In India, a road accident happens every minute. Yes, you read that right, every single minute. Road accidents and India aren’t strangers. In fact, they are better acquainted than they should be.
Sometime mid-July in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand six people were killed in two separate road accidents. Around the same time seven people died in five separate accidents in Gujarat. In Nashik, Maharashtra, five people were killed in two separate accidents in June. These are just a few instances from recent weeks of the thousands of road accidents that occur in India every year.
Of course, since lockdown was enforced across the country, the number of road accidents have taken a dive. Let this not distract us from the fact that road accidents are one of the biggest problems India has faced and remains to face today.
Before moving forward, let us take a look at some road accident statistics in India. Since 2011, India has had at least 450,000 road accidents annually. In 2018, there were over 150,000 road accident related deaths. That’s over 400 every day!
Why do accidents happen?
There are many known reasons why this is the current state of affairs. Drunken driving is one of the leading causes of road fatalities.
Apart from this, underage driving (without licence), defects in road condition, vehicle overloading, are some of the major contributors. There is also a deeper, root cause which is much less talked about. Undeserved driving licenses, issued because of the corruption which exists within our system.
The reason it is not talked about? In India, driving licences aren’t earned. They are bought. And many of us are knowingly guilty of it.
My experiment with a driving school
It was April 2019. My grade twelve board examinations had just finished. Having turned 18 earlier in the year, it was a good time to get my driving license.
Many people register themselves with some driving school to learn. Even those who know driving, sometimes register with driving schools because it’s supposed to be easier to get licenses through them.
The cars used by the schools have an extra set of control pedals for the instructor, which makes it safer than using a normal car to learn. My parents felt it was a good idea for me to go to a driving school rather than learn from them. They hoped that in the process, I would learn some basic mechanics and car maintenance, which is generally a part of a driving school’s curriculum.
I registered with a driving school close to where we live, in Kandivali East, Mumbai. It was a decision I came to regret a few days later and which we shall get to in a bit.
The first step in obtaining a permanent driving licence is to obtain a Learner’s Licence (LL). The LL is, suggestively, what you require to start learning how to drive. You are allowed to drive the car as long as someone with a permanent driver’s license accompanies you in the front seat. In order to obtain the LL, you have to register online with the local RTO (Road Transport Office) and then do a road safety quiz in person at the RTO. If you pass, a LL will be issued to you. If not, you have to try again at a later date.
The RTO I went to, was in a pretty pathetic shape. Long, unmanaged queues with unmanned counters. Even with an appointment, the waiting times were uncertain and people had to stand in the sweltering Mumbai summer heat. I passed the test and obtained the LL, which was issued immediately.
At the driving school, we were scheduled to do a total of ten hours of driving. They were eager to start as soon as I registered, but I wanted to wait till I had the LL in my hand. I was assigned an instructor. Let’s call him Mr Y. After the first day of driving, he told me to bring “guruji ka dakshina” which roughly translates to ‘payment to the teacher’. I asked him what exactly he wanted, because I had already paid the fees to the driving school. He evaded answering. I told him I would give him “mithai” (sweets). He said, “mujhe mithai se kya matlab” (what use do I have for sweets). I figured that he was a generally unfriendly man who cared little about teaching.
Our driving lessons continued and it constantly felt like he was doing a favour by teaching me. He barely gave me any autonomy while driving. He always controlled the pedals and never allowed me to go beyond second gear. It felt like he was hindering me from progressing on purpose. Maybe I was right, maybe I wasn’t. Suffice to say however, that I did not gain any confidence at the wheel.
It was one of the last days of the scheduled classes when he told me to bring five hundred rupees without fail as “guru dakshina”. As earlier, I told him I would bring him sweets or chocolates, but money was out of the picture. I wouldn’t be able to ask my parents for this. He proceeded to paint me as this ungrateful student and told me about how other students gave him thousands of rupees. He even blackmailed me and said he had the power to pass or fail me. This was shocking. I understood that he was asking me for a bribe so that I would pass the test. I was wondering what to do. I went to the office of the driving school and talked to the owner. I told him about the conversations with Mr Y. It was quite clear that this money exchange from student to teacher was regularly happening, and he was aware. He asked if I could control the car myself without help, and when I said I could, he assured me that I need not pay any money and everything would be fine.
The tests for the permanent driving licences are held at the local RTO, and there is quite a rush. Driving licences are in high demand, so slots need to be booked well in advance. Usually, the driving school books slots before the training is over. My family had scheduled a short out-of-city trip so the owner of the school suggested that I do the last training class after I got back from the trip, which was a couple of weeks later, and then register for the test.
Meanwhile, I practised driving with my parents using our family car. They realised that I was not at all comfortable driving the car. I realised that too. This was after almost a month with the driving school. It is then that I told my parents about the driving school teacher and everything that had happened. It was a real dilemma. If we paid the bribe (which was out of the question), I would pass the test, but at the same time, it would not be safe for me to drive on the roads simply because I still did not know how to drive!
After a long discussion, we at home decided it would be good for me to go to another driving school. The risk, though, was that it could be quite similar to the one I’d already been to. After a bit of searching, my father found a school in Kandivali West, that seemed to be highly rated with largely positive reviews on Google. The people we spoke to said that they did the training but they did not provide licence-obtaining services. This we would need to do on our own. Alternatively, as I had already paid the fees in the first driving school, and it included services for the driving test, they suggested that I go back to this school to complete the licence formalities.
The atmosphere at this new place was much more welcoming. They first made me take a round in the car, to assess my competence level. They then decided that the first few classes should be on the simulator. After this I started proper driving training. I was assigned an instructor Mr P, who was a total contrast to Mr Y. He was patient and seemed truly dedicated to teaching me how to drive. At the end of the ten days of training, I was thrilled that I could drive on my own, reversing, parking and everything. I was confident that with my ability to drive, I would pass the toughest of driving tests.
I then went back to the first driving school to tell them I was ready to do the RTO test. The appointment was scheduled two weeks later.
The driving test
I made sure that I practiced every day so that I did not lose touch. The day finally arrived and with my mother, I went to the same RTO where I had been for the Learner’s Licence. There were many people, from various driving schools, waiting to do the driving test. The venue was an unkempt dead end road, walking distance from the RTO gate. The RTO examiners were different for different batches. There were two wheelers and four wheelers and even auto rickshaws. Some people had brought their own vehicles while others used vehicles from their driving schools.
It was a long wait and we patiently watched the others. The test seemed to be an absolute joke. All that the student had to do was to drive the car straight for a few feet, apply the brake and then reverse the car, back to its original position. Some had to drive more than others. Some hardly drove at all. It looked like it all depended on the RTO examiner – driving school combination.
How is one to assess whether a person can drive based on something like this? Even nursery children are evaluated more rigorously to get promoted to Grade 1. This is the “driving test” most people who ply on our roads have taken. It’s a total sham, just for show.
One by one, the students were called. Some could barely move their cars. Some of the cars stalled and spluttered to a halt. Some were pretty decent.
Then came my turn. I used the driving school car. The RTO examiner sat in the instructor’s seat in front with me, and I was surprised to see Mr Y in the backseat. The owner of the school handed my form to the examiner, telling him “iske form pe star daal do” (put a star on his form). At that point, it had no significance to me. During the test, it felt like the examiner was trying to hinder me. He was using the ‘instructor’ set of brakes and told me “bas accelerator dabao” (just press the accelerator). He wanted me to accelerate when he was holding the brakes down. I requested him to take his foot off the brakes. Why on earth should the examiner be touching the pedals of a car during a test?
I was able to move the car forwards and reverse. That’s all I was asked to do. My car didn’t stall. I thought it went off quite well. I had finished the test and was sure of passing.
The test results
After everyone had gone through this exercise, all of us from the driving school were called to one side. The examiner left, leaving behind the test forms with the driving school people. They started grouping the students based on the results. The ones who had been declared as passed, were asked to sign on some papers. They announced that some five-six had failed. I was one of them. I could not believe it! All of us who failed had stars on our forms. The best part was that my star was put even before I took the test. I made the connection and was absolutely furious.
Profanities flew out of my mouth like they had never before. I asked Mr Y and the driving school owner the meaning of all this. On what basis was I failed? On what basis did you fail someone who could drive, and pass someone who couldn’t? What kind of evaluation system was this?
I did a quick survey and found that everyone had paid money to the driving school people to ensure they passed the test. Different amounts, for different purposes. There was one lady who had barely sat at the car wheel before that day, and she passed because the examiner did all the driving from his side. One girl who admitted that her car had stalled during the test asked me to pay up, because I was spoiling her chances of getting the licence even after she had paid the bribe money. One uncle, told me to calm down, not make a scene and accept my mistake. My mistake was that I had refused to pay a bribe!
During this time, Mr Y was calling all the students who had failed, to one side. He told them that if they paid two thousand rupees each, he would request the RTO examiner to pass them. Otherwise, they could appear for the exam again in a week’s time, after paying the fees again. When he told me this, I told him that I would like to meet the RTO examiner myself because I had driven well and did not deserve to fail. If I had failed then most of the others should have failed too. And I would like to check about this two thousand rupees too, which was supposedly eventually given to the examiner.
My mother stood by me all this while, putting in a word here and there as required. It seemed like the driving school hadn’t faced such an outburst before. After a while, the driving school owner took us to a side and said that he would have the licence done. Mr Y protested saying that we could not get away without paying the rupees two thousand, but he was told to keep out of it.
Tackling a corrupt system
How corrupt is our system that a driving school can ensure you get your licence for an extra fee, even if you cannot drive? What is this nexus between the RTO officials and the driving schools? Is there nothing which can serve as an incentive against such practices? How can the RTO be allowing untrained drivers on the road? Unfortunately, I do not know the answers.
It seems Arvind Kejriwal’s government in Delhi just might. Around two years ago, the Delhi government together with Maruti-Suzuki began setting up centres for automated driving tests with little to no human intervention involved. This takes bribing out of the picture and can be replicated everywhere.
Doing things the right way, corruption free, takes huge effort. Some people think I am foolish, but I do have the peace of mind that I refused to pay the bribe. About couple of weeks after all this, I had the satisfaction of receiving my permanent driving licence by Speed Post.
In contrast to what I experienced in Mumbai, I have read that in most developed countries such as Singapore, licence issuance is very strict, and there is no hurry to give them to people. You have to be competent to earn one, and they cannot be bought. This clearly shows in their road safety statistics.
The functioning of any system (e.g. road safety) depends on how well the three Es (Engineering, Education, Enforcement) work together. Education is a critical element and the whole licencing process is the mechanism through which it is fulfilled. Given the sad state of the licencing process in India, it is but expected that road safety is unlikely to get better in the coming years, regardless of the provisions of the new Motor Vehicle Act 2019.