A NEW ROAD CULTURE
THE MOTOR VEHICLES ACT, 2019, HAS SPARKED FEAR AND PROTEST, BUT WILL IT MAKE INDIAN ROADS SAFER? AND SHOULD STIFF PENALTIES FOR VIOLATIONS BE ACCOMPANIED BY A DRIVE TO BUILD BETTER ROAD AND TRAFFICMANAGEMENT INFRASTRUCTURE?
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, imposes punitive fines for violations and has sparked fierce debate and opposition. Will it succeed in taming India’s notoriously dangerous roads?
LLast week, when traffic constables in Delhi stopped a girl riding a two-wheeler with a broken number plate, they weren’t ready for the commotion that followed. Not only did the girl refuse to pay the fine (which had gone up as another violation had been discovered—she wasn’t wearing a certified helmet), she also threatened to commit suicide on the spot. At another location in the national capital, a man, faced with a challan of Rs 11,000 for drunk driving and other offences, set his motorbike on fire even as cops were in the process of impounding it. He later said he had refused to pay a Rs 11,000 fine for a bike he had bought for Rs 15,000.
The steep hike in fines for violating traffic laws, as provisioned by the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, which came into effect from September 1, has led to sharp debates and bitter divisions over the big questions—can stiff penalties make Indian drivers better behaved, and the roads safer in India? Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister for road transport and highways, has been the strongest proponent of the new act. He believes this is a critical step in bringing discipline to the traffic mess in Indian cities. “There was no fear of the law because the fines were low. People got away cheaply. And fines are just one aspect of the new Motor Vehicles (MV) Act. We are aiming for larger reforms,” he says (see interview: ‘Fines are just one aspect...’).
The intent behind amending the act cannot be faulted. Indian roads are among the deadliest in the world: 147,913 people died in the country in road accidents in 2017 alone. That amounts to 405 deaths every day or 17 deaths every hour. Tragically, with just 1 per cent of the world’s automobiles, India accounts for 15 per cent of global traffic deaths, according to the World Bank. Between 2002 and 2017, India lost 1,961,301 lives to road accidents—nearly the combined population of Goa and Sikkim.
The amended MV Act has received support from most quarters. A study conducted by SaveLIFE Foundation at four key stretches in Delhi and Mumbai after the implementation of the act notes higher seat-belt compliance and fewer overloading violations by two-wheelers and commercial vehicles. “On average, 18 accident deaths were reported every day in Bihar prior to the new MV Act; this is down to 12 now. In Patna, 98 per cent bikers are wearing helmets now,” says Sanjay Agarwal, principal secretary, transport department, Bihar.
Critics, however, have slammed the Centre for making people pay for the chaos on Indian roads, almost as if the
In Jaipur, authorities have hung flowerpots from traffic signal poles, often obstructing the drivers’ line of vision
adequate lack of public transport and poor road administration had no role in the sorry state of affairs. In June, the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety sought the response of states to a report by the Delhi-based Institute of Road Traffic Education (IRTE). The report said a large percentage of traffic signals and road signage violated the standards set by the Indian Roads Congress, a premier body of highway engineers. “Seventy-five per cent of the traffic signals in Delhi are faulty. Ex-Union minister Gopinath Munde died in an accident in Delhi in 2014; the signal light at the accident site is still defective. What’s the point in penalising people without giving them good infrastructure?” asks Rohit Baluja, president of IRTE.
The situation is much worse in other places. In Jaipur, authorities have hung flowerpots from signal poles, often obstructing the drivers’ line of vision. It comes as no surprise to Vishwas Jain, MD of the city-based Consulting Engineers Group, a leading firm in road safety planning. He claims that the Rajasthan government does not have a single transport planner or engineer on its rolls, leave aside a department for it.
It’s the story of every Indian city—congested, with poor public transport, little room for pedestrians or cyclists, badly engineered roads, abysmal parking facilities, traffic signals on the blink, reckless drivers and indifferent enforcement agencies. Anil Kumar, additional commissioner of police (traffic), Hyderabad, points to other maladies—poor implementation of municipal laws that convert residential areas into commercial zones; houses with inadequate parking, leading to encroachments on roads and sidewalks. Not to mention the rampant corruption in the traffic management system—from driving licences to challans for road transgressions.
TOO FEW ROADS, TOO MANY CARS
What makes matters worse is the unsupportable vehicular burden on city roads. Urban roads account for only 9 per cent of India’s total road net
RIGHT OF WAY? A traffic jam in Mohan Estate, an industrial area in New Delhi, Sept. 16