Motor Vehicles Act: Hefty fines can’t be a one-way street
Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, has a reason to feel miffed. His ambitious programme to streamline road travel in the country by introducing strong deterrents for law-breakers is facing unexpected roadblocks and speed-breakers.
The Motor Vehicles (MV) Amendment Act 2019, as proposed by Gadkari, had sailed through the Parliament with much ado. Actually, most matters do these days, sometimes even without perfunctory debate, but that’s another story.
It appeared then that the new MV Act would move like a Ferrari on an expressway and India’s lingering road transport and commute problems would be cleaned up pronto. Alas, within a few days of the Act being passed, problems have emerged and progress has been like that of sputtering outdated jalopy which makes a great deal of noise but covers paltry distance.
Much to his chagrin, Gadkari finds that the biggest hurdles to his plans are essentially from his own party. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rules most of the states now, and none from these is willing to accept the new MV Act in toto. This has left the normally upbeat minister wringing his hands in frustration.
Non-acceptance of new regulations by these state governments stems from how hefty fines and punishments mooted in the new MV Act would impact the public. Could this break the stranglehold the BJP has over the voter currently?
The BJP has used overt populism – more in slogans than tangibly, but even so – to sustain its winning momentum since 2014 and the fear of losing favour with voters would make state leaders baulk at the amended MV Act.
However, everybody’s agreed that something drastic needs to be done to improve matters as India ranks very low where road travel is concerned and it’s been getting worse.
The fundamental problem here is the same as in most aspects of Indian life: a deep disregard for law, rules, regulations.
Driving licenses procured without stiff tests, drunken driving, speeding dangerously, ill-thoughts and intrusive parking make driving in India painful and dangerous. Safety is always under threat, and in an extended sense, so is the environment.
In the circumstances, road travel and management needed a massive shake-up. Respect for the law had to be made central to road travel, not owning or driving a car. The amended MV Act was aimed at just that but appears to have boomeranged.
The stumbling block is the punitive fines that have been introduced. While there is some logic that heavy fines will be a stronger deterrent, this must be in consonance with the earning capacity of people. Otherwise, it can only encourage wrongdoers to evade the fines, making the whole exercise self-defeating.
Reluctance to obey the law or pay fines has often even been romanticised as part of the national DNA: to show how clever Indians are. But there is a non-dubious dimension to this too. People who pay fines are bound to ask themselves what they get in return.
Imagine a driver going through a no-entry road in south Mumbai because the legitimate route is potholed during the monsoon and a threat to self and vehicle. He is apprehended by the traffic cops and pays up the fine.
But if next year too, the legitimate route is still potholed, he must wonder of what use was his being honest if the road remains as dangerously non-motorable as the previous year. He would understandably not want to pay the fine this time and use jugaad to get away.
The appalling states of Mumbai’s roads every monsoon is a serious dampener for motorists to believe things can ever get better. Most would object to fines being raised, even a rupee since no benefit accrues to them in return.
To extend the ambit of this argument, the highway from Panvel to Alibaug has been under construction for six years and more. Every monsoon long stretches collapse and have to be remade, making the whole exercise a monumentally expensive farce which no tax-payer would appreciate.
The point is, adherence to law can’t be a one-way deal. It must be matched with authority-making equal, if not more, effort to make roads a safer and better experience, else there must be punitive action against them too, if they lapse.