New Delhi: The road transport and highways ministry has sought legal opinion from the law ministry on those provisions of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 that can be enforced by state governments to lower hefty penalties under the Act, said two government officials aware of the development.

This follows opposition from some states starting with Gujarat to the fines that were implemented from 1 September. The move also comes against the backdrop of a growing impression that BJP has climbed down from its earlier position of staying the course on the Act. Besides stringent rules and stiff penalties, the Act provides for a 10% increase in fines every year.

“We have sought legal opinion now that Gujarat has decided to reduce the fines on some offences," one of the two officials cited above said on condition of anonymity.

The Act contains as many as 63 clauses pertaining to fines and driving licences among others. States can, however, revise fines for more than two dozen provisions that are compoundable, while the penalties for non-compoundable offences—where the nature of the offence is grave—cannot be revised.

A legal opinion will offer further clarity on whether states can reduce the quantum of some of the fines for compoundable offences.

“The legal opinion is expected in a day or two, post which the central government may issue a clarification if the law ministry recommends that the state government’s actions were unwarranted," said the second official cited earlier.

“The entire confusion has stemmed from the way some clauses (in the Act) have been interpreted by the state in dissonance with the Centre," the official said.

A spokesperson for the ministry did not immediately respond to queries.

After a long wait of three years, the Act was passed by Parliament and received the President’s assent on 9 August. It seeks to improve road safety and impart discipline among citizens by imposing stiff fines for breaking traffic rules.

The developments come against the backdrop of the NDA government reversing some its decisions of late, leading experts to ponder whether they were taken after due consultations. A case in point is the roll-back of the additional surcharge imposed on foreign portfolio investors in the Union budget.

“It will be ideal for the central government to formulate policies in consultation with the stakeholders concerned, before taking a drastic decision on any matter," said D.K. Srivastava, chief policy adviser at E&Y. “In the case of the Motor Vehicles Act, state governments should have been brought on board for the provisions."

The Act saw fines increase manifold for breaking traffic rules such as driving without licence and insurance, riding two-wheelers without wearing helmets or four-wheelers without seat belts, and carrying more passengers than a vehicle’s capacity.

However, on Tuesday, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani said the “base rate for the fines will be lower than the one proposed by the Union government" and the revised fines will be implemented from 16 September.

With more states moving to reduce the quantum of traffic fines proposed in the Act, the Centre’s plan to improve road safety and discipline through hefty penalties may be in jeopardy. States ruled by BJP such as Karnataka and Uttarakhand have followed suit. Maharashtra, the home state of road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari, is yet to notify the fines. Non-BJP states such as West Bengal said they will not implement the fines, calling them “harsh".

“Gujarat has actually given strength to other states to take a stand against the Motor Vehicles Act. State governments are increasingly thinking that if Gujarat can do it, we should also not trouble people. The Karnataka government has informed the party leadership that it may not be feasible to implement the decision," said a senior BJP leader based in Bengaluru.

Senior BJP leaders believe that states ruled by the party are holding back on implementing the Act as they are worried about the unpopularity of the higher fines.

“There has been no direction from the Union government or from the party to any of the state governments ruled by the BJP so far. We believe state governments are facing political compulsions and they must have got some information from the ground that people are opposed to the fines," said a senior BJP leader aware of the development.

“It seems that state governments fear that they will become unpopular if they implement the Motor Vehicles Act. That is why state governments, especially BJP-ruled ones, are trying to counter it by bringing new rules so that people do not get annoyed," said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a New Delhi-based political analyst associated with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “The message that comes out of the entire controversy is that the government may want to rethink on the decision and a compromise formula can be worked out between the states and the Centre."

State assembly elections are due in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand later this year and in Delhi early next year. BJP is in power in all these states except Delhi.

Gadkari said on Wednesday that states have the authority to revise the fines. “However, people’s lives should be saved… the government does not intend to garner revenue by increasing fines. The idea is to make roads safer and reduce the number of accidents. Are fines more important than someone’s life? You won’t be fined if you don’t break the rules," he said.

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