka and Anuja Prabhudessai said there was no provision in the Motor Vehicles Act or the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, empowering the government to impose such conditions either for new permits or badges for drivers.
The row between auto unions and the state government dates back to September 2016 when authorities decided to issue one lakh new permits for autorickshaws in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and also increase the number of three-wheelers by 25% in cities such as Pune, Solapur, Nagpur, Nashik and Aurangabad.
However, while initiating the process for issuing these permits, the transport commissioner, in a circular in February 2016, stipulated that an applicant must have a working knowledge of Marathi and must know the area.
A few associations of auto-rickshaw owners and drivers from Bhiwandi and Mira Bhyander challenged the circular in the high court. They argued that there was neither the Motor Vehicles Act nor the Maharashtra Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, allowed the government to impose such criteria.
On Wednesday, the state government, in its response, said Rule 24 of the Maharashtra Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, empowered it to frame new norms. It claimed that the conditions were imposed in the public interest.
The bench, however, observed that Rule 24 was applicable to only public service vehicles and does not cover auto and taxis.
It said the state government could not use a public interest alibi to add new conditions for new permits unless there is a specific provision under the Motor Vehicles Act or the 1989 Rules.
The judges directed transport authorities not to disqualify any licence-seeking applicant who does not speak in Marathi or is not well-versed with the area.
Government remains defiant
Despite a setback in the high court, state transport minister Diwakar Raote said the state government won’t back down on the language condition for new licenses.
“Marathi is the local language of Maharashtra. The Motor Vehicles Act has a provision that allows use of local language in the respective states. Moreover, the state government is ready to make provisions in the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles Rules. There will be no compromise over Marathi language,” said Raote from the Shiv Sena, which has been insisting on justice for sons of the soil.
Manoj Saunik, principal secretary for transport department, told HT that the government will plan its next step after receiving the court order.
Unions hail HC order
Taxi-auto unions on Wednesday welcomed the HC decision. “On February 15 last year, our union protested the language rule of the state government. We are glad that it will be revoked now,” said Shashank Rao, general secretary of Mumbai Autorickshawmen’s union.
Criticising the government, KK Tiwari, president of Swabhiman Taxi-Rickshaw, said, “This is a victory of poor drivers and democracy. We hope the government learns a lesson from this and doesn’t repeat similar mistakes in the future.”
AL Quadros, leader of Mumbai Taximen’s, said, “This is a good decision against the government, which was using the language issue for political interests.”