Antique & Archaic Laws…. Need for Change….
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com


I remember being told stories about the first car rolling into Mangalore - my hometown in South India, in the very first decade of the early 1900s. Owned by the philanthropist entrepreneur the late PFX Saldanha who later presented this 'De Dion' car to the local St. Aloysius' College Museum in 1956, it is still available there for all to feast their eyes on. For those who cannot really transport themselves to distant Mangalore, the car can be viewed at http://www.staloysius.ac.in - the college website.

Among stories floated around then on this 'earth shattering' event, is also the one about how the whole town assembled at the city centre to watch this venerable soul demonstrate his skill in handling his new prized possession. Apparently the eager crowds had to ultimately go home disappointed when Saldanha took off and never returned because the mechanic had forgotten to teach him how to switch off the engine. It is said the car had to be ferried back into town from a neighbourhood hillock in the city's Gurpur suburbs where it had come to rest when its fuel was exhausted - transported atop a bullock cart!

Talking of bullock carts, it was just that and horse carriages alone that were available in India then for the super gentry and the high and mighty. That is, till 1897, when the first car in India rolled majestically into the cobbled streets of Bombay - its proud owner, a Mr Foster - an employee of the Greeves Cotton and Company. Four years later, Jamshedji Tata became the first Indian to own a car.

So when the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1861, there were no motor vehicles in India. And I read somewhere a mention that the penal sections for rash and negligent driving got framed in 1870 (…no substantiation of this I could find, though) - a good three decades before the advent of the motorcar in India. The much-in-the-news section 304-A IPC meant to bring to book those causing death due to rash and negligent driving was indeed meant to catch up then only with carriages - be it horse drawn or bullock drawn.

And even in this - my colleague participating in the 'Big Fight' debate recently on a TV channel was quick to point out, is the naked fact that the IPC of 1861 was a creation of the British who were the rulers then and were perhaps the only ones with means to own a vehicle that could commit an accident. And hence, protecting their own interests, ensured that causing injury or death due to accident remains not too serious an offence, bailable, and that too with a nominal punishment.

And then, even though the punishment prescribed is up to two years' rigorous imprisonment, one hardly ever comes across any jail sentence. More often than not, the punishment is a nominal fine - ranging maybe between Rs 200 to 2000. The records of the Motor Vehicle Tribunals reflect a victim profile heavily tilted towards the poor, and correspondingly one can imagine it is not a big deal for the rich to pay the nominal fine which in most cases is perhaps not a fraction of what they really may be spending on their lawyer who fights the case.

As many as 1842 people died on Delhi roads in 2001 and another around 10,000 or more routinely suffered injuries in road accidents. In 2002 till now the toll are 1377 Deaths and 6311 injured. All of who are victims of and whose cases are dealt with under the glorious and miraculously surviving 19th century law that still reigns supreme in the 21st century. A law that perhaps treats drunken driving with no more severity than entails ticket-less travelling or other petty offences. A law that helps perpetuate un-equal treatment despite Constitutional guarantees. A law that perhaps remains not changed because the rich benefit from its leniency.

Isn't there a case for some serious introspection on this score? …. to change the law and make it more stringent, and the punishment more severe and commensurate with the gravity of an offence of rash and negligent act resulting in death by use of a mechanically powered motor vehicle, vis a vis the existing law that was meant only for animal powered vehicles… !?


850 words: dated 24.08.2004.
Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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