“This is bloody extortion,” fumed a friend. The restless drags on an unlit cigarette reflected the rage within. He just had a harrowing ride on his bike in the Odisha capital. He was intercepted by traffic cops for riding without a helmet. He had no insurance papers and the pollution certificate for his vehicle had expired months ago. The penalty came to a hefty sum. The amount was not something he couldn’t afford, but an expenditure he felt was absolutely pointless.
Well, he was aware of the risks of taking his bike out in the times of exorbitant penalties and overenthusiastic traffic police. He had carefully chosen a route to dodge the cops, but they turned out smarter. After finding all his escape routes blocked, my friend, like all smart Bhubaneswarites, quickly dumped his ego and began churning out excuses. It was followed by entreaties. But the cops were impervious to both, He then made an offer which he thought, with due apologies to Marlon Brando of Godfather, they cannot refuse: Rs 200. The oldest trick in the bag had worked well for him a few times earlier. This time it failed to cut ice with the target audience. All his deftness at negotiations, a skill he prided himself upon, went flat and it was back to hard calculation. The result was as depressing as heart-wrenching.
“I repeat this is extortion,” he bristled. “This is arbitrary, insensitive and unfair. Now try to get my point. From the government’s perspective, stiff penalties are a deterrent against violation of rules. But how far can it go? Ten thousand times, any amount it can think of? When a goon does it is called extortion, in case of the government we have a palatable substitution for the term: penalty. In neither case you are a party to the decision,” he ranted on.
A bit quirky, but his argument offered food for thought. How far can the government go indeed! Beyond a point the intent bares itself to serious questions, the most important among them being whether the primary motive is to bolster its sagging coffers by digging into the pockets of the common man. If the fundamental concern of the government is safety of individuals or environmental pollution or both then hefty fines are certainly not the only way out; smarter policing and stricter monitoring would suffice. It appears the government has failed on both counts and made the common man bear the cross of its ineptitude. Worse, it has discovered a money-making opportunity in this.
Rules must carry moral heft to be respected and obeyed. They should appear reasonably justified too. The amended Motor Vehicles Act is short on both. The reaction of the public makes it obvious. They would not mind the toughest action against people who endanger the live of others through acts such as drunk or rash driving and using mobile phones while at the wheel but would have a far lenient view in the case of helmetless driving, lack of no pollution certificate or insurance papers. The new Act lifts all lapse of drivers, both minor and major, to the level of big crime. At least, the size of the fines suggest so. In the process, it simply threw the fig leaf of a moral justification out of the window. What the Act required is a dose of nuancing keeping a sense of balance in mind. The penalties should have appeared proportionate to the offence committed. If people feel they are being subjected to extortion, the blame lies squarely on the government.
Now, there’s another dimension to the matter at hand. Are vehicle owners the biggest environment criminals? We have industries heavily polluting the water we consume and the air we inhale. They release toxic effluents into water bodies and spew harmful gases rendering life increasingly difficult across the country. Illegal sand mining is ruining rivers, infrastructure projects are damaging the ecology beyond redemption and plastic has emerged as a big eco villain. Is the government as tough on them as it is on the ordinary masses? Obviously not. The players here operate in lobbies and they can push back more effectively. The only option for the former is to grin and bear or vent frustration in minor acts of resistance such as the one we had at Rajmahal square the other day. If there is a sense of outrage somewhere, it is not without basis: the government is pouncing on soft targets while the bigger offenders go scot free.
The Union government wielded the sledgehammer while a sharp rap on the knuckle would have worked. The Odisha government could have softened the blow like its Gujarat counterpart with intelligent intervention. It only delayed things by three months. Is it going to help? It is not wise to get into the prediction game. But chances are the more things change, the more they will remain the same on our roads. The only people smiling would be some corrupt cops and those issuing pollution certificates.
Meanwhile, the friend is still sulking. His expression says he won’t ever forgive the “extortionists”.