DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yellow beacons for the IAS




The Madhya Pradesh bureaucrats are not quite happy about the current arrangements regarding provision of vehicle beacon lights in the state. Displaying their ingrained sense of entitlement, they have demanded that all the senior members of the IAS working in the Secretariat should be allowed to use beacon lights atop their official vehicles. They argue that the police officials of much junior levels are authorised to use the beacons but those at the helm, i.e. those of the IAS cadre, are deprived their use. Most of the bureaucrats commute to their respective offices in official vehicles – no longer the squat and stocky white Ambassador but newer, bigger and swankier luxurious sedans – devoid of any beacon. This not only is not fair as it detracts from the superior position they occupy in the official hierarchy, it  also, apparently, reduces them in the estimation of the hoi polloi as they have to commute in vehicles that have no trappings of their importance, influence and power.

Apparently, the whole thing is a well-considered proposition as it has been put across not by an individual officer or even a small group but the august IAS Association of the State. It, therefore, must have been made after due deliberation and after weighing the pros and cons. Only after that the Association went public about the demand. Soon enough, a retired chief secretary of the state weighed in with a comment in favour of the proposal and asked, “What is the harm if the beacons are provided to all senior IAS officers?”Yes, indeed, what is the harm? Beacons atop the bureaucrats’ official vehicles would, after all, be only an insignificant addition to the numerous other more substantial privileges that they have extracted over the years at substantial public expense. What could then be th harm with this inconsequential addition? There is, however, a small snag. Were the IAS officers to be allowed the privilege, other members of the All India Services – Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service – would also demand it which the government would be hard put to resist. If that were to be agreed to the rising numbers of government vehicles with beacons atop, instead of unhindered commutes, would have to jostle for road-spaces which, in any case, are likely to shrink in course of time on completion of the ongoing BRTS project.

It is surely common knowledge that lights atop vehicles are considered emergency vehicle lighting to indicate to other road users, as Wikipedia says, “the urgency of their journey, to provide additional warning of a hazard when stationary, or in the case of law enforcement as a means of signalling another driver to stop for interaction with an officer.” Road-users have to afford right-of-way to an ambulance rushing a patient to a hospital or a fire tender that is on its way to put out a fire or to a policeman chasing a hard core criminal or even a VIP rushing to the local airport.

 Laws regarding restricting the use of these lights vary according to jurisdictions. In India, however, the laws, though restrictive, have been progressively relaxed (as in everything else that has anything to do with governance) and lights atop vehicles allotted to politicians and bureaucrats of the central government or governments of states have become more an item of prestige, an instrument to flaunt to the general public the user’s power and importance. Hence, there is a veritable scramble for these lights by politicians and bureaucrats. A few months ago a Parliamentary Committee had recommended affixing of these lights on vehicles of all members of Parliament. Mercifully, the chairperson of the UPA had the good sense to have the proposal rejected. The latest demand of the MP IAS Association in this regard is not different in character.   

Apart from such indiscriminate and thoughtless relaxation of the law there is widespread unauthorised use of these lights. Almost all the petty politicians have now acquired vehicles and they think nothing of having a beacons affixed on their roofs. Even some officials have had the enterprise to have them irregularly attached on their vehicles. Not too long ago the state’s home minister launched a campaign to clamp down on unauthorised use of yellow beacons. He gave instructions that the drive should commence with the official vehicles of the state secretariat before non-officials were tackled. Obviously, there is misuse – some say massive – of these lights even by government officials. The minister’s directions to target the officials first must have put the wind up of the IAS fraternity and provoked it to put across the demand before they lost their unauthorised privilege. Besides, while covering the minister’s statement, the media reported that numerous junior field officers of the police and other vital departments (lowly by IAS standards) are entitled to beacon lights. The members of the IAS may have taken umbrage even at that.

One would think that such petty oneupmanship doesn’t quite befit the members of the premier service of the country. They are expected to serve the interests of the people and not lord over them. The semantics, unfortunately, have lately undergone drastic changes and everything has become topsy-turvy. Instead of rendering service to the people the so-called public servants now demand more and more privileges for themselves and obeisance and respect from the public, their pay-masters.

I personally wouldn’t have any issue about the additional privilege. Let them go ahead and put as many lights as they wanted atop their official vehicles, but, for heaven’s sake, they should deliver. Let them go out in their beacon-flashing vehicles and see how from highways to city roads, to hospitals, to schools are crying for attention. Practically every kind of public service is being denied to the people. If they did that, that would be recompense enough for the sacrifices that people make in making available various privileges in cash and kind to them.
 
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