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Reduced motor vehicle fines: Is Gujarat violating Article 254 under public pressure?

Vijay Rupani
By RK Misra*
“If you are gonna be two-faced at least make one of them pretty”, said Marilyn Monroe. Sure Madamoiselle!, would go an imaginary conversation for there is no other way to explain the contradictions in the implementation of the amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act which came into effect from September 1, 2019 and stirred up a hornets nest countrywide.
Narendra Modi is a powerful Prime Minister who rules with an iron hand. He has a steamroller majority which ensured easy piloting of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2019 through Parliament until it became a law on August 9, 2019. The amendments were made in consultation with transport ministers from 18 states along with discussions with other standing committees.
And yet mere days before it was slated to be implemented, Gujarat – the Prime Minister’s home state as well as that of his powerful party chief as well as Home Minister, Amit Shah – stalled and watered down it’s penal provisions. Soon other BJP ruled states followed suit.
Was the powerful Prime Minister bending to a breeze or was he cutting one of his own to size? There is a section of opinion within his own party which believes that the penalties were deliberately kept steep to provide for scaling down and yet keep the final figure high enough. However, if so be the case then Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari did not seem aware of the strategy for he kept going out on a limb to aggressively market the exponential increase to the ultimate detriment of his political stature.
This seemed quite a letdown for a seasoned politician and a focused minister, once seen as a prime ministerial replacement if the BJP failed to get a clear majority in this year’s general elections. Analysts believe that Gadkari was a victim of internal politics who was led up the garden path by those at the helm and then cut to size.
How else does one account for the fact that there was hardly a demurring state when the centre was moving on the need for increased penalties. They were in agreement when the amendments were notified. Gujarat which was the prime mover in backtracking and reducing the fines, had even hosted meetings for other state ministers to discuss related issues. The Transport Development Committee held five meetings since 2016 to discuss amendments to the Act and there was no dissenting notes.
Gadkari with Modi
Gadkari was bravado personified when he went on record to state that he was not afraid of protests.  Gujarat Chief minister Vijay Rupani, apparently did not concur and was the first to water down the fines. He could not have done so without concurrence of Shah or Modi. He was followed soon after with dissenting noises emerging from Uttarakhand, Goa and Karnataka seeking reconsideration of the measure and voicing their resolve to slash it nevertheless. Others too followed suit.
The amendments in the 30 year old law which aim to make Indian roads safer, reduce corruption and use technology to overhaul the country’s creaking transportation system was introduced in Parliament by the road transport and highway ministry in 2016 and was passed by the Lok Sabha in 2017 but failed to muster support in the Rajya Sabha and was re-introduced this year.
BJP’s internecine politics notwithstanding, the high fines did lead to a rising tide of popular disquiet . As social media began reflecting the latent anger, the chief minister first moved to announce that the new rules would take effect only from September 16 as against September 1 and later announced the new watered down rates. He could not have possibly done so without concurrence from the top i.e. Shah or Modi himself.
Said Rupani, “The state government has the powers to make changes in the fine structure brought out by the Centre in the Motor Vehicles Act,2019”. The Union Ministry of Roads, Transport and Highways does not agree. It has apparently sought the Law Ministry’s opinion on whether state governments can reduce the lower limits for fines as enshrined in the law. Gujarat, in its notification, has breached the lower limit prescribed in the MV Act and also altered fines, which the Act does not permit.
Article 254 of the Constitution is clear that if there is a point of contention between the Centre and the state on a provision of law that falls in the concurrent list, then the central law shall prevail. Section 200 of the MV Act gives the stat government powers to decide penalties for 24 sections and Gujarat as well as other states are amending these to suit its needs. However, Gujarat is violating Article 254 of the Constitution by moving into the domain of non-compoundable offences and this may not stand in a court of law.
Under the amended fine structure in Gujarat, the penalty for not wearing a helmet is changed to Rs 500, which is Rs 1,000 under the MV Act, while violations of not wearing seat belts will now invite a fine of Rs 500 as against Rs 1,000 in the original rules. Similarly driving a vehicle without a driving license will attract a fine of Rs 2,000 in the case of two-wheelers and Rs 3,000 for the rest, as against Rs 5000 under the new rule. If the license, insurance, PUC, RC book is not there, the fine will be as per the new Motor Vehicles Act.
For the first time, Rs 500 will be fined and second time penalty is Rs 1000. For riding triples, the fine will be Rs 100 as against Rs 1000 in the MV Act and driving a polluting vehicle has a fine of Rs 10,000 under the new MV Act, whereas in Gujarat it will be Rs 1000 for small vehicles and Rs 3000 for large vehicles.
Analysts believe that Gadkari was a victim of internal politics who was led up the garden path by those at the helm and then cut to size
There is a section of opinion which strongly believes that ‘ fear’ is the only factor which can bring some semblance of order to the mess that is the killing chaos on Indian roads. However, the inappropriate timing to begin implementing it – potholes pockmark monsoon hit roads countrywide – has turned popular ire to the lack of basic services.
People have been quick to demand a similar fine structure and action against officialdom for pot-holed roads, polluted drinking water ,milch cattle impeding traffic on thoroughfares even goring drivers to death and hawker- laden pavements edging out commuters onto roads.
A citizenry already groaning under a heavy load of taxes and cess on the one hand and the profligacy of government and officialdom, on the other has now begun to stridently demand accountability. If the number of accident deaths in Gujarat have gone up to 8,000 annually (says the chief minister),the India figure for 2017 stands at 1.47 lakh, which is higher than the total population of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The incidents of traffic cops being beaten up by enraged commuters has also been rising steadily.
This is less due to booking of traffic violators and more because of the harassment and ‘extortion’ by bribe seeking cops. The implementation of the new rules, it is feared, will only ensure a manifold rise in the appetite of the bribe-seeking policeman and therefore more grease for its top brass.
With news of reckless levying of fines streaming in from states where the full force of the new law has been unleashed , the mounting anger is seeing other states also wading into the concessions current. News reports point to an auto-rickshaw driver in Orissa being fined Rs 40,000 and a truck driver in Rajasthan over Rs 1 lakh – all for traffic rules violations.
The Goa government has now made it clear that the new rules will only be implemented after all the potholed roads are repaired. The trending joke is that government refuses to let the commoner forget the old BSNL ringtone “you are in queue, please wait”, whether demonetization, GST and now PUC!
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*Senior Gujarat-based journalist. Blog: http://wordsmithsandnewsplumbers.blogspot.com/

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