Tougher road accident penalties: truckers fear the consequences

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Government plans to introduce tougher penalties for drivers who fail to remain at the scene of a serious road accident and promptly report it have sparked widespread protests from India’s truckers, who fear the laws will put their lives in danger due to violence from roadside mobs.

In September, Bhola Kumar Mahto’s grit-loaded truck accidentally hit a rider’s motorcycle in Kalyan in Maharashtra. When Mahto, a 24-year-old from Jharkhand, refused to pay compensation for the damage to the two-wheeler, he was stabbed to death. The subsequent police probe revealed that Mahto had driven away after the accident, but the motocyclist followed him until they reached the Durgadi area of Kalyan where Mahto had stopped to check his truck’s tyre.

The motorcylist confronted Mahto and demanded money for the damages. When Mahto refused to pay, the enraged motorcylist, who was carrying a sharp weapon, stabbed him to death and escaped with an accomplice. Both the motorcyclist and his co-accused, who had fled towards Mumbai by train, were later arrested.

So, for causing just a small amount of damage to a motorcycle in a minor collision, Mahto lost his life, but similar cases of road rage and shocking violence against truck drivers are not a rare occurrence in India.

Credit: iStock, double_p

Widespread protests
Given how frequently trucks are involved in road collisions and incidents in India, it perhaps came as little surprise when truck drivers across the country recently launched widespread protests against the newly enacted Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS), a proposed new criminal code that will introduce much stronger penalties for hit-and-run driving offences.

Parking their trucks on roads and highways in the first few days of the year, truck drivers across various states held strikes and public protests against the proposed penalties, and many bus drivers joined in, also refusing to work. The truck drivers flagged down auto-ricksaw, tractor and pick-up truck drivers, urging them to join the protests and support their demands.

The protests caused huge disruption, with massive queues building up at fuel stations across India, as people panicked about dwindling fuel supplies due to fuel tanker drivers joining the strike. Also, the supply of vegetables in the wholesale markets was affected. The truckers called on the government to reconsider the proposed law, which they labelled as a “kaala kanoon” (black law).

Under the new hit-and-run law, which is set to replace certain sections of the colonial-era Indian Penal Code (IPC), drivers who cause the death of a person in road accidents due to rash and negligent driving and run away from (or leave) the scene without reporting it to either the police or a magistrate “soon after” the incident will face up to 10 years in prison or a fine of Rs 7 lakh. Furthermore, these ‘hit-and-run’ cases would be considered ‘non-bailable’, meaning drivers would be held in custody while their case was investigated and, unless the charges were subsequently dropped, they were prosecuted.

Currently, the maximum punishment for these offences under the IPC is two years’ imprisonment and an unspecified fine, or both.

The central government has tried to reassure the truckers that as long as they report the incident to the police and, where possible, take any injured parties from the traffic incident to hospital, there is no reason to fear the punitive consequences of the law.

Risk of mob violence
However, the worried truck drivers vehemently oppose the law, arguing they are often subject to mob violence at the scene of crashes and collisions, meaning they are often forced to run from the scene to save themselves from serious injury and even death. They also argue that the length of the potential prison sentence is excessive, and many drivers will struggle to pay fines of up to Rs 7 lakh due to their low salaries.

“After hitting someone on the road, if a truck driver gets down to check on the accident victim, he will surely be lynched by the public as this is the general tendency of the Indian public,” said Kanwaljeet Singh, a truck driver from Punjab, who has worked in the industry for more than two decades.

He added that truck drivers don’t always run away after accidents: “Some do report the accident at the nearest police station but officials never do a thorough investigation. They are quick to conclude that the truck driver is at fault. And then the driver is either trapped in legal hurdles or has to pay a hefty bribe to get out of the mess.”

Another driver, named Pintu, told NDTV news website: “They are saying that we should stop and rush the victim to a hospital. But the moment we stop, people will kill us. They will lock us inside and set the vehicle on fire. This is the law here.”

Dinesh Singh, a truck driver who is a member of a Uttar Pradesh transport association, told NDTV: “We barely make 6,000 rupees a month. How will we pay Rs 7 lakh in fine? And if we go to jail for 10 years, who will feed our children?”

Sharp rise in road accidents
According to media reports, the tougher penalties for fatal hit-and-run road accidents were prompted in part by a sharp rise in road accidents in recent years. A Ministry of Road Transport and Highways report revealed that the total number of road accidents rose by almost 12 per cent in 2022, to 461,312 incidents. These claimed the lives of 168,491 people and caused injury to 443,366 others. This means, on average, India witnesses 53 crashes and 19 deaths every hour, according to the Road accidents in India – 2022 report. The report noted there had been a 9.4 per cent rise in fatalities, and a 15.3 per cent rise in injuries compared to the previous year.

Echoing the concerns of the truck drivers, a leading member of the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) – a body representing many bus and truck driver associations and unions and a number of leading transport and fleet operator companies – said truck drivers are often “blamed for rash driving or negligence, no matter what”.

Pinky Anand, a former Additional Solicitor General in India’s Supreme Court, told the business news website CNBC-TV18 that truckers’ fears about potentially being attacked by mobs while waiting at the scene of an accident to report the incident were a genuine concern, and the government needed to urgently consider the risk to life from staying at the scene of an accident when faced by an angry mob. She added there was always scope for the government and concerned parties, like the truckers and their transport associations and trade unions, to discuss and consider disagreements around new laws.

Meanwhile, Sidharth Luthra, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, warned it was important for the government and the authorities to consider how to better incentivise drivers such as truckers to report hit-and-run offences. He raised the fundamental question of whether penalising conduct is the most effective approach and called for a philosophical examination of the new criminal law.

Prior to the drafting of the proposed new law and tougher offences, there was no specific legal provision addressing hit-and-run road traffic offences. Instead, these types of cases were subject to (and prosecuted) under Section 304A of the IPC, which states that “whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both”.

New law yet to come into force
The three-day-long strike in early January was called off at the end of the second day after the Ministry of Home Affairs held discussions with representatives of the AIMTC. During the talks, the government clarified that the new laws and penalties for hit-and-run traffic incidents had not yet come into force, and the decision to invoke them will be taken only after consultation with the AIMTC.

“This law has not been implemented yet... we will not allow these laws to be implemented,” said the chairman of the AIMTC’s organising committee, Bal Mankit Singh.

However, the protests seem far from over as on 25 January several prominent organisations in the road transport sector called for a nationwide one-day protest strike to be held on 16 February while a number of truck drivers in Karnataka have been on an indefinite strike since 17 January. The signatories for the 16 February protest include R. Lakshmaiah, general secretary of the All India Road Transport Workers’ Federation (AIRTWF), Hanumanth Tate, general secretary of the Maharashtra Kamgar Sanghatan trade union, T. Thirumalaisamy, president of the Tamil Nadu Government Transport Corporation Staff Federation, and others.

The planned one-day protest aims to address concerns regarding the proposed changes to the law, especially Sections 106 (1) and (2) of the Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita, which will impose severe penalties on drivers in the event of fatal accidents and hit and run cases.

Naveen Reddy, president of the Federation of Karnataka Lorry Owners Association, claimed that around 900,000 trucks are off the road in the state of Karnataka due to the indefinite strike, except for those carrying essential commodities like milk, petrol, medicines and perishable goods.

He told The Indian Express: “The strike will continue till both the central and state governments fulfil our demands. We are not forcing anyone to strike. Most of the drivers are voluntarily keeping off the roads as a result of the agony.”

Political row
Meanwhile, the truck drivers’ protest at the start of January led to a political row between the BJP-led central government and the Opposition, with the Congress Party demanding a roll-back of the proposed new offences and penalties for serious hit-and-run traffic accidents.

The Congress Party claimed the new tougher offences and penalties would lead to an “extortionist network” and “organised corruption” though misuse of the law by corrupt officials working for the authorities charged with enforcing the penalties. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge accused the government of “penalising the poor”.

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi said the law was enacted when 150 members of parliament (MPs) were suspended from Parliament and the government has forgotten the difference between “emperor’s directive” and “justice”.

“The insistence on making laws without discussion with the affected class and without dialogue with the opposition is a continuous attack on the soul of democracy,” stated Gandhi in a post on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “While more than 150 MPs were suspended, Shahenshah [the ruling party] in Parliament enacted a law against drivers, the backbone of the Indian economy, which could have fatal consequences [for the truckers],” he added.

Gandi also posted: “Throwing this hard-working class with limited earnings into the harsh legal furnace can badly affect their lives. And also, misuse of this law can lead to ‘recovery mechanisms’ along with organised corruption.”

One of the leaders of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) political party said the new law had been introduced hastily and without discussing its implications with truckers and transport organisations.

C L Mukati, chairman of the AIMTC, confirmed the AIMTC had only became aware of the proposed new law and penalties when they were introduced in Parliament.

“This is a unilateral decision by the union government, and they did not consult us before arriving at such a hasty decision,” added Reddy.


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