Tuesday , 29 September 2020

Interview with: Harish Baijal, A crusade against drunk-driving The Mumbai Experiment

What about the legal formalities?

Legally, an offender should appear before the court and undergo the stipulated punishment. The matter ends there. But, before June 20, 2008 the offenders never went to the court. Those caught had to pay a fine of Rs 2000 which is actually a deposit to ensure the offender’s appearance in the court next day. But they would never turn up. The court would then forfeit the amount but the culprit remained free. This certainly could not be the solution. So, my team and I went to all the nine courts individually and impressed upon the judiciary the importance of forcing the offender to appear in the court. That’s when the courts began issuing summons and the culprits began coming to the courts. They were fined Rs 400-500.

When a person is convicted of drunk-driving in the court, it is mandatory to suspend his licence for six months so that the offender does not drive for the said period. Instead, what used to happen was that after the offender appeared in the court, paid the fine and got his/her licence suspended, the court never stamped the licence. As a result, the offenders were back on the road and we caught many offenders twice or thrice. We began highlighting this fact before the court by emphasising through a rider about the number of times the offender was caught earlier. Despite the existence of a provision of up to six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to Rs 3000 and cancellation of licence for a second time offender, the repeat offenders weren’t imprisoned. We had to point this out and argue in the court like advocates. It was not possible to be present at the court for every case, but we attended as many as we possibly could. This increased my team’s confidence level.

According to Indian laws, a repeat offender’s licence must be cancelled and he mustn’t be allowed to drive a vehicle for the rest of his life. But people overcome this rule by getting duplicate licences organised without going through mandatory legal enquiries like Form 12. The stamping on the original licence never proved to be a hindrance for people.

If you take the famous case of Hamza Imtiaz Motiwala, he was issued a licence at the age of 16 and had 13 duplicate licences when he was caught at Jacob Circle in 2008. That was when a crucial revelation took place – that you could drive around even if the court suspended your licence. To check this, we started confiscating the licences. We also requested the court to make it mandatory for the licences to be kept in the possession of the concerned authorities – either the court or us. Offenders still got duplicate licences and were back on the roads. Also, people stopped carrying licences because not carrying the licence attracted only a fine of Rs 100 or 200.

We were burning two to three lakh licences (for different offences) every six months. We issued a letter to the RTO that no duplicate licence was to be issued until or unless the request was accompanied with Form 12. Often, licences were issued even before we had got the relevant information. Then we started giving the RTO a CD every month and, later, every fifteen days but nothing worked. So we developed a software by which the data of an arrest at night got entered on our website the next morning. With this, the issuing of duplicate licences came down to almost zero.

It is very difficult to catch a person when he is carrying a duplicate licence. And there are very rare chances of the same person being caught by the same officer repeatedly. We received hardly 10 or 12 such cases. Then, with the help of BPL, we designed a software which gave us the previous records of an offender by just punching in his licence number. This data could be sent as sms to all the officers. We also began seizing the vehicles and asking the offenders’ family members or relatives to come and pick up the vehicles. This was to ensure that the offenders appeared in the court. There used to be people who came to the court, got punished, got their licence stamped and then left driving their cars! We stopped that. We faced some loophole or the other at every step. In spite of we catching about 600 drunk-drivers every week, the number of accidents was not reducing.

What was the next logical step?

We began going through section 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act. It mentioned that the punishment for drunk driving was either a fine up to Rs 2000 or imprisonment up to three months. We argued in the court that we were not interested in the fine part of the punishment, we were more interested in the enforcement part. Initially we used to plead for one or two days’ imprisonment. Gradually it went up to six months. Look what happened in Alistair Pereira’s case! After killing seven people and injuring eight others, he got away with six months of imprisonment. Isn’t it better to imprison a traffic offender for six months before he kills someone?

With these initiatives, the city of Mumbai really woke up and took notice. Drinking at parties came down. But hotels and restaurants started complaining of low sales; that’s when we advised the hotels to provide valet facilities to their customers.

What about increasing the fine amount? Or changing the mindset?

Between 2003 and 2009, many proposals had been made to increase the fine amount. Today if you do not wear a helmet, the fine is just Rs 100. It should at least match the cost of a helmet. Even if the riders wear helmets, it is more out of fear of law than a concern for their own safety. Again, the drivers respect a signal only if there is a constable in sight. Here, the question of our mindset comes in. Many commuters do not use the subway near the railway stations because they are not very comfortable with them. There is a need to direct the pedestrians to the subway. We did that in Sion by taking the help of the students of a nearby college. We created barricades on the pavements and directed the flow of pedestrians towards the subway.

In keeping with the increase in population figures the world over, the number of vehicles too has been on the rise. Against such a scenario while the rate of fatal accident could have increased proportionately, Mumbai actually showed a decline. In 2006 the city reported 648 accidents, in 2007 they were 630 and in 2008, they were down to 575.

In that case, do we need to create more awareness?

Traffic police in Mumbai has zero budget for the education of motorists. We have to hunt around for sponsors even for the Traffic Safety Week. The World Bank says that if we convert the annual fatal road accidents into financial loss, it works out to three per cent of the GDP and that is Rs 77,000 crore. Maharashtra accounts for almost 10,000 fatal accidents every year which is almost 10% of the national figure. Where is the budget for education of motorists? Still we did a lot by putting up signboards and posts at signals. We also carried out a high voltage newspaper campaign which motivated people to either give up drinking or reduce their intake of alcohol.

What about support from technology?

In New York, cameras are placed at every junction and linked to a central control room and the enforcement agencies. The most important thing is that if there is a violation at a junction, the camera records the number plate which later gives all the relevant data. When I had attended my first meeting in July 2005 in the RTO office with the transport commissioner, he had given a categorical assurance that within the next six months the entire data of vehicles in Mumbai would be digitised. It’s almost five years now. We keep searching for addresses manually and that data too is vague. The licensing procedure too has to be made very stringent – it should be a matter of privilege and not a right.

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