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Thumbs down to 'lal batti'

Thumbs down to lal batti
Those menacing 'VIP' cavalcades with flashing red beacons and shrill hooters have suddenly gone off the roads in Uttar Pradesh. Not long ago, under the former Samajwadi Party government in the state, those in power considered beacons ('lal batti') and the siren to be their entitlements that enabled them to not only impose their power and presence but also keep everyday people at bay.

Samajwadi Party claims that its ideology is based on principles of equality and the objective is to create a socialist society. Surprisingly, most of the party's leaders, even those at the local level, can be seen moving around only in high-end SUVs. Their disdain for the common man is more visible on the roads than anywhere else. In fact, until recently, speeding SUVs with flashing beacons and blaring sirens, bearing the Samajwadi Party flag, were a familiar sight on the state's roads. In most cases, the occupants would not be public figures of any standing.

In UP, a state with a feudal mindset, beacons and sirens have always been considered as symbols of power and authority. However, it was during the previous government run by the Samajwadi Party that their misuse became rampant. Low-rung party workers, many of whom had dubious character, would rely on these security aids to terrorise and intimidate the common man. The beacon and the siren turned into tools that could be fitted onto vehicles, and then traffic rules were violated with impunity. The drivers of these cars were under the impression that they had the liberty to jump traffic signals, drive under the influence of alcohol, overtake vehicles dangerously, and threaten others on the road.

Now, here is an important point to note. The use of beacon and siren is governed by Section 70 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1939, Sections 109, 110, 111 of the 1988 Act, and Rules 108, 108-A, and 119 of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989. Both the Motor Vehicles Act, as well as the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, empowers states to regulate the usage of beacon and siren.

At the time Samajwadi Party was in power, a large number of its workers used these symbols of power even though they were not entitled to do so as per the law. The police and administration just looked the other way. Considering that the party openly patronised hardcore criminals, the extent to which they were abused by these elements could be very well imagined.

Immediately after taking over as UP Chief Minister last month, Yogi Adityanath ordered an end to the 'VIP' culture in the state - meaning a crackdown on the blatant misuse of beacons and sirens. Realising that the government meant business, the tools of intimidation and assertion of authority were meekly taken off the vehicles overnight. While the public is now heaving a sigh of relief because of this development, for many politicians it is akin to losing a lifeline.

Seasoned politicians realise that beacons and sirens create a wall between them and the common man and in the long run can severely erode their mass support. It is because of this reason that Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amrinder Singh has disallowed the use of the red beacon atop his official vehicle as well as the vehicles of his ministers and officials. Earlier, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had shunned the use of red beacons, removing them from his vehicle as well as those of his ministers. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, does not use a beacon on her vehicle and had trimmed the state's list of dignitaries who can use it. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled from his residence to the Delhi Airport, a distance of around 10 km, in regular traffic without any route restrictions to receive Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a clear indication that the 'VIP' culture is gradually losing acceptability in India.

In December 2013, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the misuse of red beacons in states and asked state governments to strictly abide by the notifications issued by the Centre in this regard. The Court said that though states had the power to issue notifications to enlarge the list of persons entitled to the use of red beacons, such notifications could not go beyond the scope of the Centre's notifications. The Court also asked the concerned authorities to implement the prohibition on hooter in letter and spirit and said the remedy to the menace was to impose an exemplary fine on violators. Unfortunately, despite the Court's clear directive, there has been no movement in the direction of limiting the misuse of beacon and hooter, the issue being politically sensitive.

So, why are most Indian politicians reluctant to give up their beacon and hooter? Some argue that these are security aids and facilitate smooth movement on roads, thereby enabling them to discharge their duties effectively. That may be true for the people holding Constitutional posts and a few high dignitaries, but what about the rest? A few politicians are blunt enough to assert that they have a right to use beacons and hooter as they have earned it. Surely, a person who needs a flashing light above his car and a shrill noise emitting from it to prove his worth suffer from extreme insecurity.

India is a democracy and contrary to the belief of many politicians, the ultimate power rests with the people. It is high time the country's common man collectively gave the thumbs down to politicians who derive a false sense of superiority from the use of beacons and siren.

(Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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