Rebel for a wrong cause: Media and public outrage against new traffic rules is a crying shame

The Narendra Modi government at Centre has amended the old Motor Vehicles Act by passing the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the new rules have come into effect from 1 September and some Indians are quite unhappy.

First of all, why amend a law that was passed in 1988? If it was good enough for 31 years, why change it now? This is a crushing blow to our ‘right to reckless driving’ (unfortunately not guaranteed by the Constitution) and ‘right not to wear protective gear or apply for insurance/licence’. ‘Understandably’, some aggrieved citizens have registered strong protest against the government’s ‘high-handed ways’ of driving civic sense into their lives.

For the life of them they can’t figure out why they have to pay hefty fines for traffic rule violations. After all, what is the big deal if one jumps a signal? Will the heaven fall on our collective heads if we don’t wear helmets? And what is this thing about seat belts? Why should we be forced to pay Rs 1,000 for not wrapping that around our waists? And who will remember to update the Pollution Under Check (PUC) certificates anyway?

 Rebel for a wrong cause: Media and public outrage against new traffic rules is a crying shame

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

‘Justifiably’, angry citizens are flooding the internet with memes. In Bhubaneswar, some commuters have even clashed with the police and got themselves injured in the process. Sensing public mood, chief ministers of several states (mostly ruled by non-BJP governments) have refused to implement the new Motor Vehicles Amendment Act.

The media, too, has started running outrage campaign against the new rules, offering a forum for public outcry. Questions are being asked why only citizens would be made to pay hefty fines for traffic rule violations when politicians and even the law enforcers are showing laxity? That is a valid point. Though the freshly amended rules have a provision that police (in Delhi, for instance) will pay double the fine than normal citizens for violating the law, as usual some law enforcers have reportedly been behaving as law breakers.

It is nobody’s argument that the new traffic rules should be selectively applied, but that cannot provide a justification for citizens to willfully break the law. And what good is a law if citizens don’t respect it? If fear of the law is absent, chaos is just a heartbeat away. Nitin Gadkari was right on the money when he said that people don’t take traffic rules seriously because the pittance they pay for violating rules fails to act as a deterrent.

“We are jumping red signals, accidents are happening every day, people are losing their lives. If people fear law, only then will they follow rules. What is more important? People’s lives or money,” the Union Road Transport and Shipping Minister was recently quoted, as saying while defending the new panel provisions.

Deaths due to road accidents never get adequate media coverage. They are usually tucked away in the inside pages of a newspaper and form no basis for primetime debates on TV. That doesn’t alter the fact that it is one of the biggest cause of fatalities in India. For instance, NDTV reported, "Over 1,37,000 people were killed in road accidents in 2013 alone, that is more than the number of people killed in all our wars put together."

Data from Ministry of Road Transport and Highways reveals that in 2017, 4.64 lakh accidents claimed the lives of 1.47 lakh people. Two-wheelers accounted for over a third of all road accidents.

If the penal provisions are made steeper to discourage commuters from violating rules, that may bring down the rate of fatalities due to road accidents. The new provisions, that apparently are based on the recommendations of the Group of Transport Ministers of States, raise the cost for things that citizens should never do anyway — such as driving under the influence of alcohol, over-speeding, not wearing protective gear, or driving without licence. That this well-intentioned and long overdue move has caused such outrage among the public and even in media tells us all that we need to know about our rebellious nature against civic sense.

Author Manu Joseph has a theory about why Indians don’t respect traffic rules but show a strange regard for rules inside a public transport system such as Delhi Metro. His contention is that "India’s traffic system has not learned from Delhi Metro is that for a threat of fines to be effective, you should first win the respect of those you threaten." In other words, public service must be excellent for people to respect the system, and in turn comply with the rules imposed by the system.

The article makes an excellent point, but the Centre is handicapped in a way. It can impose heavy fines for traffic rule violations, but it cannot really ensure that roads are in excellent shape (and not potholed like the lunar surface) or traffic signals are visible and in working condition. Those are the domain of state governments through their public works departments. While that provide an excuse for fulmination against hefty penal provisions, consider a small fact.

As chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM), Bibek Debroy recently said during a talk show on the relevance of epics such as Mahabharata in our current lives, India’s tax-GDP ratio during Kautilya’s time was more or less the same as it is now. But the government’s responsibilities have comparatively increased manifold. This indicates that somewhere the citizens have begun abdicating their responsibilities. If nothing else, let this be the reason why we should respect the new law.

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Updated Date: Sep 10, 2019 16:25:02 IST