Is Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2015 really about safety? An interview with Comrade Chandran

The stated intention of The Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2015 proposed by the Central Government is ostensibly ‘to provide for a scientifically planned framework for the safety of all road users; enabling the seamless development of a secure, efficient, cost effective and inclusive transport system; the integration of road transport with other modes of transportation..’. But the bill has come under criticism and opposition by various agencies including Transport Workers Unions, Associations comprising of small and medium scale vehicle maintenance shops and public sector unions. These agencies say that the real intention of the bill is to privatize public transport, destroy small scale enterprises in favor of big businesses, privatize the licensing services provided by the state. We talk to Comrade Chandran, General Secretary of Chennai MTC(Metropolitan Transport Corporation) Transport Workers Union affiliated to CITU on these issues.

Cartoon on Road Safety Bill 640x905

TK: Can you tell us something about the Road Safety Bill and its effects on workers?

Chandran: The stated intent of this Act is for the purposes of road safety and to reduce accidents, which is a harmless and necessary goal. But in reality, the goal of this Act is to facilitate corporate takeover of various aspects of the Motor Vehicle industry. The goal is to purge all small businesses allied to motor vehicles and to destroy public transportation.

Tamil Nadu state has declared certain regions as ‘monopoly areas’ where only government agencies can operate public buses – these are metropolitan areas of Chennai city, Kanyakumari district and Nilagiri district . These monopoly areas were declared under the 1980 Motor Vehicle Act. In a similar way, under that Act, some routes(scheme routes) have also been declared where only government public vehicles can operate such as between Nellai and Madurai. Private players can not operate cannot operate buses on those routes. The new Bill will remove these monopolies.

Anybody, including Government bodies, seeking to run public buses will have to get a permit from a ‘National Authority’. All authority regarding granting permits, licences, imposing fines etc. will be vested with the National Authority. Jurisdiction over motor vehicles is in the concurrent list, which means that both the central and state governments can make laws on the subject. But through this Bill,all the rights which the state governments had in the matter of transportation will be taken away. These rights will be taken from the state government by the Central government and given to the National Authority. The National Authority will be constituted by the Central Government. But once it is constituted, the Central government will not have any rights over the authority. It is similar to the Election Commission. The Tamil Nadu state government earns 14000 crore rupees annually from motor vehicle taxes and fees, which will be lost under the new Act.Earlier, then Tamil Nadu Transport Minister had spoken against the bill saying that Centre is taking away State’s rights but now ADMK is keeping quiet.

This Act will destroy public transportation as we know it. Private businesses will not run public transport under the current terms and conditions. 30 lakh students travel for free on buses(By State Government Scheme). The new Act will severely limit transportation available for the poor and working class. In rural areas, students travel to schools and colleges that are far from their villages. Under the new system, they might have to pay at least 40 rupees a day to go to school, which they will not be able to afford. As a result they may be forced to stop going to school.

Another change this Bill makes is to eliminate the position of ‘conductor’ in buses. On being questioned about this change, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari responded that there were no conductors in foreign countries like Singapore and US. But we all know that in Indian conditions, one does need conductors. Even with a conductor in a bus, people have to be asked ten times to buy their ticket. Will the same people now put their fare in a box on their own and pick up their ticket? Further, lakhs of conductors will lose their jobs. Has any arangment for alternate employment been made for them?

This Bill will shut shop of all motor vehicle mechanics and small spare parts manufacturers. This is because the Bill mandates that vehicles can only be repaired in repair shops run by the manufacturer of the vehicle. On September 6th, a huge rally was organized by two-wheeler mechanics in Nellai to protest this Bill. The change doe not seem to be very convenient for vehicle owners, because if the vehicle develops a small problem, it can not be just taken to the nearest mechanic. Instead, it has to be taken to the company-run repair shop. What is the rationale behind such a law? The claimed logic is that the small repair shops may use faulty parts, leading to road accidents.

TK: But has there been any study to back these claims?

Chandran: None at all. These claims are just being thrown around. In fact, in India we have been operating this way (with spare parts not specifically supplied by the company) ever since motor vehicles started being used. If the government wants to increase fines and punishments for traffic violations, that can be done within the framework of the 1980 Act. Instead, that Act is being overturned. Crores of people will be affected by this Bill, not just two-wheeler mechanics. If you consider an auto rickshaw, people working on various parts of it, like painters, welders etc will also be affected. What alternate employment does the government envisage for them? I do not understand the hurry to pass a Bill like this. There are so many other problems in this country – people without education or jobs, places without roads, villages without toilets..

TK: Not even a year has passed since the closing of the Nokia plant in Sriperumbudur. We know of workers from that plant working as auto-mechanics. But now livelihood is again in question because of this Act.

Chandran: Another change this Bill will bring is that private vehicles will need to get a ‘fitness certificate’ at certain prescribed time intervals. Under the earlier Law that was the requirement only for public vehicles. For getting an FC, the vehicle owner has to pay the fees and spend money on the vehicle. In addition, after running for a prescribed number of years, a vehicle is ‘condemned’ and can not be used any more. Today, 60% of the public buses on our roads are condemned buses.

If this Bill becomes law, these 60% buses will have to be scrapped. But in our current reality, we can not afford to scrap those buses, because we do not have money to buy new buses. So, we are managing by repairing and patching up the existing buses. The transport corporations (like MTC) are in a tough situation financially. They have to provide free passes to students, whose cost has amounted to 6000 crore rupees. If the government gave the transport corporation this amount, maybe we could use that to buy buses. The corporation has to spend on retirement benefits (PF, garatuity) for its employees, and that amount is 4000-5000 crore rupees. Today, workers have to wait for as much as 2 years after retirement to get their PF. In such a financial situation, how can we buy new buses?

It will be impossible for government bodies like the MTC to operate under the proposed new regime. The corporation (MTC) will have to apply for permits alongside other businesses, which includes foreign corporations. MTC would not be able to compete with such big businesses, because they do not have any money of their own. They will only have money given by the government. If the corporation loses out to private players, the common citizen and workers will lose. The private players will not run buses at the rates we have today. For example, the fare in the Metro rail is in the range of 30-40 Rs. The workers in the motor industry would also be severely affected, they would be reduced to being slaves of big businesses. They can only be wage workers in factories run by big businesses. Outside of that there will be no employment.

Another group that will be affected is drivers of auto-rickshaws and taxis. Unlike today, drivers would not be able to operate their own auto-rickshaws or taxis. Under the new Bill, taxis and autos can only be operated as part of a bigger business. The effect of such rules can be seen, for example, in Singapore. That city has 30,000 taxis. But these are owned by 6 businesses. The concept of a driver owning and operating a vehicle independently does not exist there. Small drivers of today will be destroyed under the proposed system. Only businesses like Ola will operate in the future. Ola is offering incentives to drivers currently. They are not offering these incentives without any reason. They hope to capture all the market and then raise fares. The real intention of this Act is to make arrangements for big businesses to make crores of rupees.

It is akin to serving poison in a gold bowl.

The policies of globalization are those preferring the biggest businesses and corporations of the world. And Modi is in a hurry to implement those policies. Here, Jayalalitha is doing the same by inviting foreign investment. In realities, these policies are meant to defraud the people of this country. Big investors come to our country and use our land, our energy resources, our water and so on, and earn thousands of crores of rupees of profit. But when their period of high earning runs out, they leave, even defaulting on tax payments to the government. They leave in search of places which offer them even better deals. The state endlessly offers concessions to these big businesses, who earn profits and then leave squeezing out all they can earn. The new Bill seeks to reproduce this phenomena in the auto work and public transportation sectors. We are organizing struggles against that. We are trying to teach workers about the impending dangers.

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