Constitutional Law

Truck Drivers also have dignified life – Guidelines by Supreme Court

By Adv. Nikita Vaigankar

“People salute the jawans of the country as they defend the country but no-one salute the drivers who bring in the essential food and supplies that are required everyday” – one of the disappointed driver.

Introduction

The above hoarding says in Hindi, ‘Papa Ghar Jaldi Aana Hum Intezaar Kar Rahe hain’ which resembles children telling his father to come home soon as they are waiting for him. They know that their father is not going to come soon as once he leaves home for carrying out certain transit or delivery, he doesn’t arrive home for many days. 

This article is basically a case Analysis of a judgement passed by the Patna High Court in a case of Sumit Kumar vs State of Bihar which was passed on 22nd December, 2020 and later a Special Leave Petition (SLP) decided by the Supreme court by laying down important guidelines for the welfare of truck drivers and that decision has the capability to take us to a different side of the life of a truck driver which is unseen and unrealised by a majority of the people of India.

Truck drivers are the most vulnerable section of our society. They are looked upon as illiterate, uneducated, mannerless, non-decent, habitual offenders, etc. Some can even go to the extent of calling them as kidnappers or rapists. We have created an image in our minds about them but we don’t look upon them as respectable persons and address them by using unfair language. But have you ever imagined the amount of pressure they have to bare? They face tremendous pressure to meet their ends in order to survive their families.

They lead a stressful life and one of the reasoning for it is stretching of their working hours. The basic type of work they have to do is to deliver the items from one place to another which is inter-state mostly and that too within the limited time. For this, they need to drive continuously to reach their destination even in extreme weathers. This leads to exhaustion and lack of sleep and to overcome this, they fall trap to tobacco and other substances like intake of drugs too.

They have to spend most of their day without any human interaction as they mostly drive alone. This increases overthinking on their part which might lead to depression. They miss their families while they are away, having no option but to complete the task allotted to them. Moreover, lack of infrastructure does not offer them proper resting facilities or toilet facilities and getting to eat food on time is their long lasting dream.

Another hurdle of their job is irrelevant interference of traffic officials. Almost on every checkpost, the trucks are being stopped and riders are made to show all the relevant documents of the vehicle along with the permits and other necessary papers. This results in more wastage of time which might delay the delivery.

An analysis of the landmark judgement relating to a Truck Driver

Judiciary considered it as it’s duty to intervene and protect the downtrodden and helpless individuals because state has failed to do so. In this petition, the petitioner sought release of a vehicle, release of its driver who is referred as detenue in this matter and also sought compensation for illegal detention as the police officials of Parsa Police Station illegally detained his vehicle along with its driver.

According to the police report, said driver of the vehicle was driving in a rash and negligent manner and had hit the pedestrian and fled from the spot. Ultimately, vehicle was recovered along with the driver which was handed over to the Parsa Police station. According to the counsel of the Police, the driver was never detained in fact, he himself out of his free will wished to stay in the vehicle.

The court instead noticed the suspicious conduct of the SHO, Parsa Police station. Hence, the DIG of police immediately suspended the SHO and directed for initiation of departmental enquiry. It was also found out that the detenue was kept in the police lockup for more than 2 days and then the FIR was registered and later on, the detenue was released on bail by the court and the vehicle was also released. However, despite the orders of the court, the motor vehicle inspection report indicating the occurrence of alleged accident has not been filed.

The DIG of Police, Saran Range, Chapra submitted his report to Police Headquarters, Bihar. In his report he found the following irregularities by the SHO, Parsa Police Station:-

a. No FIR registered within time.

b. The statement of injured not recorded up till now.

c. No vehicle inspection has been done up till now.

d. without any rhyme and reason, the vehicle and the driver was detained illegally.

The court observed that this incident shows a perfect example of how police authorities misuse their powers and breach the fundamental rights and personal liberty of another person.

The court stressed on the guidelines laid down in D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengal (1997) 1 SCC 416, Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar (2014) 8 SCC 273, Rini Johar vs State of Madhya Pradesh, which are to be followed while carrying out the arrest. The case of Joginder Kumar vs State of UP (1994) 4 SCC 260 was also cited by the court to stress on the importance of personal liberty of a person. With regard to FIR registration and consequences of non-compliance was elaborated in the case of Lalita Kumari vs Government of Uttar Pradesh (2014) 2 SCC 1. Also in the case of Sunderbhai Ambalal Desai vs State of Gujarat (2002) 10 SCC 283, court emphasized on the power of disposing of the property seized by the police officers to be exercised judiciously and expeditiously.

The court stressed that the entire police force needs to be sensitized of the constitutional and statutory rights of the accused or detenue also from the angle of human rights. The court was of the view that whatever be the situation, it is of no use to keep the seized vehicle at the police station for a long period because such acts not only waste the space of the police station but also being kept in open, the vehicles are prone to fast natural decay on account of weather conditions. Even a good maintained vehicle loses its roadworthiness if it is kept stationary for more than 15 days and sometimes even several valuable and costly parts of the said vehicle are stolen. 

The court opined that this instant case is one which is fit for hefty compensation to be levied on the state for violation of the fundamental right to life and liberty by way of illegal detention of the truck driver. Moreover, his right to claim other damages as private law remedy was always kept open. The court realised that the award of compensation would ensure for the citizens that they live under a system where their rights and interest are protected and preserved but it shall be based on the compensatory formula and not as a punitive formula for the state. The compensation always depend upon the facts of the case and there is no straight jacket formula that can be involved in that behalf.

In this judgement, the most highlighting part was the discussion by the court about the role and problems of truck drivers. The court stated that the drivers of commercial vehicles especially the truck drivers in India occupy a very unique and vital place in the immense transportation sector which serves as the backbone of Indian economy. These drivers are given a task to supply nearly all the goods required for daily sustenance across the whole nation, but their life is defined by great hardships and sacrifices. They are under constant pressure to complete long journeys in short durations, operate under the conditions of extreme weathers, lack of sleep, lack of proper sanitation and have improper access to food and water and they have to spend most of their time away from their families. Secondly, along with all these problems they are at constant odds with police and state authorities while trying to protect themselves from the continuous threat of Highway robberies. The lack of literacy among truck drivers is also a disparity across the state laws which is a huge barrier in their compelling journey because the drivers are required to deal with the authorities and lack of proper knowledge results in their harassment. They also have to face issues like lack of payment, lack of proper hygiene, pressures of the job, physical as well as mental health issues, several kind of diseases, etc  The court also said that there is an immediate need to improve the conditions of truck driver across the country as they also don’t have any complaint redressal mechanism for raising their issues.

Summary of Directions

In the light of the discussion made in this whole case, the court directed that the state of Bihar shall pay compensation to the detenue, an amount of Rs. 5,00,000/- (rupees five lakhs) for the violation of his fundamental right and this amount shall be paid within a period of six weeks from the date of judgement. Court also directed to initiate a disciplinary action and expediate it and conclude within a period of three months from the date of judgement. The DGP was directed to ensure litigation and criminal proceedings against the police officers who were involved in this. The most important direction given to the DGP, government of Bihar was to ensure that appropriate action for sensitizing the entire police force, especially the constabulary in Bihar, with special focus on safeguarding the fundamental rights of the citizens is taken.

 It said that, there shall be an effective functioning of complaint redressal mechanism which is easily accessible to general public, especially illiterate and marginalised people of the state and this shall be ensured by the DGP, government of Bihar. The DGP was directed to get a report prepared with respect to the number of cases of complaints filed against the police officials and to take remedial measures preventing repeated occurrence of such misconduct and the most important direction which has to be stressed in this article is that the state of Bihar was directed to make efforts towards improving the conditions of the truck drivers. They must consider issues about their healthcare, access to food, working hours, payment of wages, literacy and access to technology. The court did not leave the civil society also; it said that, civil society shall be engaged in generally building the Goodwill of the entire police force among the residents of Bihar.

Later on, the State of Bihar filed SLP against the judgement of Patna High Court basically on the quantum of compensation. The bench of Justices Chandrachud and Justice M. R. Shah heard a SLP against the December 22, 2020 decision of the Patna High Court awarding Rs. 5,00,000/- to a truck driver for illegally detaining him which is the present case that we discussed above. The state government said that they suspended the concerned SHO and disciplinary actions are going against him thereby, indicating that the state acted responsibility in this situation.

The view of the Supreme court

“Loss of liberty of a person of humble means is not at a lower pedestal compared to that of an affluent person with more resources”, observed supreme court.

Justice Chandrachud mentioned that, it is very disappointing that the state government have come with this SLP only on the ground that Rs  5,00,00/- for an ordinary Truck driver is too much. He further elaborated that, if there was a rich or an affluent person in place of truck driver, would the state government come with the SLP on the same ground? The court also found it ridiculous about the assertion of the state government that the said Truck driver remained in the truck on his own and free will. Further, justice Shah also slammed the state government by pointing out the DIG report which clearly stated that the rules of arrest were violated by the police. Justice Chandrachud even went to an extent saying that, there is completely a police Raj in Bihar since, there was infringement of fundamental rights of a citizen. In this case, the supreme court dismissed SLP filed by the state government. 

The supreme court asked various questions in its findings. They raised questions as to awhy FIR was not filed immediately? Why the vehicle was not impounded? Why the vehicle driver was not produced before the court? and How did the police come to the conclusion about the facts of the case when there was no witness to give the statement related to the case.

The guidelines relating to truck drivers are the strict directions to be followed by the State authorities.

And in this way the justice was assured to a truck driver and his fraternity.

Remedial measures or Suggestions for the welfare of truck drivers

Measures can be taken at the government level, group level or at an individual level too.

Government can fix a remuneration structure for the truck drivers along with the social security benefits like insurance, provident fund, etc. There can be a working hours slot fixed for them. The government can also take care of the roadside facilities like that of washrooms and toilets on highways. Truck drivers shall be given proper training before obtaining licence and for that purpose, training schools can be established. 

Groups or drivers association can give their drivers proper training and can make them aware about the rules on the roads. They can also set up medical check up rounds for their drivers to keep an eye on the health condition of the drivers. They can keep gaps in transit or new contract to a perticular driver so that the driver can spend time with his family and take rest.

At individual level, change in mindset is more than enough. We have created an image in our minds about the truck drivers which is ofcourse a degraded and bad image. Take for example, if there is a collision on the road where a truck is involved, we put the whole blame on truck driver without considering proper facts. And in order to change this mindset, lots and lots of awareness and sensitizing people about the hardships of trucks drivers is required.

Conclusion

“We see engineers entering the management field, doctors who want to pursue the IAS/IPS but nobody wants to take up truck driving as a profession. Only those who are less educated or have zero opportunities in other fields take to truck driving as a full time job” – Transport Association, Ahemdabad.

The job of a truck driver may look easy prima facie but by now we have come to know how stressful and risky it is. At the same time, their profession is very much critical to our modern economy as they ensure fluent movement of goods from one place to another and therefore, this topic is very important yet an ignored one.

The image created about the truck drivers  in our minds is worse which has been influenced by news that we see. Moreover, our bollywood movies always replicate bad image of truck drivers except few of them like a movie titled ‘Highway’ which displayed a good side of a truck driver. 

There are some companies who care for their employees and therefore, they try to create opportunities and welfare measures for the well being of their employees.

One example could be an initiative by Tata motors to launch a welfare program called ‘Samarth’ which aimed at addressing critical areas of well being of drivers viz. Swasthya (Wellness program), Sampatti (Finance program) and Siksha (Education program) along with Surakshit Samarth (driver on wheel insurance). This program aimed at covering more than 5 lakhs drivers in a year.

This is a good initiative by the reputed company like Tata otherwise trucks, the goods in it are insured but the driver is never insured.

The time has come that we change our attitude towards them and look upon them as one amongst us and respect their rights because their life is full of risks and less rewards.

Let these guidelines turn into rules for the betterment of truck drivers and other similar sections of our society.

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