New Delhi: Muhammad Javed, a 34-year-old Uttar Pradesh-based truck driver, has been a part of the truckers’ economy for over a decade. He says that lately, he has begun thinking of leaving the profession altogether--and the proximate cause is the new law the Union government introduced in Parliament relating to hit-and-run cases in the country.

And it is not just Javed. The entire community of truck drivers, as well as the truckers’ body, the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), is upset with the incoming law. As a result, truck drivers called for a nationwide protest on the first day of this year, halted their trucks on roads and highways, creating untold chaos, and called for a reconsideration of the proposed law.

Hit-and-run: Old vs new law

The AIMTC and truckers say they don’t need a new law.

Prashant Kenjale, an Advocate on Record at the Supreme Court, says that as per the new law, a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine of up to Rs 7 lakh can be imposed. These provisions will apply if a driver flees an accident spot and does not report the incident to a police officer or a magistrate, Kenjale clarifies.

The new law, under Section 106 (2) of the Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita, 2023 states: “whoever causes death of any person by rash and negligent driving of vehicle not amounting to culpable homicide, and escapes without reporting it to a police officer or a Magistrate soon after the incident, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description of a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” The law does not mention the quantum of fine applicable.

Kenjale says that until now, in hit-and-run cases, the accused was tried under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Here, the individual who caused the death of another individual due to a negligent or reckless act faced a maximum jail term of two years or a fine or both. Kenjale says that while the quantum of fine varies from case to case on the discretion of the judge, fines usually were in the range of Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000.

Section 304A of the IPC states that “whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Concerns of truck drivers, AIMTC

Following the truckers’ strike, the government has put the law on hold for the time being. However, the concerns of the truck drivers’ community are multifold, with fines being a major concern.

According to a February 2020 report by Save Life Foundation on the status of truck drivers in the country, 73% of over 1,200 truck drivers across 10 Indian cities said they were dissatisfied with their work. Of these 71% cited low or irregular income as the reason. Further, two in five truck drivers reported a monthly income of up to Rs 10,000 and 53% said they earned between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000.

Javed’s earnings reflect the study’s findings. “In the truck driving job, people like me earn a meagre income of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month. For a person for whom making ends meet is difficult, how do you expect someone like that to pay a fine of Rs 7 lakh?” Javed asks.

Besides the steep monetary penalties, the community has other concerns. The AIMTC says that truckers dread being beaten up by a mob at the spot of an accident. AIMTC India president Amritlal Madan says that even if a truck driver wishes to get down from the truck and help an injured person, the process becomes fraught as crowds gather and focus on the “fault” of the truck driver rather than letting him help the victim, or tending to the victim themselves.

Speaking from personal experience, Javed says, “Even when it’s someone else’s fault and there is just a little dent in the vehicle, the crowd always targets us and beats us up, creating a commotion right then and there.”

When a driver attempts to visit a police station to report the accident, the legal hassles begin. Madan says truck drivers fear being harassed at the police station if they go to report the incident. “Truck drivers do not come from a well-off background, and there is a heavy probability of police personnel mistreating them,” says Madan. “Either the drivers are trapped in legal hurdles, or have to pay a bribe to get out of trouble.”

Suresh Khosla of the Federation of Bombay Motor Transport Operators echoes these concerns. “We experience this throughout India, that even when it’s not the fault of the truck driver during an accident, there is no justice for the truck driver. He will be charged with a rash driving or negligence case, no matter what,” Khosla says.

Madan points out that the resulting court cases run for years. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data for 2022, about 48% of completed court trials in hit-and-run cases led to convictions. The conviction rate stayed below 50% in two of the previous five years (see data for 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018).

Were new provisions needed?

The evolution of hit-and-run laws signifies a shift in legislative approach and emphasis. While both Section 304A of the IPC and Section 106A of the Bharaitya Nyay Sanhita encompass the concept of negligence, Section 304A focuses specifically on actions leading to fatalities.

Are these new provisions needed? Different factions have different answers. Kenjale, who has handled cases such as drunk driving, says the new law is intended to instil a sense of social responsibility in truck drivers, and drivers in general. “Earlier, in most cases, truck drivers would leave the injured at the accident spot and there would be no ownership of responsibility,” Kenjale says.

Kenjale uses an example to illustrate his point. “What if an accident took place at night when the roads are almost empty, there is less commotion and no CCTV cameras? In such cases, there is nobody to help the victim except the driver himself. Thus, the new law will put the driver under an obligation to help the victim and at least inform the police officers.”

The 201st Law Commission of India Report states that 50% of those killed in road crashes could have been saved had they received timely emergency medical care, Piyush Tewari, founder and CEO of SaveLife Foundation, told IndiaSpend in December 2023. The report, released in 2006, is now outdated concerning the most recent data available, he added.

Ankur Yadav, a lawyer, says that there was a definite need to bring in a new law. “Everything from India’s road transport system to the nature of road crimes has evolved,” he says. “Thus, a new law is inevitable.” He points out that the new law comes against the backdrop of rising road accidents and related deaths in the country.

India reported over 460,000 road accidents in 2022, up 12% since the previous year. Of these, hit-and-run accidents accounted for over 67,000. Overall, India sees 53 road accidents and 19 deaths every hour, on average.

Tamil Nadu reported the highest number of road accidents in 2022 at 64,105 followed by Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.

For the fifth consecutive year since 2018, Tamil Nadu recorded the highest number of accidents on national highways. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, had the most road accident deaths on national highways, followed by Tamil Nadu.

Hit from back’ accounted for the largest share of deaths from accidents in 2022, at 19.5%, followed by ‘hit and run’ and ‘head-on collision’, which accounted for 18.1 % and 15.7%, respectively.

Globally, since 2010, road traffic deaths fell 5% to 1.19 million annually. India has the highest number of road accident deaths globally, followed by China, which had half the number of deaths as India.

This is further highlighted in this December 2023 report by the World Health Organization, which indicates that the South-East Asian regions, including India, account for the highest percentage of global road traffic deaths, at 28%. The Western Pacific Region comes second with 25%, while the European region accounts for only 5% of all fatalities.

India’s economy and the importance of truck drivers

The role of truckers in the country’s economy became evident when they went on strike at the start of the year. Within days, states including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh started experiencing disruptions in the supply of essential commodities. This highlighted the fact that across India, there is an inherent dependency on truck-based movement of goods and essential supplies.

The logistics industry contributes to 14.4% of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Further, logistics costs in India for the fiscal year 2021-22 were estimated at 8.9% of GDP. The transport sector contributed to 4.59% of the gross value added in 2019-20. Of this, road transport alone contributed to 3.06%.

At present, the country handles 4.6 billion tonnes of freight annually. By 2050, road freight movement in India is projected to rise to 9.6 trillion tonne-km. Road transport

Thus, the trucking industry plays a pivotal role in meeting India's domestic freight needs, accounting for nearly 70% of current demand, and this demand is predominantly met by heavy and medium-duty trucks.

Looking ahead: A tricky turn or smooth road?

In the face of the protests, the Union government has postponed the implementation of the new hit-and-run provisions and promised discussions with all stakeholders.

Recalling his meeting on January 2 with Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, Madan says that a consensus was achieved to not enforce the new law until a future course of action is agreed upon in the next meeting. “We have written to the concerned ministries asking them to set a timeline for the next meeting, but we haven’t yet received a response,” Madan says.

The AIMTC and the truckers are firm about their demands. If the government insists on implementing the law in its current form, says Madan, “The whole truckers community will cease operations and restart pan-India agitations.” He says that ideally, the AIMTC would like the new law to be cancelled rather than merely altered.

“Poore desh ka pahiya ruk jaega (the wheels of the entire country will come to a halt),” Khosla says, if the government decides to implement the law. And Javed is clear that he “will choose to leave driving as a profession and rather do other menial jobs to support my family”.

Yadav, the Gurgaon-based advocate who works at Analogue Legal, says that the law in its present form is “unjust” in terms of the punishment it imposes on truckers.

IndiaSpend reached out to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for their view on the issue, and on the next steps. We will update this story when we receive a response.

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