The headline was stark. “Truck mows down 14 in Andhra, police say driver was drunk”—The Indian Express, April 22, Page 12.
It set me thinking again about how far removed some of our most intelligent and reasonable compatriots are from the reality of life–and death, if I may add.
If you have not guessed it by now, I mean none other than Their Lordships of the Supreme Court of India. All law—good law that is—has to be logical. All logic must be based on reason. And to interpret logic and reason you have to be intelligent. Wisdom still remains an outsider although good intelligence and reasoning can contribute handsomely to it. The higher the stake, the greater the need for high intelligence. Therefore the Supreme Court, inter alia, has to be peopled with the most intelligent, most reasonable and—if wishes were horses—the wisest of human beings because the stakes cannot get any higher.
Drinking and driving is an offence the world over. India is no different. We have had laws in place against drunk drivers for a long time now and over the years they have become more stringent. Breathalysers, which were unheard of even five years ago, are a common sight at night check points in most cities now. But death due to drunk driving continues to grab headlines.
Media uses its own dynamics to ‘play’ up or down a news item. The coverage and headline size vary depending on who is involved, how many are the casualties, the place of the accident and so on. A drunk driver in a BMW running over a pavement dweller in Delhi has to get more eyeballs than a truck mowing down 14 in Andhra. The former is Front Page news, the latter is shipped off to Page 12.
Be that as it may, has anyone thought why there have been so many news headlines of drunk drivers killing innocent people of late? Unlike, say, the Americans, we Indians don’t give a damn about data. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started putting out road accident data only as late as 2014. So there is no way of getting statistics on drunk driving for the year 2000 or 1990 or before. But it’s nobody’s case that there has not been an exponential jump in the number of deaths caused by drivers ‘under the influence’. The straight and simple reason for this is that there are far more vehicles—and therefore drivers, of course—on the roads in 2017 than any time before. Logically, therefore, the chances of accidents, including those involving drunk drivers, are far greater than before. And by the way, it doesn’t require NCRB to tell us there are more people drinking today than, say two or five or ten years ago!
Surely Their Lordships must have been only too aware of these facts. It is also a fact that despite the introduction of technology, sections of the police force continue to be lax or prone to corruption. A few hundred bucks can save you from the beat constable but they may not save the poor pedestrian from you.
To overcome all this, and to keep the driver on the straight and narrow, the Supreme Court invoked a very empowering Article (142) of the Constitution and ordered that henceforth no liquor vends would be allowed within 500 metres of national and state highways. In short one more law was added to the long list.
Now what has been bothering me these past few days, how did the court arrive at this figure of 500 metres. Come to think of it, is distance a damper for a driver? Curiously, a drive of 500 metres after downing a few gulps of your favourite brew could prime you for that accident. The death of 14 in Andhra proves the point. So where does that leave the new law?
If the court thought that this was going to dissuade drivers from drinking, it has to think again. The court also did not seem to have taken into account the by-now famous “jugaad” mind-set of Indians, including those in power. So you have the Punjab government de-notifying all state highways, meaning they cease to be state highways and, therefore, liquor vends are very much legal in the very same place they are standing. In Haryana they are closing gaps in road medians so that the “motorable” distances between these roads and the pubs exceed the 500 metres rule. The story is getting replicated elsewhere too.
Of course there is no denying that the court had only the best of intentions when it issued the order. Only it was unworkable and ineffective. If, on the other hand, it had put the onus of preventing drunk driving on the police, it could have had the desired effect. Every policeman and officer on such duty will be held responsible at the pain of suspension or dismissal or more if an accident happens within his jurisdiction. Liquor vends too could have been mandated to have “cooler” cells where nothing more than water would be served to those who have had one too many. “Get in and high, go out and low” must be the slogan for their billboards.
A whole lot of adverse economic and social fallout has been result of the new rule, but the Indian courts have rarely shown much appreciation of such matters. Meanwhile drivers continue to take detours and we wait for the next big headline of death!