According to a report in this newspaper, the new Road Transport and Safety Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament shortly, has introduced many positive reforms - but has not quite removed the likelihood of harassment of citizens by the traffic police. Some stringent punishments have been proposed: "dangerous driving" with a child in the vehicle might cause a six-month suspension of licence - as well as imprisonment for 15 days and a Rs 15,000 fine. It is far from certain that this is the right approach. Better enforcement is always better than too many penalties. Indeed given how unreformed is India's police, higher penalties with existing enforcement may lead to more law-breaking and corruption.
It is important to note the formidable barriers standing in the way of any change for the better. Entrenched interests that benefit from the established order of things fight to resist change; identifying them is a key part of any winning strategy. Indian roads are unsafe not only because the law in question is archaic, but also because even that law is enforced abysmally. While a new law with provisions of deterrent punishment is urgently needed, if the culture of enforcement does not change, then the vested interests will merely end up gaining a more powerful tool with which to harass citizens. Thus, setting right the system of enforcement while enacting deterrent punishment for transgressors must go hand in hand. Extensive use of information technology to vastly reduce the scope of discretion in the hands of those in charge will go a long way in ensuring better enforcement. Much of the new law is thanks to battles by activists such as Piyush Tewari, who runs the non-governmental organisation SaveLife. Getting a better law for road use has taken so long despite the fact that Mr Tewari, for example, is highly skilled and has received critical help from the resourceful and the powerful like substantial grants and the support of a member of Parliament. However, he will need to look further than legal change now.
After all, technology can go only go up to a point in reducing the scope of human failing, and the campaign that must go on is to change the culture of motor vehicles departments all over the country, which are some of the worst agencies that the Indian public has to deal with. The standards of policing also have to vastly improve if a new law with provisions for stiff punishments is to lead to greater safety on the roads. If changing the way the police function is a daunting task, even more so is correcting the way the Indian public drives. People like Mr Tewari have to wage a social campaign to make everyone drive more safely. It is also to be hoped that automobile manufacturers will cooperate with the changes in safety standards that will merely put India where the developed world already is. If they lobby against this, they will merely earn a bad name for themselves.