By DM Deshpande
The Modi 2.0 government amended the Motor Vehicle Act bringing about radical changes in how the Indian roads are governed. Road construction standards are changed so have the norms of insurance but all that has attracted no one’s attention. Hefty fines proposals have aroused unprecedented fury among the vehicle owners and users. Traffic is under concurrent subject meaning that while center can frame rules, states can modify them at will or even decide not to adopt them at all. State after state has started slashing penalties for violations as they fear public anger would impair votes in their regions.
The home state of PM is in a way leading by announcing cuts in fines in the range of 25 to 90 per cent. Why not, at least the public perception is that the hike is atrocious. Amongst the analysts the opinion is divided with most of them lauding the efforts of the Centre to reign in dreadful driving habits and criticising the states for diluting them.
Is India the worst performer in road safety? According to Nitin Gadakari, India is very much there on top in this dubious distinction. But according to WHO India fares poorly but is not the worst. According to it’s latest report, India ranks 58th in fatalities in a survey of 175 nations.
Broadly, outcomes of road safety seem to have close relationship with wealth of respective nations. Top rich countries have about the lowest casualties in the world while sub-saharan Africa are the worst. Many of these nations have undertaken, as a part of United Nation’s sustainable goals, to halve the numbers of those killed and injured by the year 2020 (compared with figures in 2015).
Predictably, India is nowhere near achieving this target. According to the latest data of transport ministry there were nearly 4,65,000 road accidents in 2017 resulting in 1,47,913 deaths. Clearly, these are underestimates, for, a large number of accidents in rural and far flung areas go unreported. If that is taken in to account, death toll would rise by 47 to 63 per cent according to Transportation Research and Injuries Prevention Program (TRIPP) at IIT Delhi.
In all fairness, hikes in fines are not excessive barring may be one or two exceptions. Rupee drops fifty percent value every ten years or so. But the crowd psychology is different and may not be entirely wrong as eight to 10 times rise in one go is certain to cause a lot of discomfiture.
Look at it from the income angle. While the per capita income in 1989 was US $517 at 2010 constant prices, today it is US $1861. This is not even a four times rise. That explains the large scale resentment of people at large. And this is coming at a time when the economy is not particularly doing well on vital macro-economic parameters. So, what could have the government done differently? Probably raised the fines by four times with a rider that, the increase will be every two years, if not earlier, and linked to consumer index.
A four times increase would have been perhaps a little more palatable and would have prevented the frenzy of protests that 10 times hike have evoked. In any case, lump sum increase is not desirable in our country with low level of education and civic awareness. Almost the same difficulty was faced in enforcing periodical hikes in petrol and diesel by public sector oil companies. That has now been sorted out by daily adjustments with global prices.
Hefty fines alone will not bring about greater road safety in India. In fact they may result in increased in corruption, with increased stakes for cutting a legal challan. What is needed is a national level and sustained campaign to bring about awareness of safety issues and later leading to change in driving behaviour; something on the lines of Swatch Bharat, perhaps.
The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.