Long ago, someone said the law was an ass. Nothing can be more apt than this when it comes to penalties and convictions in cases of road accidents in India. And celebrities are most guilty of committing offences at the wheel — and trying to wriggle out of sticky situations through means foul and illegal — encouraging, in the process, fans to follow bad examples.
Take the case of Bollywood star, Salman Khan, actually convicted of drunken driving which killed one sleeping pavement dweller in Mumbai in 2002, and seriously injured three others. Khan used his muscle and money power to delay court proceedings for as long as 13 years. The judgement came early this year, and he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to a prison term. But Khan wangled a bail, and is now out. What is more shocking, the actor has been travelling abroad for shows and making one film after another, each with a loud message underlining his noble deeds and public service.
And, half-hearted enforcement of even important laws like those pertaining to road safety contributes to the large number of deaths on Indian roads. About 1.2 million were killed and 5.5 million hurt or maimed in the last decade. This means that there was a death every four minutes in the country.
In comparison, the fatalities in China were higher at 200,000 on an average every year, according to the World Health Organisation. This figure is more than four times that which is officially published by the Chinese government.
American roads have seen far fewer deaths — 34,000 in 2013 — probably owing to better policing against speeding vehicles, strict implementation of laws and speedy trials as well as convictions.
Now, this is where India stands guilty. Here is a classic example of how rules are flouted, and this may sound even comical, but is pregnant with dangerous possibilities. According to a newspaper article, “This year, the family of Rakesh Pillai, a bank employee, achieved a long-held aspiration. After hauling themselves around on bicycles and scooters all their lives, they bought a white Suzuki Wagon R, one of India’s best-selling compact cars.
“It didn’t matter that no family member knew how to drive. Pillai immediately took the car for a spin around his neighbourhood in New Delhi. He almost knocked down a couple of pedestrians, scratched a car door when making a turn, and bumped into a wall while trying to reverse”.
One of the prime causes of run-overs and crashes on road is untrained drivers — who have no business, in the first place, to be at the wheel.
Well, this is not the end of Pillai’s story. It gets more comical and more dangerous. Pillai goes to a centre in New Delhi to get a driving license and there touts tell him that he can jump the long queue by paying about Rs 200 ($3).
We do not know whether Pillai paid that bribe, but he was called in for driving test after about an hour. The examination was held on a busy road near a shopping mall. The place was crowded with cars and pedestrians, and Pillai was asked to do drive in a straight line, take a right turn into a lane, make a U turn and reverse his vehicle. All this took less than a minute!
The examiner stood under the shade of an umbrella, keeping track of as many as 10 cars and motorbikes, with all the drivers and riders being tested at the same time.
At the end of it all, driving licenses were doled out for a fee. At least here, there was a pretence of examination.
But one can, despite all the big talk by the administration, get a license in India without a test. And this in a nation which has the fastest growing car market with two million jalopies being sold every year.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Indian roads are one of the deadliest in the world. If road conditions are terrible, cars often fail modern crash tests.
The government is alarmed by all this, and it should be. So, fines for violating road rules are being raised, and jail sentences, especially for drunken driving, will get longer. Drunken driving can attract a penalty of Rs 40,000 ($617), which is huge, and time in jail. In the US, driving under the influence of alcohol attracts only Rs 3,000 ($46).
All this is fine, but sadly in India, effective implementation of laws has been a major impediment. Proper policing and punishment are routinely missing.
The other day, a driver on call told me that he had jumped a signal, and was waved down by a cop. He demanded a spot fine of Rs 300 ($4), and when the driver said he had only Rs 10 on him — which was true — the man in uniform took that and let the car go.
This is precisely why there are so many road accidents and deaths. A traffic offender gets away lightly by bribing a policeman a tiny fraction of what he would have had to pay legally as fine. Court cases drag on for an eternity, and when conviction finally comes, one can walk free. Like Khan.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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