November 23, 2014

Draft Transport Bill Clears Road for Privatisation

K K Divakaran

THE draft Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2014 has been formulated and put in the public domain without assessing the ground realities prevailing in the country. It is claimed that the vision of the Bill is to provide a framework for “safer, faster, and cost effective movements of passengers and freight in the country”. Statements from the ministry also suggest that the Bill incorporates the best evidence-based international safety policies. In the name of road safety, the intention of the BJP regime is to take over the entire core transport sector under the Union Government and to privatise the entire system by handing it over to the corporate sector. In India, poor condition of roads and lack of technological development lead to a large number of accidents. In 2012, the total number of vehicles stood at 1,594.9 lakhs and the share of two-wheelers was 72.4 percent. In 2012, the growth of car, jeep and taxis was 13.5 percent. The condition of road is very poor and there is no proportionate rise in road coverage. The length of National Highways is only two percent of total roads and only 40 percent of vehicles use it. Transport drivers are viewed as criminals. There is shortage of drivers too. The new Bill will help the Centre take over the Motor Vehicles Department and Motor Vehicle Taxation which is at present under the state purview. A detailed reading of the draft Bill suggests that it is the result of a hasty cut and paste job. The cutting and pasting seems to have been done by many people, some of whom may not be privy to the complexities of the subject. Significant parts of the Bill have similarities with provisions in the Road Transport Act (UK), the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration documents and a host of other sources in India and abroad. It is illustrated best in Schedule III of the document, which specifies penalties for various offences. The fine ranges from Rs 2,500 to Rs1,00,000. These amounts are similar to those imposed in many states of the US in equivalent dollars. In some cases, the fines and punishments proposed in this Bill are higher than those prescribed in the US. Almost half the penalties include the possibility of jail terms. This is against all evidence on the science of deterrence available internationally. Fine amounts in the US start at about 100 dollars, which is less than one day’s wage for a middle class road user. The vast majority of drivers on Indian roads are 2 wheeler-riders, taxi, auto-rickshaws, personal and bus drivers who earn less than Rs 300 a day. The fine for not wearing helmet is Rs 2,500, not wearing seat belt Rs 5,000, using mobile phone in first offence Rs 4,000, second offence Rs 6,000, third offence 10,000, violation of traffic signals first offence Rs 5,000, second offence Rs.10,000, third offence Rs 15,000, one month licence suspension and compulsory training. Seat belt is to be worn by not only persons using cars, but by bus also (except standees). The fines proposed are 10 times higher than what they should be and on implementation of new law the drivers will not be in roads, but in jails. The main factors contributing to the accidents and traffic violations are lack of segregation of roads according to the speeds of the vehicles, stress and strain and unlimited working hours (15 to 18 hours a day) of the drivers, absence of amenities such as hotels, parking places, rest room and hotels on the roadside for the drivers, and violation of norms in construction of roads and traffic signs including on express highways among others. The draft Bill proposes to create national and state authorities. It is the duty of the authorities to assess passenger demand and formulate schemes. Then the authorities will declare schemes. Open tenders will be called for operating passenger vehicles in each schemes. Both private and state-owned transport corporations will participate in the tenders. The highest bidder will get the routes and public sector state transport will be fully eliminated and the concessions enjoyed by public will come to an end. Private bus operators who are lakhs in number will also be washed out and the entire sector will be monopolised by the corporate companies as in the case of many developed countries. This paves way for abnormal increase in fare revision. On implementation of the Bill, the control of government on fare revision will be taken away. The Bill proposes that the Union government intend to take road transport under its control by replacing the existing administrative set up of State Motor Vehicle Department, State Transport Authority and Regional Transport Authority. After the formation of independent corporate bodies like National Authority, National Transport Authority, etc. the powers of the central and state governments to make rules to control and regulate motor vehicles will be taken away. Any policy decision of the central and state governments cannot be directly implemented and they have to get the approval of these autonomous bodies. The state government will be deprived of the powers to levy tax on motor vehicles. There is no constitutional validity for this as it is in the Concurrent List. All fees, fines, compounding fee, motor vehicle tax will be levied and collected by the National Authority by electronic mode by a single window system and out of the revenue so collected in the whole country only a meagre amount will be apportioned to the states. The Motor Vehicle Tax which is a major revenue source for the state exchequer will be left to the decision of the corporate body. It will severely affect the state revenue sources. The vehicle owners will face periodical arbitrary revision of rate of tax. Under the Motor Vehicles Act, Parliament provided special provisions relating to state transport undertakings for formulating schemes for the purpose of providing an efficient and adequately economical system, and properly coordinate road transport service in the state in public interest. State-owned corporations funded by the state governments have been able to provide adequate passenger transport services to the public in remote places also thereby fulfilling the promises of the government in power. Several lakhs of employees in various categories and public are benefited by the undertakings. The Constitution of India was amended in the year 1977 by incorporating Chapter IV to Schedule IX with a motto to strengthen the state transport undertakings (STUs) and to avoid litigations by private operators in different courts. This protection to the STUs does not find place in the draft Bill which is against the Constitution. A study conducted by the Central Institute of Road Transport revealed that after the nationalisation 90 percent of bus routes in the state of Andhra Pradesh (united state), the agriculture, education and industrial sectors got benefited and well advanced. The same is the case in states where nationalisation policy was adopted. Authorising private testing centres is against public safety. It is proposed to permit persons to establish driver’s skill testing centres and vehicle fitness. Testing centres will issue certificate of competency to drive and certificate of road worthiness of the vehicle. It is opposed to public interest since quality of testing, bona fide of the certificates and road safety aspect cannot be ensured. Monitoring the proper functioning of such private agencies will create more problems. A private agency may abandon the functioning of the centre at any time for its own reasons and cause undue hardship to the public. Establishment of modernised and advanced testing centres by the government and continuance of empowering the designated officials of the transport department to conduct such test and inspection would alone yield the required results and the statutory power of testing and certification cannot be entrusted to a private person or agency. Such permission already granted to private persons under the provisions of existing laws to establish smoke emission Testing centres and to issue certificates has not yielded the decided results. The powers of the transport authorities are quasi-judicial in nature. The Hon’ble Supreme Court and High Courts have given a ruling to this effect in a catena of judgements. The small vehicles carrying not more than six and 12 passengers will get stage carriage permits for operation of below 125 km and above 125 km, respectively. This will not only eliminate public transport and private buses, but endanger passengers also. Auto-rickshaws and taxis will also be eliminated and crores of workers loss their employment. The proposal of the Sunder Committee, that one percent of revenue from the cess on diesel and gasoline be allocated for national highways for road safety fund, has not been included in the Bill. Protection of truck drivers who are under constant attacks from terrorists and hooligans, and recommendations of V V Giri Labour Institute to protect the unorganised motor transport workers have not been considered. Instead the industrial tripartite committee on road transport is dissolved by the BJP government. The Bill will affect crores of workers and people using two-wheelers to multi-axle vehicles. This black law is opposed to public interest, constitutional provisions and federal set up and warrants united protests by all democratic people of India. We want drivers not in jails, but behind the wheels. 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