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How The Motor Vehicle Act Affects Women And Low-Income Individuals

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Gender And Mobility

The recently updated Motor Vehicles Act has led to many breakfast tea/evening snack headlines and never-ending memes and viral WhatsApp stories and videos. With all the buzz feeds around this act across the nation, with trending stories of ₹1.51 lakh to ₹23,000 challans, there is much more trending under the cover.

Needless to say, we appreciate the seriousness and sincerity of the efforts of our respected ministry to ensure the reduction of traffic fatalities to 50% by the end of 2020, which is a major, much emphasized and underlined public health concern with higher possibility of emerging as one of the seventh-leading cause of death worldwide if not controlled. No doubt, this recent development is an act to address the much-discussed global issue.

Due to my consciously chosen area of work of helping women reclaim their share of public spaces through mobility, I have closely observed the consequences of any recent developments with regards to acts and policies of the Ministry of Road and Transportation at the community level, specifically low-income communities. Therefore, I would like to draw the attention of the authorities and key players to a few important things and concerns.

Since 2017, we have been witnessing frequent changes in the policies and acts of the transportation ministry from a five-time increase in fees for driving licenses to the most recent amendment in the Motor Vehicle Act, i.e., the enhanced penalties for driving errors.

Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The sudden increase in the cost of driving license in early 2017 was justified as one of the required actions to bring economic viability against the cost incurred for running facilities, to reduce the menace caused due to delay in submitting information with respect to change/transfer of ownership and most importantly to recover the cost incurred in automating the transport authorities and invested cost in technology.

The increased application cost of driving licenses while acting as a prime correcting measure raised several concerns after its implementation. The structural change in the process of application, i.e., the use of technology from submitting the application to booking the slot, and finally the computer-based/online learning license test, added more to these mentioned concerns.

The consequences are complex and severe due to intersection of low-income, lack of digital literacy, low/very low formal education and lack of citizenship documents. The complexity increases as we go beyond sections of society economically, specifically among women and others genders.

While, the individuals (women specifically) were learning or more or less learnt to make a way out of this situation in the last two years, this second most popular, attention-drawing amendment of Motor Vehicle Act, September 2019, is another hard hit to the problem-solution model of the mobility of individuals, particularly women.

The mobility of women, since ages, is a less-discussed and researched area; however, the restricted/constrained and spatial mobility of women has been a primary reason for lesser inclusive public spaces, lower visibility of women in public, lower participation and consumption of women in public facilities, lesser participation in public events, schemes, lower workforce participation rate, increased gender-based violence in public and lesser access to public resources. However, big organisations are now working actively on curbing gender-based violence through increase mobility.

The restricted mobility of women, especially in low-income communities with limited or no access to surveillance-based public transport, is a result of failure or a negative consequence of gender-exclusive designing and implementation of government policies.

The newly automated and updated driving license application process is complex and is a clear example of designing policy while excluding low-income individuals, men and women.

A driving license is a must for every driver; however, the importance or level of demand for a permit increases in low-income sections because of:

a)  Limited travelling budget, poor public transport (speed, time and distance); hence, they ride motorcycles to reach on time.

b) The availability of job opportunities as chauffeurs/drivers/bike riders with decent monthly income and no high-level qualifications is a much-needed option for them.

Therefore, they need driving licenses to increase and support their economic and social participation and consumption of resources.

The current changes have made the process of attaining these benefits challenging and expensive. The increased cost for people with limited income is the first challenge. The second challenge is to pass a computer-based online test. The individuals who never used a computer, have limited formal education, lacks the know-how of road signals, end up failing the online exam, which results in more cost for the license. The re-application fee has increased too.

The assured failure post the invested time, efforts and money increases the chances of corruption. The lack of digital literacy and limited access to systems, add to the hassle. They need to bear the cost of using cyber-cafe services which vary from ₹50 to 300, depending on region to region and is highly dependent on the value-system of the computer operator. The applicant is lucky to encounter an honest cyber cafe owner. And the process of corruption starts from here itself, from booking till reaching the RTO, where the gatekeeper instils a fear of failure despite helping them. The solution to their problem varies from ₹2000 to 10,000, again dependent on the nature of the gatekeeper or the officer present.

The concerns mentioned above double the pain when it comes to women who come from the same low-income community. The challenges are far beyond one’s capacity to achieve solution because it means starting a process of challenging gender norms and winning it in a week or so. The lack of access, lesser ownership in the financial budget, no economic participation, absolute low or no interaction and exposure to the hard outer world makes things tougher and utterly dependent on the decision or support from the man of the house. Therefore, there are fewer women drivers on the road, or fewer women who drive without licenses, which means they can’t take up jobs which require driving as a skill.

The average 300% increase in challan rates is the second-most serious challenge and concern post the sudden hike in driving license fee. With due respect to the long term benefits this act envisions and will achieve by addressing/correcting the wrong attitude of the individuals/commercial vehicles on the road, few other things are yet to be questioned and need immediate attention. To be more specific, the 900% increase in challan (₹500–5000) against driving without license, on the one hand, is undoubtedly a step up towards road safety while driving, with a decrease in unprofessional, harmful and below 18 years drivers, but, on the other hand, it has led to an increase in barriers for women and their mobility. With the recent development,

  1. The women drivers have stopped driving without a license, which is ideal, but the fear instilled by the family to prevent them from driving to avoid challans is a concern because this pain of non-mobility has no solution. They are being asked not to drive but are not being told to apply for a license—as the conditions/challenges with respect to getting licenses are same, still the same.
  2. When the women who were supported by their family to apply visited the authorities, they witnessed crowd and long queues. However, the process is online, but the increased demand has doubled up the rates and waiting list, which is discussed above.

Further, the educated volunteers, who have tried to help women/men to apply for the same, realized  slot booking is a luck-based task. The servers are not working, and when they work, they provide a month or two month later slots for learning licenses, let alone driving license (permanent). Even when the public domain of slot booking shows slots for next week, they are not available at the user end. Now, the women/men who require driving licenses to work with us are supposed to wait for another two months to become eligible for the job role. On visiting RTO, they were sent back by saying there are a lot of individuals with licenses and were told not to worry. “We can’t give them slots”, they simply said.

I wonder how these individuals will manage, as the current job crisis irrespective of gender is critical, and driving is a skill which helps these individuals earn their livelihood.

Now the questions I believe should be thought about before these changes/amendment are:

a) Were the RTOs structured or developed enough to take sudden increased demand/manage increased applications?

b) With only 0.3% spending of the total Ministry expenditure (budget 2019) on Road Safety in comparison to 6% by the U.S. federal government, how will we reduce the traffic fatalities? Road engineering errors, too, is another primary reason. What about that? What is the plan of action for the same?

c) Does spending on digital literacy campaigns to avoid corruption during learning licenses makes more sense? Could that have been a proposed solution?

d) Can spending on campaigns like “Driving License for all” help the nation with increased revenue, mobility and reduced corruption?

e) Are the public transports in place ensuring timely and smooth mobility of women and other unlicensed riders who will now use public transports as their new means to commute?

This whole event will only lead to an increase in corruption, illegal licenses, reduced mobility and workforce participation among women. And if we further do the gender check, adding to above problems, there will be a rise in fear and pressure by family on women to not to be on the road (to avoid challans and interaction with police), along with reductions in traffic rules violations (as planned). However, campaigns like Helmet assured done in other nations could also be used to achieve the target in hand.

We believe, any amendments should be done with a holistic perspective of development for all and that can be possible by understanding the challenges and needs of the individuals across class, gender and other concerned factors.

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