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The man who chose to change the rules of the road

Piyush Tewari, the force behind a petition seeking introduction of a Bill in the current session of Parliament to make road safety an integral part of the Motor Vehicles Act, could have been a PE fund hotshot

Surajeet Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Piyush Tewari

On Wednesday, 213,900 concerned citizens petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce a proposed Road Transport and Safety Bill, which suggests sweeping changes to make India’s roads safer, in the current Parliament session.

The Bill proposes a new authority with powers to formulate and ensure implementation of vehicle recall policies, as well as impose safety standards, such as mandatory crash tests and imposition of fines for engineering defects in vehicles. Besides, it seeks to make the licensing process more transparent — with automatic tests, push for greater electronic enforcement, compulsory seat belts, standards on visibility and safe distance, among other measures.

The man behind the signature campaign that led to the petition was Piyush Tewari, who would have been the boss of a hotshot private equity fund, making his millions, if it was not for a traumatic experience that changed his life.

In 2007, Tewari’s cousin bled to death in Kanpur, as no bystander came to his help until 45 minutes of him being hit by a vehicle. Tewari has fought a determined battle since 2008 to have the archaic Motor Vehicles Act replaced by a new comprehensive legislation.

Traumatised by the accident, Tewari set up SaveLIFE, a non-government organisation (NGO) that year. Determined to change the rules of the game, he quit his regular job three years later.

He discovered nearly 50 per cent of road deaths could be avoided, if crucial initial emergency aid is given to the victim in the first half-hour. That gave him his first mission — training Delhi Police constables manning the city’s PCR (police control room) vans to provide rapid first aid to accident victims.

This involved simple tips on how to stop or reduce bleeding, one key cause of death. “Data showed us 90 per cent of accident victims in Delhi were transported by police vans, as bystanders feared police harassment if they helped. We trained over 6,000 policemen in Delhi; and that little intervention made a difference” says Tewari.

The effort worked: The number of deaths related to road accidents in the capital city came down from 2,325 in 2010 to 1,810 in 2013, even as the number of accidents went up from 48,000 to 66,000 during this period.

Based on this experience, Tewari realised there was a need to encourage bystanders to come forward and help accident victims. His NGO filed a public-interest suit and, in a landmark decision two years ago, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to formulate guidelines for protecting ‘Good Samaritans’ from police harassment and legal hassle.

Last year, the committee made some significant recommendations — a citizen making a phone call to inform police could not be forced to reveal his name and personal details; citizens who were witness could not be harassed and could be examined through video conferencing, among other ways.

The next step was to push this through a Bill in Parliament. The NGO got the support of actor (and now a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament) Kirron Kher, who also moved a private member’s Bill on the issue. Work is on to give shape to this legislation, though the NGO thinks this could have been better spearheaded by the health ministry than the heavy industries ministry.

Tewari was also irked by the fact that the current Motor Vehicles Act was out of sync with the needs of safety and required a new legislative framework. He says: “I discovered, to my shock, that the Act allowed goods carriers to protrude rods by up to one metre, and permitted states under it to increase the limit. So, in Goa, for example, the limit is two metres.”

Through a right to information (RTI) plea, SaveLIFE received data that revealed as many as 9,800 deaths in India in 2012 happened because of protruding rods. The NGO decided to again intervene legally, by filing a public-interest suit in the Supreme court. And, in March this year, the clause allowing protruding rods was stuck down. But Tewari agrees the challenge has begun only now, as the law’s enforcement, in practice, is more of an exception than a rule.

Therefore, the NGO has strongly advocated more electronic surveillance, so that human intervention in enforcement is reduced. Many say it is expensive and the government does not have the money. Tewari calls that argument bunkum. To illustrate, he cites data based on Delhi’s ITO intersection, one of the busiest in the city. There were 140 million violations at this intersection in a month but the number of vehicles fined was less than 7,000. A foolproof surveillance system for the intersection, with four cameras, would require only about Rs 48 lakh, which the police could more than make up for, through the manifold increase in challans.

For Tewari, opposition to his advocacy is part of the game. Automobile companies, truck operators and, of course, regional transport offices, he says, have serious objections to the new Bill becoming a law. So, he has eschewed taking any grants from automobile to fund his annual budget of over Rs 1 crore. Instead, he has got funding of Rs 1 crore from STAR TV’s show Satyamev Jayate; those like Red Cross and Rolex Foundation have helped.

Tewari says auto do not like a new authority being vested with powers on recall, which they want to remain voluntary and left to their will. Also, they do not want standards for safety in vehicles — like crash testing— to be imposed. To deflect attention, they argue prices of vehicles like cars will go up 15-20 per cent if these standards are followed. They are exaggerating, Tewari argues, as the price for an airbag was only Rs 3,000. And, while safety could not come for free, the cost involved is not too big, either. “If a consumer has to pay an extra Rs 20,000 on a car worth Rs 4 lakh, especially when he or she is paying the bill through equated monthly instalments, we don’t think anyone will have a problem in paying,” he says.

He also says the cost of safety, like in other countries, has to be shared among consumers, automobile and the government.

Tewari says truck owners complain freight rates would go up, as they would have to buy more trucks. That is because under the proposed law, it is not the driver but the fleet owner who is accountable for a violation. “They are a strong lobby and can upset things by merely calling a strike,” Tewari argues. Obviously, regional transport offices also fear their discriminatory powers in giving licences and registering vehicles will go away with automation. A Transparency International study has estimated that vehicles in India pay Rs 22,000 crore annually as bribe on highways alone.

All challenges notwithstanding, Tewari is already looking at his next call in life. He wants to train policemen across the country on first aid, do more research on road safety, help states implement the new law and push through the ‘Good Samaritan’ law. The fighter, though, acknowledges it will be tough. “It won’t be easy; we have to fight a tough battle against lobbies.” But he is not one to give up.

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First Published: Sat, December 06 2014. 00:31 IST