In a welcome observation, the Supreme Court has censured the explosion of red beacons and sirens on VIP vehicles throughout the country. It has fittingly noted that excluding top constitutional authorities, and emergency services such as ambulances and fire brigades, there is absolutely no justification for others to display such symbols of state power. The widespread use – and misuse – of red beacons exemplifies a political culture that has been thoroughly corrupted by the perks of political office. Such venality not only goes against the spirit of public service that politicians swear by, it militates against the very idea of democracy. Government SRO No. 33, dated 8.2.2007, recognizes only 31 categories of government servants who are authorized to use red-flasher light on their vehicles.
The state Transport Department says the Governor, Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, Speaker Legislative Assembly, Chairman Legislative Council, Chief Justice of High Court, Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State, Leader of Opposition, Mayors of two cities (within their jurisdiction), Chairman of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council/Kargil/Leh (within their jurisdiction), Members of Parliament and State Legislature enjoy the privilege. Also, senior bureaucrats like Chief Secretary, Advocate General, Chairman, Public Service Commission, Financial Commissioners, DGP and equivalent rank officers, Principal Secretaries and Divisional Commissioners fall in the category. Besides, deputy commissioners, SSP and SP headquarters and police patrol vehicles are also entitled to it.
Originally intended for security purposes, red beacons today have become political status symbols. While 27 categories of public functionaries are officially permitted to use them – that too only on official duty – the prescribed norms are routinely flouted. That people remotely connected to VIPs and their kin have been frequently found guilty of using red beacons highlights the extent of misuse. In all of this it is the common man that suffers, as he is made to wait and give way every time a vehicle flashing the ubiquitous ‘lal batti’ passes by.
By demonstrating that some people are more equal than others, the ‘lal batti’ culture perpetuates elitist attitudes along with a corrosive contempt for the law. There is an urgent need to not only revise the list of constitutional authorities entitled to red beacons, but also update the criteria for providing security cover to public servants. While it is true that those holding high public office such as the president, the prime minister, governors and chief ministers must be provided the highest degree of security, there is no reason why municipal officials and ordinary MLAs and MPs should be treated at par with them. Security cover for the latter constitutes a huge financial burden on the public exchequer – estimated at Rs 1,000 crore annually – and greatly diminishes the effective strength of police forces.
Family members of VIPs were also learnt to have been using their beaconed vehicles in their absence. As per norms, dignitaries and officials of the rank of the Governor, Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, cabinet ministers, Speaker of Legislative Assembly, Chairman of Legislative Council, Chief Justice of J-K High Court and few other VIPs are authorized for the use of Red Flasher Light. The state government has already issued an order under which only the specified dignitaries and officers would be authorized to use ‘beacon lights’ on top of their vehicles.
The misplaced sense of importance being flaunted by certain “influential” people traveling in vehicles arbitrarily fitted with red beacons atop has become a public nuisance here. In certain cases, misuse of official vehicles allotted to government servants entitled to such privilege has also come into notice. The vehicles of the officials can be seen dropping and picking up their children during school hours or ferrying kiths and kins.As per the rules, the retired officials are not authorized to use red light atop their vehicles. Nevertheless, even police officials, officials of Regional Transport Office and vice chancellors of certain varsities, who are otherwise not entitled to use the privilege, have been the part of the problem.
RTI activist Raman Sharma, who received information regarding the issue, said, “The government gave us information regarding the categories of public servants who are entitled to the privilege, but it did not reply to the query regarding the number of offenders who were challaned and red beacons confiscated for the misuse over a period of time.” At busy places in the city, one can easily spot such vehicles wrongly parked. Even on the roads, such vehicles never follow traffic norms. Traffic cops never bother to halt such vehicles to find out as to who is traveling in such vehicles,” he said.
As it is India’s police to population ratio at 130 (per 1, 00,000 people) is well below the UN recommended figure of 222. This means that while a significant portion of taxpayers’ money is used to keep VIPs safe, there are very few policemen on the ground to serve the common man. Such trappings of state power – including the red beacon – have no place in a country that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy. It is time we took away these symbols of paternalistic authority.