Behind the Protests: Examining the Controversial Hit-and-Run Laws Under Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita

India is currently facing a new wave of protests by drivers of commercial vehicles, particularly those driving trucks and buses, against the new legislation under the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS). Recently, the BNS replaced the colonial-era Indian Penal Code (IPC), and the, yet to be implemented, penal law for ‘hit-and-run cases’ has received massive backlash. The All India Motor Transport Congress called for a nationwide strike on January 1, protesting the impending enforcement of the BNS. Now on its second day, this strike has caused disruptions in fuel supplies and long queues at petrol pumps across various cities.

Under the new Bharatiya Nyaya (Second) Sanhita, implemented in 2023, hit-and-run cases can now attract a 10-year jail term and a fine of up to INR 7 lakh. This stringent punishment marks a significant increase compared to the previous law, where the maximum jail term was up to 2 years under the Indian Penal Code.

The new law aims to hold accountable those who are responsible for leaving the scene of an accident, with potential consequences for transportation companies and their operations. However, severe protests are being held across Indian states, which have caused many operational disruptions in the road transportation sector, including potential fuel supply shortages. Experts believe that the impact of these protests can be wider than currently anticipated, considering India’s heavy reliance on road transportation when it comes to trade and commerce.

“Trucks have been stranded or blocked on highways and it is informed that various bus drivers are also joining the movement to highlight the difficulties which are likely to occur due to the law. We have reached out to the Home Ministry, Transport Ministry, and other concerned departments but there is no clarity on certain burning issues which are likely to increase the spread of the agitation. We at AITWA understand that the law has several benefits but the few negative points will lead to immense on-ground harassment, extortion, unnecessary detention & judicial consequences.”

~ Abhishek Gupta, Secretary, AITWA

Truck drivers in Maharashtra took to the streets on Monday, staging “rasta roko” protests against the stringent provisions of the new penal law for hit-and-run cases. The demonstrations caused disruptions on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Highway, with incidents of violence reported, leaving a police officer injured.

On the other hand, commercial bus drivers and truckers in Chhattisgarh halted operations, demanding the withdrawal of the new hit-and-run law. Over 12,000 private bus drivers joined the strike, stranding commuters across cities like Raipur, Bilaspur, Durg, and Rajnandgaon. The protests led to long queues at petrol pumps.

Truck and commercial vehicle drivers in West Bengal blocked National Highway 2 near Dankuni toll plaza, protesting the new penal laws. The blockade caused traffic disruptions for around two hours, emphasizing the widespread discontent among drivers.

In Punjab, commercial vehicles, including trucks and buses, stayed off the roads and protests disrupted traffic on the Ludhiana-Ferozepur Road. In Madhya Pradesh, drivers staged blockades and stopped city buses, leading to long queues at petrol pumps amid fears of fuel supply disruptions.

Gupta suggested that it’s currently important that a joint committee is formed to review how drivers shall be given the confidence that no harsh action can be initiated. He cited the example of how the State authorities are taking undue advantage of the e-challan law to “harass and extort truckers” (sic.). He assured the truckers that AITWA is closely monitoring the situation and is committed to supporting them in times of peril.

Concerns have been raised about the practicality of such fines in the event of accidents. Happy Sidhu, President of the All Punjab Truck Operators’ Union, termed the new law a ‘black law’ that could devastate truckers in Punjab.

Since the strike includes drivers of fuel tankers, exacerbating fuel shortages in several cities, petrol pump dealers in Aurangabad anticipate pumps going dry by Tuesday. Tanker drivers, responsible for transporting fuel from Panewadi in Nashik, have halted operations, contributing to the fuel crisis. The strike is also affecting the tourism sector in Himachal Pradesh, with tourists struggling to find vehicles due to cab operators joining the protest.

Logistics Insider approached Mukesh Mehra, Advocate – Delhi High Court, for an unbiased insight into the legal tussle between the drivers and the legislation. He said that it was necessary to ‘improvise’ on the law on hit-and-run cases considering that in 2023, and more so, in recent years India has witnessed a concerning rise in hit-and-run cases, reflecting a growing challenge for law enforcement and safety advocates. He added that there lies a broader issue of accountability that needs to be addressed, apart from enhancing road safety measures, implementing stricter penalties for offenders, and improving surveillance systems.

However, he also suggested some ways in which the law can be amended to not seem ‘unfair’ to the drivers.

“Truck drivers come from the most marginalized and poor sections of our country. To ease the grip, the lawmakers can revise and reduce the penalty applied, with no compulsion to reduce the conviction period. Moreover, a majority of truck drivers are not truck owners. The penalty can be applied on a ‘shared basis’ between the truck driver and the owner of the truck.”

Mehra acknowledged that the working conditions and working hours of commercial drivers in India, especially truck drivers, are not in the favour of their physical or mental health, and need a major fillip. He said that the provision of sharing the penalty amount with the owners will also mean that the latter holds some responsibility for the mishap and is appropriately fined for the pressure that is built up on truck drivers for the timely delivery of goods over excruciatingly long and tiring routes.

Drivers across states are vocalizing their concerns. Bhopal cab driver Gyansingh Yadav expressed empathy, emphasizing that while cab drivers return home at night, truck drivers often spend extended periods away from their families. He called for amendments to the penal provisions, suggesting a reduction in the 10-year prison term for drivers. A bus driver in Raipur highlighted the unfairness of the law, advocating for penal action against vehicle owners instead.

The nationwide protests by truck and bus drivers underscore their vehement opposition to the stringent provisions of the new hit-and-run law. The impact on fuel supplies, essential services, and daily commuting is becoming increasingly apparent. The updated laws can certainly affect logistics companies by placing a greater emphasis on driver responsibility and accountability. The supply chain sector, heavily reliant on transportation networks, may need to adapt to these changes to ensure compliance and maintain a commitment to safety standards.

As the protests continue, stakeholders, including the government and transport associations, must engage in dialogue to address the concerns of the drivers while ensuring road safety and justice.