Rajmahal 2
Photo Credit: Manoj Kumar Swain.

On 7th September, thousands of people gathered at the Raj Mahal square in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha and protested against the implementation of the newly amended Motor Vehicle Act, 2019. Under the amended law, implemented from September 1, the police are collecting hefty penalties from common people for the violation of traffic rules e.g. not wearing helmets, not using a seat belt, not having the driving license and insurance, not having the pollution certificate, drunken driving so on and so forth. On the day, when the police was collecting fines, the driver of a media house van was also penalized for not using a seat belt. A tiff started with the police there after on how the fines would be deposited. Gradually people joined in one by one and the crowd swelled to thousands in a few moments. The agitated people then took law unto their hands and started checking the papers of the government vehicles and found that the drivers of the police van, the Municipality vehicle and transport department bus were not wearing seat belts.Some documents of these government vehicles were also missing. Senior police officials rushed to the spot to handle the situation, but failed. People asked the authorities why they are being treated as criminals while the government vehicles are let off.The collective anger had come to a state of being exploded. People went on the rampage – broke the police van, started pelting stone at the police etc. The police also resorted to lathi charge disperse the crowd. The incidence forced the Chief Minister to relax the implementation of the act from the next day for three months.

Rajmahal Incidence Photo by Manoj Kumar Swain
Photo by Manoj Kumar Swain

It may look as a one-off incidence, but the incidence has a larger democratic connotations.

For last one week, one was witnessing a complete police raj across the state. In an instance, an auto driver was fined as much as 47,500 rupees for various violations in Bhubaneswar, and the government proudly declared to have collected 88.9 lakhs lakh rupees in penalties in just four days, which was highest in India!  People were taken aback by the swiftness with which the government decided to implement the amended act. The amended bill was adopted by the Parliament on July 31 and eventually became an act, which came to an effect on September 1. The amended law aims at making the roads and driving safer. Unconventional requirements like the pollution checking, which is completely a new concept for many drivers in Odisha, both private and commercial – demanding fines on such violations was audacious. And look at the quantum of the fines!

The said auto driver was fined 500 rupees for general offence, 5,000 rupees for driving without a valid license,2,000 rupees for not having the insurance, 10,000 rupees for drunken driving, 10,000 rupees for not having pollution clearance certificates, 5,000 rupees for using a vehicle without registration and fitness certificate, rupees 10,000 for violating permit conditions. 5000 rupees for allowing unauthorized person to drive.

On the day of confrontation, during the lathi-charge, two constables were seen beating a video journalist who fell down while suiting the incidence. It was a clear attempt to shoot the messenger – another characteristic of a police state.

In a phase of economic slowdown affecting everyone’ spocket, forcefully collecting such hefty penalties, which are severely disproportionate to the violations done, without any prior warning for preparedness, was not to be taken easily by the people at large. Everyone, small and big, felt the pinch. Extensive media coverage and widespread criticism by people and political leaders could not relent the stubborn government, which continued to “extort” people under the garb of a draconian law.

People Power: In a democracy, people elect the government in a regular interval and the latter is expected to govern the state fulfilling the will of people. If people find the government unworthy, it votes the same out and brings another party to power. India being a Constitutional democracy, the laws and governance should be in consonance with its provisions, not in its violation. And there are institutional mechanisms existing in our countryfor people to approach and redress their grievances e.g. the courts, the human rights commissions etc. However, when all of these do not work, people do come to the streets, and peaceful demonstrations are permitted as a fundamental right. But in this case, breathing space was not given forcing people to turn violent during protests. The gathering was extemporaneous in nature; similar to the mass protests erupted after the Nirbhaya incidence in 2012, where everyone felt being vulnerable.

A people-friendly government takes all the necessary steps so that people do not come to the streets. Their grievances were addressed beforehand. In this particular case, the Naveen Patnaik government failed the test. It behaved like a dictatorial government with brutal use of police power. It could have gone the West Bengal way and not implement the law right away.

The abrupt implementation of the law without any prior awareness drive was unreasonable. The hefty character of penalties cannot pass any tests of reasonableness either, though that’s for the courts to decide. But from an auto driver’s perspective, who earns 15,000 rupees a month to support his family in the times when cost of living is so high, a fine of 47,500 rupees is certainly unjust and unreasonable. The irony is that the amended law also has made the contractors accountable for bad roads; the government however did not prefer to implement the same though many areas in Bhubaneswar have very rough roads. It, instead, it chose the soft targets – the common people. The purpose of penalties in case of traffic violations ought to be reformative in character, not retributive.

When a draconian law is implemented in a forceful way, people do come out in open to protest, which many a times takes a violent turn. It happens across the globe. See the instance in Hong Kong, where people are doing violent protests against a proposed extradition bill for last four months, finally forcing the Hong Kong government to withdraw the same. Under the proposed law, the suspects from Hong Kong would have been taken to Mainland China to be tried in the Judicial System, widely believed to be opaque. This is the victory of people power. The incidence at the RajMahal Square, which was followed by the state government revising its decision, is also an instance of triumph of people.

Pradeep Baisakh is a senior journalist based in Bhubaneswar. Email: 2006pradeep@gmail.com



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