Superficially there would be little cause to quarrel with the Cabinet&’s approving a hefty increase in fines and penalties for violating the Motor Vehicles Act. Inflation alone would have rendered the prescribed fines meaningless and, as experience confirms, ineffective. Sure enhanced levies could pinch, but the larger issue remains whether the big stick is the answer to widespread rash and negligent driving, and its dismal consequences. For starters, will our notoriously corrupt police actually prosecute those who violate the law with impunity, or merely hike up their own “rates” for not issuing a challan? Evidence points to those with thick wallets, and the “influence” that goes along with a bankroll, giving a damn for financial penalties. It is no coincidence that folk driving luxury cars and mowing down pedestrians or pavement dwellers are booked under those sections of law that carry trivial penalties. And when the offenders have political connexions the chances are slim that the cops will “throw the book at them” — no need to list specific cases where those who hit-and-run are allowed to get away with murder. And should they wind up in court the witnesses are bribed to “disappear” or suffer convenient amnesia.
Circumventing the law is not the only shortcoming in the Cabinet&’s approach. The transport minister has made much of India reporting 500,000 traffic mishaps a year, fatalities resulting from 150,000 of them. Has a professional analyses been made of those “accidents”? Were all of them only the result of drunken or rash driving? The Cabinet would appear to have been “taken for a ride” by the babus and cops who are quick to blame others for all shortcomings only to camouflage their own.
Newspapers in major cities during the monsoon season tell horror stories of potholes on busy roads, and how people on motorcycles or scooters have been killed after they lost control of the two-wheeler when it hit a pothole. The recent mishap in Raigad when quite a few vehicles were washed away after a flooded river caused a bridge to collapse is another instance of gross negligence by civic authorities. To say that the bridge was built in pre-Independence days is a poor alibi: when was it last inspected? Why was vehicular traffic permitted on a suspect structure? Even without “seasonal hazards” the quality of road design and maintenance is deplorable, one civic agency passes the buck on to the other while the road user suffers. Is the answer raising penalties?
Only if ministers and their staff were also made to pay for criminal negligence. For that negligence is the crux of the tragic tale scripted on India&’s roads — negligent driving is only one element of the deadly saga.