Santanu Sanyal

THE Supreme Court has ordered that State Governments cannot allow trucks and other goods transport vehicles to carry excess weight on roads and highways.

A Bench, comprising Justice A. Parsayat and Justice C. K. Thakur, has directed States that had issued notifications under Section 200 of the Motor Vehicles (MV) Act 1988 condoning the offence of overloading to withdraw such notifications forthwith.

It might be noted that several States had been allowing goods vehicles to carry loads in excess of the permitted limits by taking protection under the provisions of Section 200 of the MV Act. The States thus legitimised carrying of excess loads by and imposing penalty.

The apex court has further ordered that an overloaded vehicle must not be allowed to proceed further unless the driver of the vehicle, on direction of the law enforcing authority, has offloaded the excess cargo at his own risk and cost and the gross vehicle weight has been brought within the limit prescribed under Section 113 of the MV Act.

It is more than two and half months now since the Supreme Court delivered the order and it might be interesting to raise a few questions: What action has so far been taken by the Government to enforce the apex court's order in letter and spirit? How many vehicles have been brought to book for violation of the order?

How many notices, under Section 114 of the MV Act, have been issued to driver of overloaded vehicles directing them to offload excess loads? What mechanism is being adopted to determine overloading? Sadly, no clear-cut answers to these questions are available. The Supreme Court order, it was hoped, would put an end to the menace of overloading perpetrated by individual vehicles operators. However, that has not happened so far.

Although the order was issued in November last year, most State Governments are yet to comprehend fully the implications of the order and act accordingly. Their response to the court order so far has been cool, dilatory and ambiguous. As a result, various State Governments are interpreting the order according to their convenience and coming out with various explanations.

One State Government feels that offloading will lead to congestion on the highways and therefore unwelcome. Another is of the view that the court order cannot be implemented till the operators of the vehicles have been properly educated. Some State Governments are quoting the provisions of the Supreme Court order selectively for convenience and issuing notices accordingly and thus misleading people. One State Government has even made it clear that goods vehicles carrying food grains and fertilisers must be allowed "unimpeded movement", meaning that the provisions of the apex court order will not apply to them.

Yet another State Government that has devised the scheme of taking a voluntary declaration from the driver on the excess load being carried by him but he is not asked to offload the excess cargo.

Still another State Government issued a notice asking the officials concerned to detect overloading, collect penalty for overloading, offload the excess load and allow the vehicles to go. Such a measure cannot stop overloading. The reason is simple: The vehicle, after some distance, will again overload and, on detection, again pay penalty and offload the excess load and the process continues.

The helplessness of the State Governments is understandable. Various transporters' groups are mounting pressure on them emphasising the adverse impact the court order will have on them as also on the economy.

Thus, it is pointed out that delivery schedule will go haywire as a vehicle will be required to make more trips to carry the same volume of cargo it is carrying now. The raw materials shall reach the factories late and, therefore, delaying the production process. Freight rates will increase, leading to jump in production costs.

According to a road transport industry think-tank, the goods vehicles operating on the trunk routes have already started charging higher freight, anything between 10-18 per cent, ever since the Supreme Court order was delivered even though there has not been any significant increase in fuel price, spare price or tyre cost during the period.

This is in contrast to the situation prevailing a year ago when there was in fact a four to six per cent drop in freight. It is, therefore, felt that the freight hike must be due to the court order. Prior to the court order, the transporters used to carry anything between 50-150 per cent above the Gross Vehicle Weight. The enforcement of the order stopping overloading will lead to higher operation costs.

All this is fine. But does that mean that the trucks should be allowed to get away with overloading and thus to violate the law? What about the money that changes hands between truck operators and the law enforcement officials for perpetuating an illegal system?

What is the cost of all this to the economy? Even consignors closing their eyes to the practice overloading of vehicles in their factory premises are equally guilty of violating the law. If the Supreme Court order is to be enforced in letter and spirit, no vehicles with excess load should be allowed to proceed at all. Overloading has been declared illegal by the country's apex court.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 30, 2006)
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