The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988

Indian road traffic obstruction laws are governed by the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (MV Act). Imagine, you have an important early morning meeting, and you are in your vehicle, office-bound. You are not late, but of course, your office does not open before nine. Thus, you are seated comfortably in your vehicle, while cruising through the morning traffic, and you cannot be happier. Yet suddenly, the traffic comes to a screeching halt…and you see a cow causing an obstruction!

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What do you do? Well, you could exit your vehicle, approach the cow, and offer your prayers. Incredible as it may sound, but this may be a humorous retelling of an actual incident in the country. Jokes aside, however, rising vehicular traffic means greater traffic congestion when there is an obstruction of traffic.

A common tactic of protests and public demonstrations is traffic obstruction. The idea behind stifling the smooth vehicular flow is to inconvenience the people and force the government into submission. Nonetheless, traffic obstruction could either be vehicular or by way of people and/or barricades.

Let us see what road traffic obstruction law India currently swears by.

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What Is the Law Regarding Traffic Obstruction in India?

The most important road traffic obstruction law in India would be the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (MV Act). It is an enactment for amending and consolidating the law relating to motor vehicles in the country.

Though it does not define “traffic”, “obstruction”, or “traffic obstruction”, it does frown upon road traffic obstruction.

Section 125, under Chapter VIII, titled “Control of Traffic”, talks about “Obstruction of driver”. It says that the driver of a motor vehicle should not allow anybody to hamper “his control of the vehicle”.

Section 201, enumerates the “Penalty for causing obstruction to free flow of traffic”. The older version of the Section said that anyone keeping a disabled vehicle on a public area and thereby obstructing the free flow of traffic will attract punishment. An offender will have to pay up to Rs. 50 for every hour the disabled vehicle continues to hinder traffic.

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A proviso clarifies that a vehicle involved in an accident will attract punishment only for the time after the lawful inspection. Additionally, the offender must pay towing charges if the Government agency removes the disabled vehicle.

Incidentally, a closer perusal of the Section will reveal two important observations:

  • Firstly, it refers to the positioning of a disabled vehicle only in a public place.
  • Secondly, the person-in-charge for the vehicle shall have to pay up to Rs. 50 for every hour of the breach.

Thus, this begs the question, what about a vehicle in working condition which is deliberately positioned to obstruct traffic? On the other hand, what about a vehicle that has malfunctioned while on the road? Moreover, the amount of penalty also seems insignificant in the context of today’s times. Hence, the insufficiency and ambiguity in Section 201 are evident.

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The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019

Finally, in 2019, the legislature amended the MV Act to incorporate changes regarding road traffic and road traffic obstruction law. India has improved its legislation relating to road traffic and road safety now.

Section 201 (Amended, 2019) makes some sweeping changes to the law.

  • The 2019 Amendment drops the word “disabled”, thereby implying that any vehicle obstructing traffic will attract a penalty.
  • However, any motor vehicle afflicted with “an unforeseen breakdown” will be free from the ambit of the amended Section. The vehicle suffering the breakdown should be in the process of removal from the public space.
  • Moreover, the penal amount has increased ten-fold to Rs. 500 now. This is no-doubt to dissuade obstructors.
  • “Government agency” has now made way to include any organization that the Central or State Government authorises.
  • The words “removal charges” have now replaced “towing charges”.
  • Furthermore, “removal charges” means the cost of moving the motor vehicle and will include costs for storing the vehicle too.

The Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989

Rule 21 of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, talks about the powers of the licensing authority to disqualify license holders. Recently, the Central Motor Vehicles (Eleventh Amendment) Rules, 2020 (Amendment Rules) came into effect. The Amendment Rules have substituted the old Rule 21.

Clause 24 of Rule 21 forbids abandoning a transport vehicle as a sign of agitation, strike, or protest. Consequently, it is irrelevant whether the perpetrator has abandoned the vehicle at a public place or any other place. Section 2(47) of the MV Act considers “a public service vehicle, a goods carriage, an educational institution bus or a private service vehicle” to be a “transport vehicle”.

The license holder abandoning the vehicle and causing an obstruction or inconvenience to the passengers or people will receive punishment. Such an act shall amount to causing nuisance or exposing the public to danger.

The ‘road traffic’ act and rules spoke about causing an obstruction using vehicles. However, people can cause road traffic obstruction using people, or by using barricades, and the like. For instance, during political rallies, and various sit-in protests, people throng the streets, or gather on the streets, refusing to move.

Causing an obstruction through people protests and dharnas

Incidentally, the politics in this country is grossly divisive. Every year various political parties take to the streets with their entourage pursuing some personal agenda. This year too, there have been rallies, dharnas, and protests amid the novel coronavirus.

A Full Bench has recently declared that our fundamental rights do not live in isolation. The right of the protester has to be balanced with the right of the commuter. They have to co-exist in mutual respect. The Supreme Court judgment is under challenge; however, we cannot do away with the ethos of the verdict.

In this instance, a huge number of people had gathered and were allegedly encroaching on a public road “indefinitely”.  While quoting Justice K.K. Mathew, the Apex Court observed that “streets and public parks” were better suited for conducting demonstrations.

The freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1)(a)), and the right to assemble peacefully without arms (Article 19(1)(b)) facilitate peaceful assembly and protest. However, “an indeterminable number of people can(not) assemble whenever they choose to protest”. The traffic obstruction law as it presently stands recognizes the legality of controlled or regulated protests acknowledging sympathy and dialogue.

Moreover, Sections 141-160 of the Indian Penal Code, punishes offenses against public tranquillity. These actions include rioting, affray, and unlawful assembly.

Drunken Driving and Driving in the Wrong Side

Driving under the influence can cause traffic congestion especially if resulting in a traffic accident or a pileup. Rule 21 Clause 16 of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules considers driving under the influence of drugs or drink a punishable offense.

Alternatively, sometimes motorists and drivers drive in the opposite lane, thereby inconveniencing the oncoming traffic and causing an obstruction. Driving in the incorrect lane can result in hit-and-run cases as well.
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Through its road traffic obstruction law, India has made its stance clear. It is a terrible idea to impede the smooth flow of traffic. Every offender will be courting a penalty for causing an obstruction.

The road traffic act and rules are reasonable and allow justified reasons for obstruction such as protest or vehicular breakdown. However, traffic obstruction should also be “reasonable”. The perpetrator will have to prove a clear intention, not aimed to inconvenience the public or passengers, to escape punishment

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by Biswaroop Mukherjee

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