17 Organizations and associations came together under the Tamilnadu Motor Vagana Thozhil Pathukapu Oringinaipu Khuzhu (Tamil Nadu Motor Vehicles Livelihood Protection Coordination Committee) to stage a massive protest against the attempts to modify the Motor Vehicles Act 1988. Lorry Owners federations, Driving instructors unions and federations, Two wheeler, four wheeler, and six wheeler vehicles service mechanics association, vehicle spare parts associations, and auto, taxi drivers associations participated in this protest and one day strike / closure. Their primary demand was the repeal of the proposed Motor Vehicles (Amendments) Bill 2017, that is coming up for passage in the Rajya Sabha during the monsoon session (It has already been passed by the LokSabha in April 2017). The were also demanding that the new trend of demanding original licenses from commercial drivers and license seizures by police without a due process, needs to stop immediately. The spare parts associations were also demanding a review of GST rates and GST process.
The Meeting was presided by Mr. Sugumar, the gen secretary of the Tamilnadu Lorry Onwers Federation. State president of CITU, A. Soundarajan and President of the Tamilnadu Vannigar Sangangalin Peravai (Tamilnadu Federation of Traders Association), Mr. T Vellaiyan addressed the assembled workers lending their support to the struggle. During their speeches, they raised various issues that points to the systematic attempt by the present central government to decimate small retail business, through GST, Demonetization and increased regulation. Over 2000 workers participated in the day long protest.
Speaking later to TK, Com. Anbazhagan, Joint Secretary of the coordination committee, said that the major issues that the workers are currently facing, was the new rules imposed by Tamilnadu government on transport vehicles. “Vijayabaskar, the minister for transport in AIADMK government is creating lot of trouble to drivers only to appease the BJP government. They police is insisting that transport vehicles should not have any passengers. This means even loadmen cannot travel on vehicles. If there are two loadmen, then the vehicle is seized and the drivers license is invalidated. They have now seized over 1.4 lakh licenses for lorry and van drivers. This is absurd application of a law meant to prevent overcrowding and misuse. Similarly the government is insisting that we carry original drivers license. But the practice in Tamilnadu is that whenever a driver is appointed or he rents a commercial vehicle, the owner retains the original license. By demanding they carry the original license, the government is making it difficult for auto and taxi drivers.” This was the major issue that he discussed and they demand that the licenses be immediately restored and the rules be reviewed.
There is palpable fear among various workers aligned with this sector about the proposed amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988. Earlier versions of these amendments that were proposed in 2015, had also been vehemently contested by the workers. The amendments are being enacted ostensibly to reduce the road accidents and fatalities. India ranks among the worst countries on road safety parameters, with over 4.5 lakh accidents and 1.5 fatalities every year. The amendments are supposed to address some of the underlying causes. The concern is that instead of creating regulatory mechanisms and strengthening the existing ecosystem, the proposed measures might facilitate major corporate companies to take control of the licensing, registration, maintenance and spare parts market at the cost of small traders and self employed mechanics. (there are no specific provisions that curtail small businesses or service providers). For example, the amendments intend to create accredited Driving Skills Testing Centers to reduce the burden on RTOs (road transport office). Today, while driving institutes tutor aspirants, the test is conducted by RTOs who certify individuals. The institutes do not require any accreditation. If this were to change, it will increase the cost of entry and functioning for smaller driving institutes, pushing them out of business. There is also a thrust to create vehicle testing and certification centers (Automatic testing centers) to provide all vehicles with periodic certifications (every 5 years for personal vehicles and every 3 years for commercial vehicles). There is little infrastructure in the states to enable this. the issue was raised in the standing committee discussions. If this proposal goes through, the lack of infrastruture would lead to state involving private companies for this purpose. These would undoubtedly be companies that can invest the necessary capital. While the profit motive might derail the credibility of the certification process, it might also empower these companies to enforce rules that will bar services of self employed mechanics and use of non branded spare parts. THis was the major fear in the earlier version of the bill that was proposed in 2015.
The amendments also increase the power of the central government over the state government in regulating transport sector. In an illustrative case, under these amendments, the central government is empowered to make the rules and guidelines to allow taxi/auto aggregators. These will override state regulations. The auto and taxi drivers are threatened by this development as they might lose their ability to negotiate and create a level economic terrain against large aggregators with market control and little invested capital.
The other aspects of the amendments attempt to improve road design and accountability on road construction. But once again the testing and monitoring are proposed to be opened to private consultants raising the question of ‘profit’ motive. There are also provisions to increase penal fines on traffic violators and increased insurance outpays. This might increase the cost of insurance for all vehicle owners. The amendments also create a national registry of licenses and vehicle registrations. While the bill does not mention it, the ability to link this to bio metric identity based Aadhar system will allow for greater surveillance.
Because of these fears, emerging partially from the language of the amendments and partly from the lack of public discussion and clarifications, workers feel threatened about these developments. But workers are also not very clear about the specifics of the bill that might cause damage to their livelihoods. The leaders have mentioned that if the government does not positively respond to their demands, they intend to intensify their agitation. Mr. Anbhazagan also mentioned that over 3 lakh mechanics, vehicle owners and others will assemble in Delhi in early November to press this issue further.