Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Seeking Opportunities in Adversity

Seeking Opportunity in Adversity

Adversities could be opportunities for cleansing the system. The ghastly bus accident on the Bangalore-Hyderabad Highway has exposed the vulnerabilities in implementing the Motor Vehicles Act and Rules.

Have mobile phones of the passengers’ added fuel to fire when the diesel tank caught fire?
Each accident may have its own tale to tell but the latest has many tales of distress. Earlier also buses fell into the gorge or had hit the pavements and got into fire accidents. But never it was so instantaneous flame that left no passenger spared except the lucky five. On earlier occasions, several were able to jump out to safety and had burn injuries or fractures and a few died while undergoing treatment due to the intensity of burns on the body. Not this time.

In the context of each passenger with the exception of the child carrying a mobile phone, when fire engulfs the inflammable mobile phones add literally fuel to fire and even blast on the body of the passenger. Technology has added its own risks while passing on the advantage. Still hardly a passenger has been able to put it to use when the bus caught fire. Each mobile phone is run by battery that has instant inflammable material and the hardware also catches fire. This would appear to have missed everybody’s attention.

Who Wants Sympathies?
There were intense discussions in media, both print and television on the ghastly accident. Sympathisers cued up from the Prime Minister to the peons in the State Government. The victims said: “We would like to see some action to prevent such future accidents.” The public almost in voice said that the Transport Department should share as much blame as the contract vehicle management. They have squarely asked the Department what action ever was initiated on the errands of the contract vehicle managements. In the aftermath of the accident in a couple of days 66 private contract vehicles were found to have been moving with one or more lapses.
Let me state the pre-requisites for contract vehicles or for that matter any passenger vehicle:
The vehicle should be fully road-worthy and the license to this effect is issued by the Transport Department before engaging the vehicle. There are different types of contract vehicles: 1. Temporary engagement by the Marriage parties; 2. Temporary engagement for tourist purposes either within the State or all India; 3. Contract vehicles engaged by the private and public schools/other education institutions; 4. Contract vehicles engaged by the State Road Transport Corporations to fill the gap in its own fleet on routes where the demand far exceeds its supply – all with the relevant permit from the Transport Department at a price per seat as the duty it collects. All these vehicles, whether Air-conditioned or otherwise, have to undergo fitness test before the issue of the permit. The tests include among others: brake, clutch, accelerator performance; performance of the air-conditioner; firefighting equipment in good working condition; first aid kit in usable fashion, speed-controllers; logbooks; passengers’ lists for each trip with full particulars of the passenger; two drivers for each vehicle making night travel ( i.e., after 10p.m). The luggage should be carried only in the luggage boot and not on rooftop unless special permission is secured to carry it on the rooftop. Politically influential persons (PIP) are in the business of such engagement. Rules are bent for the operators and compromises are made. Checks are routinised and though there are provisions for cancelling the licenses, such instances are rarest of the rare. Mostly there is change of purses for each type of offence. The buses generally overload three to five passengers depending upon the driver and the fare is reportedly shared among the department officials and the operator whenever violation is noticed.
The drivers engaged by the contractors should have valid license and experience and full knowledge of the route. Most operators engage only one driver and one cleaner who many a time sits at the driving seat when the actual driver would like to take rest. This deviation rarely penalized by the department.

Most buses do not have the GPS and the drivers new to the route negotiate at the expense of time and resources. Most drivers of contract vehicles are supposed to move point to point and carry passengers accordingly. The list of passengers at the starting point could be available as per the statutory requirement. But the details of those wayside passengers who are picked up in the midstream at two or three points would never be on record.

There are a number of operators who carry unspecified luggage and not unlikely inflammable material like the Kerosene or diesel in cans, firearms, crackers etc., depending upon the private incentive that falls into the pockets of the driver and the other crew. If such material is loaded at the starting point itself, it is with the connivance of the management.

The condition of roads in patches is not vehicle-worthy on several highways. While negotiating a pothole or a trench, it is not unlikely that at a high speed the driver loses control and the vehicle meets up with an accident.
The drivers are supposed to be not under intoxication. There are no tests done at the start. Even if done, on the way, when the driver stops the bus for the passengers to take snacks or refresh at a daba or wayside restaurant, the owners of these outfits provide them a drink for free as incentive for giving the business of the passengers. The drivers in forty to fifty out of hundred cases are drunk from then onwards.

Issue of Driving Licenses:
The easiest thing for one to get is the driving license in India. None of the testing officials would even pass grade I test either in Dubai or Europe or America or Canada. In these countries, it takes not less than one year for a person to get the driving license during which time he takes two written tests and a minimum of two road tests for qualifying him/her. There are many who just passed 7th standard who do not even clearly locate the road signs leave alone reading them in a language other than their mother tongue but got the driving license for a public vehicle – HMV or LMV. In Hyderabad Municipal limits, an estimated 40 percent of the vehicles would not be having drivers with valid licenses and these include motor cycles, most of whom at the flicker of the eye merrily violate the traffic rule in the glaring view of the traffic police. It can be anybody’s guess in the other areas of the State.

In Andhra Pradesh, there is a peculiar rule that says that no passenger contract vehicle shall enter the city after 7a.m., and should not leave before 10p.m. Long distances like the Bangalore-Hyderabad, Mumbai-Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam-Hyderabad, Shiridi-Hyderabad to cite a few traveling at an average of 80k.m per hour with half-an-hour rest on the way, would take a minimum running time of eight to nine hours. In order to reach in time the destination i.e, before 7a.m., the driver drives at breakneck speed in excess of the allowed speed putting the passengers to high risk as has happened in the Palem accident.

The State Government promptly appointed an Enquiry Committee to investigate the causes of the accident and identify the reasons and also to suggest preventive measures with a Senior IAS officer as Chairperson. Incidentally, the vehicle involved in the accident bears the insignia of a prominent political leader belonging to Anantapur who was quick to come on the channels to say that the vehicle has long back been sold to the actual contract operator – Jabbar Travels as far back as two years back and that his firm is not involved in the contract. Queerly, the transfer of ownership for two years did not take place and the department has no valid response in this regard. These issues may surface during the enquiry. But it is unlikely that the blame would be owned by the department. There is no history of any punitive action on any of the Transport Department staff in any previous accidents.

In several Asian nations like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China etc., if a vehicle driver is charged with violation of traffic rule by the police the Courts do not interfere with the penalty. In India while such unbridled power for the constable is out to be misused, the boundaries of police regulatory acceptance need a clear definition for the Courts to take cognizance.

All vehicles carry mandatory insurance although claim settlements in accidents of sorts take merry-go-round the Insurance companies who are wont to use the fine print to disengage from the claim. The comprehensive insurance is mandatory throughout the world. In US, Canada, Europe, and Middle East, the premium goes up with a recorded violation of the traffic rule – that includes even wearing the seat belt or engaging on the mobile phone while at the wheel. With three accidents reported the driver gets a red label and two more loses the license and renewal is not entertained for a period of five years. In India Insurance regulatory standards are still evolving and this is clearly an area that requires active and urgent attention. The claims are settled to the owner’s account within 24-48 hours and the owner should report at the nearest police station after the accident with full particulars and online the nature and extent of claim will be decided on the basis of such accepted report duly endorsed by the police authorities and passed on to the credit of the account.

Insurance for the vehicles should be made more transparent and cover risks specifically at pre-announced prices. The premium should vary depending on the offences on the part of the owner of the vehicle. This would mean that the vehicle owner and owner-driver would pay penalty for the actual offence and would also pay the risk price for the next year.

Right from toll-gate tax to the insurance every payment relating to the motor vehicles will be done on line through credit or debit card or internet and no cash will be handled by the transport department. The payments will be all settled through the regulator approved payment and settlement systems.
Actionable agenda should therefore revolve around the following:

There should be monthly written tests at two levels conducted by the Motor Vehicles Department for all types of licenses to be issued. Level 1 is for securing the learner’s license. Level 2 should be for securing permanent license. Admission for the second level test should be 3months after the Level 1. After passing the written test with a qualifying mark of no less than 80 percent, on-road driving test should be conducted by the Motor Vehicle Inspector that should include even the ways to parking the vehicle at the parking bays. Those who are coming for first renewal after this policy is introduced should qualify in the Level 2 written examination.

Drivers at the Wheel:
For all the night journey buses and goods transport vehicles there shall be two qualified drivers and the vehicles that ply without conforming to this rule should be levied penalty and a first notice to the management recorded on the computer. After three such offences, the license to the owners to ply the vehicles should be cancelled.

All other existing rules relating to maintenance of passenger lists with the addresses and phone numbers, prohibiting certain type and quantity of luggage on passenger vehicles should be rigidly followed. Any deviation should be given a tolerance limit with penalty to be paid online by the offender, beyond which the license to operate the vehicle should be cancelled.

License Fees:
The per passenger rate on contract vehicles is related to the license fees. Therefore, the State Governments after the above rules are made effective should liberalise the tax structure.
The transport department should ensure that all the roads are smooth. If any accident happens on account of bad road, the subjects of the accident should receive compensation at the hands of the Roads and Buildings Department online.

Whenever accident is traced to faulty implementation, the burden of compensation shall rest with the government concerned and the concerned officials responsible for such deviations should be penalized so heavily as to prove a deterrent for such laxity.

These amendments to rules should be carried out with due notice to all citizens throughout the country uniformly.