Why India Needed The Road Transport And Safety Bill
Road safety is one of the most pressing contemporary issues that India faces today and with that in mind, the government has reiterated its intention to pass a bill to amend the currently applicable Motor Vehicles Act 1988—a document which is now widely considered archaic and inadequate to deal with the issues faced on the country’s roads. However, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, which is currently with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Culture, and Tourism, was not what the government had initially intended to create. After Union Minister for Rural Development Gopinath Munde’s death in a car collision in June 2014, Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, had announced that a new bill would be drafted to replace the existing legislative framework. This took the shape of the now shelved Road Transport and Safety Draft Bill.
“We had looked at (good practices) around the world—USA, Canada, Singapore and UK—and prepared the (Road Transport and Safety) bill. However, it fell into the concurrent list and the state governments felt that we were encroaching on their authority,” Mr Gadkari said while speaking at the NDTV-Diageo Road To Safety Conclave recently.
Many experts are disappointed that this bill did not make it to the floor of the house.
“It is actually really disappointing to see just an amendment Bill. We were expecting a conclusive road safety and transportation bill. The version that is currently pending has a lot of gaps. Except for increasing fines, it doesn’t do much,” says Harman Singh Sidhu, Founder of ArriveSAFE, an NGO that works to improve India’s road safety policies.
“The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is a step in the right direction but needs to be further strengthened to address crucial issues like accountability for crashes caused due to faulty road design, adult accountability for safety of children and mechanism for scientific investigation of accidents,” says Saji Cherian, Director, Operations, SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit which assisted the government in drafting both the Road Transport and Safety Draft Bill and Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill.
The biggest and the most contentious changes that were suggested by the first version of the Road Transport and Safety Draft Bill were the setting up of a Motor Vehicle Regulation and Road Safety Authority of India and a National Road Transport and Multi-modal Coordination Authority. The Regulation and Road Safety Authority was meant to set safety regulations, finance road, and vehicle safety programs and was only accountable to the Parliament while the Coordination Authority was meant to develop integrated transport systems and multi-modal hubs.
States like Tamil Nadu vehemently opposed this on the grounds that it was an encroachment on the financial, legislative and administrative powers of the states. In response to this, each version of the Draft Bill that was consequently released in the public domain saw further dilutions with regard to the independence of these national level authorities. By the fourth revision, the provision for an independent selection committee for the appointment of their members had been dropped and the responsibility was given to the Central government. This pattern makes it unsurprising that these national authorities for road safety found absolutely no mention in the Amendment Bill.
The original version of the Road Safety Draft Bill had also proposed steeper fines and punishments for offenders. While this is something that has been carried forward in the Amendment Bill, it has been significantly scaled down. For example, the fine for drink driving was suggested in the Road Safety Bill at ₹25,000 and in the current form the proposed fine is ₹10,000. The steep fines in the Road Safety bills had been criticised for being too high for a poor country like India.
The draft was also opposed by transport unions, many of whom called strikes to quash it. These unions opposed what they called the centre’s attempt to take over the transportation sector, the hefty fines and the stricter check on the health of vehicles. They believed that this would cause a massive loss of livelihood in the sector.
This stemmed from the fact that the Draft Bill proposed a two-tier system for granting permits to public transport vehicles at national and intra-state levels. The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill does not include this point and sticks to the ongoing practice of permits being issued by state-level transport authorities.
What’s Been Carried Forward?
Some important aspects of the draft that have been carried forward in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill include the call for a more unified and streamlined licence and registration registry at the national level. This provision is considered important in reducing the practice of holding multiple licences.
The other thing that has been included is the requirement for greater automation in the process of testing vehicles for their fitness and greater electronic surveillance on national and state highways and urban roads.
“Although this Bill (Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill) is not as comprehensive as the Road Transport and Safety Bill that the Government attempted to introduce earlier, but it still manages to cover all the crucial aspects that if passed and implemented will reduce road crash deaths and injuries in the country,” says Saji Cherian.
What Both Bills Missed
Some points that were missing in the Road Transport and Safety Draft Bill have been ignored by the Amendment Bill as well. For instance, holding road design and planning accountable in ensuring safe access—something which is considered to be one the biggest legislative gaps in achieving road safety—is missing in both bills.
For India, while the Road Transport and Safety Bill may have met with an unfortunate death, considering that the current Motor Vehicles Act 1988 has been heavily deficient in tackling road crashes, any kind of attempt to reform the legislative system will be a welcome step in the right direction.
The legislative framework which currently exists in India is inadequate and fails to met most of the global standards of best practice legislation defined by the World Health Organisation. The Amendment Bill, if passed, should help create norms related to helmets and child restraints that meet these standards.
However, this bill has been pending for review for nearly six months now and despite repeated ministerial assurances, there seems to be no definitive time-frame for its passage.