22/12/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Driving Free: The Killers On India's Roads

View over Victoria terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus (CST) and central Mumbai at dusk Mumbai India
Peter Adams via Getty Images
View over Victoria terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus (CST) and central Mumbai at dusk Mumbai India

Life is not cheap in India. Sadly, it is made cheap.

India's most popular cine actor, Mumbai-based Salman Khan, curiously witnessed an even more meteoric rise at the box office ever since his Toyota Land Cruiser drove over and killed a footpath-dweller and injured four others one night not far from his home in September 2002. The case against him wound its way through courts for 13 years, until the Bombay High Court on 10 December invalidated a trial court's guilty verdict and acquitted the actor of all charges.

The 50-year-old Khan was besieged by adulating fans both at the court and at the gates of his house, as they have done all along since his trial began. Their reaction was similar in another case where he was accused of poaching three gazelles and an antelope while shooting for a film in a nature preserve in 1998.

As the mobs cheered the Bollywood superstar's "triumph" in the court, social media too brimmed with eulogistic tributes.

The person who was killed under the actor's SUV was one of the numberless destitutes in this city who sleep in the streets after toiling through the day. Poverty compels over half of Mumbai's population of 22 million to live either in the open or in squalid hovels, as renting or owning property is far beyond their reach. As the mobs cheered the Bollywood superstar's "triumph" in the court, social media too brimmed with eulogistic tributes. One by a film singer called Abhijeet, a confidant of Khan, snarled, "Those who sleep like dogs in the streets, should die like dogs -- roads do not belong to the poor." He urged those "fond of sleeping on the footpaths" to go back to their villages where there would be no vehicles to kill them.

Khan has consistently topped the charts for some years now, delivering a string of nine Rs 100 crore (US$15 million) hits, with two of his films grossing Rs 513.56 crore (US$77 million) this year alone. Film-makers have investments of over Rs 200 crore (US$30 million) riding on him, and they and his legions of supporters were willing to discount the fatal mishap as a "mistake" that need not necessarily criminalise him.

On the other hand, there is growing public concern that all too often the country's affluent and influential walk free from incontrovertible crimes by marshalling top legal assistance, and by capitalising on conveniently weak and shoddy investigation, and on a judiciary that declares that it goes by evidence delivered by a prosecution that has failed to prove its case. Acquittals often result from technicalities, with circumstantial evidence being overlooked.

Such cases include one involving a youth from Mumbai and another from New Delhi. Alistair Pereira, then a 21-year-old heir of a realtor from Mumbai, had killed seven and seriously injured eight in November 2006 when he drunkenly drove his Toyota Corolla onto a group of construction workers sleeping along a suburban road. When brought to the police station from the accident site, his family arrived with breakfast that was partaken by them and Pereira while the police assessed the offence. His sentence of six months by a lower court was enhanced on appeal before the Bombay High Court to a jail term of three years. Pereira challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court and secured bail in 2007. Then too the High Court had censured the Mumbai police for an inept inquiry, including not providing urine and blood reports on time and failure to examine the other passengers in the car.

Speeding was the cause of 41% of [road] deaths... It may perhaps subsequently be acknowledged that the biggest cause of this is the low rate of conviction.

The second case involved Sanjeev Nanda, also 21 at the time and the son of an arms dealer and grandson of a retired naval chief, who mowed down six persons, including three police officers manning a checkpoint, when he was driving drunk his BMW in January 1999. Though acquitted in a trial the same year, he was found guilty in 2008 in a re-trial, but got away with a sentence of two years. His defence lawyers were caught on tape, trying to influence a prosecution witness.

Most hit-and-run culprits are charged under Section 279 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that pertains to "rash and negligent driving" and which provides for a jail term that may extend to six months, or fine of up to Rs 1,000 (US$15). In Khan's case, this charge was subsequently raised to Section 304 part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) that carries a sentence of a maximum 10 years. The other charges he was booked under were IPC Sections 337 and 338 (causing hurt by act endangering life, and causing grievous hurt) and Section 427 (mischief causing damage to property) that each provide for a maximum two years in jail, apart from the Motor Vehicle Act's Sections 34 (a) and (b) read with 181 (driving vehicle in contravention to the rules) and 185 (driving at great speed after consuming alcohol) that carry a maximum sentence of six months.

While a spate of such road accidents has raised demands for more deterrent punishment, the government of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital city, last March legislated a ban on beef. The punishment for the sale of beef or possession of it can now result in imprisonment for five years with an additional fine of Rs 10,000 (US$150).

Mumbai, incidentally, tops all Indian cities in the number of road accidents recorded in 2014. Data recently released by the Traffic Research Wing of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways highlighted that Mumbai registered 22,570 accidents last year, with Chennai standing a distant second in the list with 9,610 accidents, and New Delhi ranked third with 8,623 accidents. Mumbai's tally resulted in 534 fatalities. Overall, as many as 1,39,671 people lost their lives in some 500,000 accidents on India's roads during 2014, a toll of 383 every day. Over 300,000 were left with disabilities.

The causes of the accidents were largely preventable, namely, speeding, drunk-driving, driving on the wrong side of the road, and erroneous signalling. Speeding was the cause of 41% of the deaths.

It may perhaps subsequently be acknowledged that the biggest cause of this is the low rate of conviction.

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