Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Not illegal, but harassment nevertheless

WB cops and their aversion towards Sikkim vehicles

The West Bengal Police might be within its rights, and jurisdiction, in ambushing Sikkim vehicles along the national highway on the pretext of checking documents, but the manner in which it is going about its business is blatantly unethical and reeks of premeditated harassment. The irritation has been visiting Sikkim-registered vehicles on the West Bengal side of the highway for close to six months now, and what is making the entire exercise offensive is that the cops on the other side are clearly not driven by a calling to serve the people or enforce the law, and are instead obsessed with digging up forgotten rules and demanding unheard of documents from Sikkim vehicles. It should obvious to anybody by now that getting documents in order is no guarantee to hassle-free travel on the highway because the cops there are making sure everyone loses time at their pickets along the highway. There are as many as seven such pickets between Rangpo and Siliguri, and getting an all-clear from the first one is still no guarantee that the entire charade will not be played out by later “check-points”!
Talking to mainline taxi drivers and officials here makes it amply clear that the harassment is unlikely to end any time soon because policing in West Bengal, it appears, is working off a template designed to keep coming up with ways and means to challan road-users. In a remarkable break from tradition, the West Bengal cops are keeping a step ahead of everyone, discovering motor vehicle rules and laws which had hitherto never been enforced, leaving drivers, vehicle owners and passengers open to be fined.
Meanwhile, the official statement from the Sikkim Government’s Motor Vehicles Department is that they have written to their counterparts in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal requesting them to look into allegations of undue harassment of Sikkim vehicles by the WB Police. In its defence, there is little more that MVD here can do other then write and request.
Speaking to drivers who use the NH10 to Siliguri on a regular basis, it transpires that harassment in the hands of WB cops has intensified to the level of intentional nuisance around six months ago. As anyone who has travelled to Siliguri often enough will vouch, Sikkim vehicles have always been like magnets for checking in the West Bengal town. Routine scrutiny of vehicle documents was “normal” and the cops used to check the “required documents” only.
The normal documents, as explained by the drivers and Motor Vehicles Department, are Blue Book, Insurance copy, Driving License, Fitness Certificate, Authorisation Letter from vehicle owner and Counter Permit for taxi vehicles. Besides these, a First Aid box and a fire extinguisher inside the vehicle and seat belts were mandatory. This is also confirmed by TT Sherpa, Secretary, State Transport Authority, Motor Vehicle Department.
But around half a year back, the scrutiny of documents became excessive and the nitpicking extreme.
“The sudden strictness on the part of WB Police started after allegations of unnecessary harassments by them were published in some newspapers published from Siliguri around six months back,” believes a mainline taxi driver of a Sikkim registered vehicle.
He is convinced that the cops took offence of the allegations and took the harassment to a new level of agony.
The said driver, who understandably does not want to be named, elaborates that the WB Police suddenly started implementing rules which no one in Sikkim had even heard of until they were challaned.
One of these rules was an Entertainment Tax Clearance Certificate for vehicles which have music systems. Every vehicle has a car-deck, but no vehicle in Sikkim has ever been required to acquire an Entertainment Tax Clearance Certificate. This Entertainment Tax is mandatory under West Bengal Motor Vehicle Rule 1989 in West Bengal, but for vehicles registered in Sikkim, there is no such requirement. But the cops in West Bengal had found a lapse, or so they believed, and started fining drivers. Back in Sikkim, even if one wanted to acquire an Entertainment Tax Clearance Certificate for their vehicle, they could not get one because the said tax has not been extended to Sikkim.
“They suddenly started asking for this document and we don’t have. So they started levying random fine starting from Rs. 1,100. Some vehicles which have other failed documents alongwith this one even paid fines of upto Rs. 3200,” the driver informs.
When the issue was raised with the office bearers of Mainline Taxi Drivers Association [now cooperatives], they reached the Motor Vehicles Department. Officials at the Department were also in confusion over how to resolve the issue as there is no clause like entertainment tax in Sikkim Motor Vehicles Rules.
“The Department came up with a solution by issuing us a letter stating there is no entertainment tax in Sikkim and SK registered vehicles are exempted from this tax,” informs a senior member of the Booking Counter Cooperative.
Now, Sikkim vehicles need to carry this photocopied document attesting that they are exempt from the said tax. Just to reinforce the argument that what WB is foisting on Sikkim is harassment, one needs to point out that all should have been required was for West Bengal to be informed in general about this exemption. There should be no need for every Sikkim vehicle to carry proof that it was exempted. And yet, that seems to be case and in case a Sikkim vehicle is stopped and does not have this explanation letter, it is challaned.
Though the letter has solved the problem for now, WB Police is still not fully satisfied, it is informed. As per the drivers, the WB Police wants a permanent solution with upto date clearance certificate.
“They will certainly start harrasing us on the same issue in the very near future,” says another driver.
The driver further highlights that there are more than seven checking points along NH10 from Rangpo to Siliguri. Some of the permanent points are at Bhalu Khola, Melli, Teesta, Rambi, Sevoke, Lohapool, Salugara etc. and sometimes more checkpoints come up.
“Our vehicles are checked every day in each one of these points, which is totally intentional harassment,” said a driver.
“After checking thoroughly, they should at least issue us a sticker stating that the vehicle has been checked so that we don’t have to go through re-checking at the next point,” he said adding that passengers, especially tourists, are suffering the most because travel time has become too long because of these stoppages.
He adds, “These checks waste more than an hour and on top of this sometime vehicles are stuck more than an hour at Railway crossing at Sevoke.” The cooperative members also confirmed that they have received several complaints from tourists of missing trains and flights.
Sometimes, passengers also add to the problems.
“Some couple forcefully keep their child in the front seat with them. If the police catch this we are charges with heavy fines because only two people can sit in the front seat with the driver,” said another driver.
Even as drivers can begin to be careful and keep their documents updated, it is with the new tricks that the WB cops seem to keep learning that they are having real problems with.
The latest is with vehicle having front-facing back seats, which, the WB cops are now telling everyone is not proper and are hence not allowing the jeeps to keep passengers on such “modified front-facing back seats”. This means that these vehicles can now carry only six passengers out of the prescribed strength of 10.
“None of passengers want to travel in side-facing seats and if front facing seats are not allowed we can’t survive carrying 6 passengers per trip,” said a member of the Cooperative.
On the mode of payment of the fines, a driver said that there are two kinds of slips, white and yellow. The yellow seizure list amounts have to be paid in bank directly and white one at the concerned outpost.
“Sometime they tell us to pay on the spot in cash for small mistakes,” he said.
“We are ready to pay fines for mistakes but to bring back our documents we have to go to Kalimpong, Darjeeling and sometime even Jalpaiguri, which is really a headache,” said another driver.
The drivers and their cooperatives here are also convinced that problem can be resolved with talks between mid or even junior level officials from the two states. In fact, they would prefer that the “high level” officials not get involved because they rarely know about ground realities. These are best understood by middle and junior level officials and they invariably have the best solutions to offer as well, the drivers insist.

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