Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cops set to get big raise in incomes….

With the Union Cabinet clearing a major increase in penalties under the Motor Vehicles Act (MVA), the largest beneficiary is perhaps likely to be the local cop……he, who administers the law on a daily basis. Much more than the government, it will be the local cop who will see his pockets start to bulge with this new initiative.

But let me be honest here. The amendments to the MVA were badly needed. Penalties were stuck in the old ages when the Rupee was worth a lot more. A Rs 100 penalty for talking on the phone or speeding was an easy getaway for most erring motorists. The penalties certainly needed to be overhauled and the government has done the right thing by doing so.

However, overhauling penalties is not even one fifth of the job done. The problem with raising penalties is that it affords the cops a much bigger opportunity to fill their own pockets. If a motorist is expected to pay Rs 1000 for a speeding ticket, he is going to have to pay Rs 300-500 as bribe to escape the official tab. The canny cop knows this. He is bound to demand his pound of flesh. In the earlier days, the cop could perhaps ask for Rs 50. And many motorists actually paid up the official tab because the gains from bribing were so small. Now, the incentive to bribe is back. So cops will surely see a rise in incomes. I am careful to use the word “income” rather than salary. In the government, salaries are low, but incomes can be very high!

What is needed before these higher penalties are put into play is a system that makes sure that bribes cannot be taken or given. But how can one do that? Well, usage of technology is one of the best ways to ensure that corruption does not occur at this low level. Major cities are today installing cameras at important points so as to be able to nab petty and major criminals as well as terrorists. One of my friends had a very encouraging experience when he visited the Bandra Police Station recently. On the wall inside the police station were several TV sets continuously monitoring several important streets in the area. When a woman came in complaining about her car window being smashed and her computer being stolen from inside the car, the cops instantly located the right camera and zoomed on the car to see it actually getting jacked. They couldn’t identify the cultprit, but they found a nearby shopkeeper who was looking on. Pronto – they sent a team to meet the shopkeeper. Very CSI style indeed!

If cops can use cameras to nab criminals and terrorists, the same technology can be used to prevent petty traffic-cop corruption. If cameras were used to control traffic-cop corruption, naka bandis would only be allowed at points which are backed up by a camera set-up. This will no doubt limit the element of surprise that the cops like to have in catching speeding motorists and those who talk on mobile phones. But I believe it’s important to prevent corruption first; expanding the effort can happen later. Besides, the camera set-up can be portable and can be moved around from one “surprise location” to another. Camera feeds should be stored and reviewed by a separate authority than the police on a random but regular basis. The fear of being caught should help curb corruption if not eliminating it totally.

There is one other step that needs to be taken alongside the above two steps (raising penalties and curbing corruption). That is to communicate effectively with motorists on the road. Communication is top notch in any developed country. A motorist gets all information and warnings through effective street signs and posters mounted on arches built on the roads. If the speed limit is 50 kmph, it should be communicated loudly. If lane cutting is not permitted, it should be flagged off repeatedly. If using hands-free for making a mobile call is not allowed, then it should be clarified amply. Communicating helps warning people; and it takes away the lame excuse they would probably be giving themselves for not obeying the law.

Another important step that is required to be taken is to make the traffic rules realistic. There is no point in having a speed limit of 50 on the Bandra-Worli sea link. 99% of the motorists break the law every single day. The 1%, who don’t, get honked at by those whose path they supposedly “block”. If the speed needs to be regulated, use road signs effectively. Other speed control devices can also be used like speed breakers etc. But keeping artificial restrictions will not help the cause. Likewise, parking rules need to be effective. There is no point is writing “no parking” in a lane, without offering a suggestion on where parking may be found.

Finally, nothing will work unless the RTO makes the process of granting licenses stricter. All kinds of rule breakers can be found driving on the streets. They have no idea of what the rules are…..they probably cannot even read the signs that are put up on the road. Canceling driving licenses for repeat violations is a must. Today, no one loses his license. First, the rules are lax. Second, there is always the age-old corruption to fall back on!

Once all the other steps are taken, we can increase the penalties. It’s only when all these steps are taken together will we get an effective control over the mess that we find on our streets.

The real truth is that without the implementation of these other steps, merely raising the penalties will serve no purpose. Determined traffic violators will still get away – only their pay-outs will increase. The real beneficiary will neither be the society (better road sense; lesser accidents) nor the government (lesser accidents; better fine collections). It will be the cops (higher incomes)!

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