IS ILLITERACY A MENACE TO PEDESTRIANS? AN ANALYSIS
By Dhriti Mitra and Treenok Guha
[Dhriti Mitra and Treenok Guha are fourth and third year (respectively) students of BBA. LL.B. (Hons.) at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.]
The license cannot be issued for driving any kind of vehicle to an illiterate person, as he is virtually a menace for the pedestrians. [i]
The aforementioned controversial statement was given by Justice Sanjeev Prakash Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court. The petitioner in question had been driving Light Motor Vehicles for a period of thirteen years and wanted to apply for a Heavy Motor Vehicle license. However, his writ petition for grant of license was rejected by the Court’s order. His claim was dismissed on the grounds that the public who are using the roads should not be put in harm’s way owing to the illiteracy of the person driving the vehicle. The Court consciously implied that illiteracy is one of the primary reasons for an escalation in the percentage of road accidents, as illiteracy could disable a person from reading important signs and signals on the road.
In addition to the above, the order directed the withdrawal of all licenses issued to the petitioner and any other illiterate person. The aforementioned order can be considered worrisome for numerous reasons and the same has been analyzed below. However, it is pertinent to note that within a short span of time, the order was rightly stayed by a Division Bench of the Rajasthan High Court. [ii]
The Existing Law
In order to acquire a driving license in India, an individual has to first receive a learner’s license. [iii] A learner’s license test is conducted by the Regional Transport Office (RTO), after which one can book the time slot for the actual driving test. The test consists of questions on the rules and regulations involved in driving a vehicle, duties and precautions to be taken while driving, documents to be carried, etc. It also specifically deals with questions on identification of road signs and signals. [iv]
Rule 8 of the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989 [v] states that in order to receive a driving license in India, a transport vehicle driver should have completed secondary schooling (8th standard). However, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways wanted to expand the availability of employment opportunities and therefore decided to initiate the process of removal of this minimum educational qualification requirement. [vi]
The Two Hundred and Forty Third Committee Report of the Parliament of India on the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016 stated that a person driving a vehicle should be literate enough to understand the road signage. [vii] It was suggested that the Central Government should prescribe a mandatory test of competence for the new license holder and individual States should not interfere and dilute this process. [viii] Eventually, with the passing of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, [ix] the decision to amend Section 9 [x] and omit the clause of minimum educational requirement was finally enforced.
Unconstitutionality of the Order
Article 14 of the Constitution of India (“Constitution”) categorically sets out that the State cannot deny any person equality before the law or equal protection of laws in India. The principle of equality means that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike both in the privileges conferred and liabilities imposed by the law. Attempting to provide equal treatment in unequal circumstances would result in inequality. Thus, a reasonable classification is permitted, provided that it is based on an intelligible differentia. The Supreme Court has observed that whenever there is arbitrariness, there is a denial of rule of law. [xi] Hence, every action of the State should be free from arbitrariness, or the courts will declare the act in question unconstitutional. In the given case, the Court’s decision to suspend licenses of illiterate individuals stands in violation of Article 14, as it arbitrarily discriminates between literate and illiterate individuals in acquiring a driving license. There seems to be no form of intelligible differentia in this differentiation, as driving is a skill-based activity and does not demand literacy as a criterion. Furthermore, in a country like India, receiving basic education itself is a privilege, so excluding people on the basis of this very criterion mars the concept of inclusivity and equality.
Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution provides the right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. This is a general and sweeping right available to all citizens so that they may practise any profession of their choice. The Indian courts have held that a business of transporting passengers with the aid of vehicles, falls under the ambit of Article 19(1)(g) and cannot be arbitrarily denied. [xii] In the case at hand, the Rajasthan High Court, by directing the State Transportation Authority to withdraw not only the petitioner’s license but also the license of any other person who is ‘illiterate’, has directly infringed upon the right of persons to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. Moreover, this right does not fall under the exception of Article 19, as literacy is not a necessary qualification required to practise this profession. Factors such as reading of road signage, traffic rules and necessary documents required while driving, are all taught during the process of securing a driving license.
Article 21 of the Constitution provides for protection of life and personal liberty. The Supreme Court in the case of Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, [xiii] held that the right to life includes a right to livelihood, as without this right an individual will lose his means of living. The order in question, takes away the livelihood of lakhs of illiterate drivers by cancelling their licenses. [xiv] Hence, it can be considered a direct contravention of Article 21 of the Constitution.
In light of the above analysis, the aforementioned order stands in violation of Articles 14, 19 and 21, constituting the ‘Golden Triangle’ of the Constitution.
Literacy as a Criterion
In simple terms, literacy is the ability to read and write with a considerable understanding of any language. [xv] By adding literacy as a criterion to possess a driving license, the order has set a very high barrier to entry in this profession for any person who wishes to be on the road driving a vehicle independently. Thus, in addition to the arguments against its constitutionality, this barrier stands unjustified, on two additional grounds: first, that generally no conclusive procedure has been provided for the determination of literacy of an individual, and second, illiteracy is rampant in India.
The justification provided by the Court for its statement is that an ‘illiterate’ driver would be a hazard to pedestrians as they would not be able to comprehend road signs. This argument does not hold true, as an individual needs to pass a stringent driving test before they obtain a driver’s license. The pre-license tests in India are extensive and cannot be easily manipulated. Additionally, road signs are visual in nature and do not require education per se to be understood. Therefore, including ‘literacy’ as a criterion to obtain a license seems highly inequitable and unjustified.
It is also important to take into account that driving a vehicle is more a matter of skill rather than educational competence. The Government of Rajasthan had submitted in a report that many people in the region possess the required skill but not the necessary educational qualification, thus substantiating that the condition of minimum educational qualification acts as a hindrance for the otherwise eligible unemployed youth. [xvi]
Literacy is not a criterion for other professions, namely politics, several blue-collar jobs, etc. For instance, in 2018, the Government of Rajasthan did away with the minimum education qualification required to contest panchayat and urban bodies’ elections. [xvii] Therefore, if an ‘illiterate’ person is eligible to hold important political positions, there is no logical reason as to why an ‘illiterate’ individual cannot be eligible to possess a driver’s license.
Judicial overreach is when the judiciary starts interfering with the proper functioning of the legislative or executive organs of the government, i.e. the judiciary oversteps its own sphere and enters the executive and legislative domain. This concept is considered undesirable in a democracy as it goes against one of its fundamental principles, viz. separation of powers.
In the case in question, a single-judge bench of the Rajasthan High Court not only dismissed the petitioner’s claims but also issued an order which sought to enforce a blanket ban on the holding of a driving license by every ‘illiterate’ driver in Rajasthan. The Court did not consider the difference in circumstances in cases of others as opposed to only that of the petitioner.
Through this order, the Court also violated the basic principles of natural justice by not allowing a hearing to those, whose licenses would be cancelled as a consequence of the blanket ban. The Court failed to issue any proper notice, address the arguments, and take into account the social, political and economic costs of passing such an order. [xviii]
With a population of 1.3 billion people, widespread unemployment and a sluggish increase in the literacy rate, it is insensible to impose literacy as a criterion for any ‘common man’s profession’ in India. The courts cannot expect such a high standard of qualification from the public for a task which has more to do with skills than education. Further, when the State extends economic opportunities such as driving a public transport vehicle, the eligibility requirements should be more inclusive than exclusive in nature.
Essentially, the reason for this debate over literacy is primarily due to an increase in road accidents. In the recent past, accidents have increased due to rash driving, violation of existing traffic rules, etc. In order to reduce the frequency of road accidents, the Government should implement stricter road rules and increase the amount of fine charged for violation of existing motor vehicle laws.
In conclusion, the authors believe that illiteracy can neither be ascertained nor labelled as the cause for violation of road rules, especially in the absence of any data to that effect. There is a need to review and restructure the overall road and transport infrastructure to prevent drivers from becoming a menace to pedestrians and other vehicles.
(The views and opinions expressed in this article are authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Legal Aid Society, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi.)
[i] Deepak Singh v. State of Rajasthan, 2019(3) RCR(Civil) 312.
[ii] “Rajasthan HC Stays Its Order To Cancel Driving Licences Issued To Illiterates” livelaw.in, July 5, 2019, available at: https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/cancellation-of-driving-licences-isssued-to-illiterates-stayed-146117 (last visited on July 17, 2020).
[iii] The Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, Rule 14(a).
[iv] “All you need to know about Learning License Test” acko.com, Apr. 30, 2018, available at: https://www.acko.com/articles/driving-license/all-you-need-to-know-about-learning-license-test/ (last visited on June 2, 2020).
[v] Supra note [iii], Rule 8.
[vi] “Govt to remove minimum educational qualification requirement for driving licence” ET Auto.com, June 18, 2019, available at: https://auto.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/govt-to-remove-minimum-educational-qualification-requirement-for-driving-licence/69847184 (last visited on July 17, 2020).
[vii] Rajya Sabha, “Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, Two Hundred Forty Third Report, The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016”, (February, 2017), available at: https://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Motor%20Vehicles,%202016/SCR%20Motor%20Vehicles%20Bill,%202016.pdf (last visited on July 12, 2020).
[ix] The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 (Act No. 32 of 2019).
[x] Id., s. 9.
[xi] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 1980 SC 898.
[xii] Saghir Ahmed v. State of U.P. and Ors, (1955) 1 S.C.R. 707.
[xiii] (1985) 3 SCC 5.
[xiv] “Govt to remove minimum educational qualification requirement for driving licence” Times of India, Jun. 18, 2019, available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/govt-to-remove-minimum-educational-qualification-requirement-for-driving-licence/articleshow/69842591.cms (last visited on June 5, 2020).
[xv] “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’” Cambridge Assessment, Jan. 2013, available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf (last visited on July 12, 2020).
[xvi] Supra note [xi] at 3.
[xvii] “Rajasthan government scraps minimum education criteria for civic poll candidates” Times of India, Dec. 30, 2018, available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/67306017.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (last visited on July 12, 2020).
[xviii] Arpan Chaturvedi, “Rajasthan High Court Orders Cancellation of Driving Licences issued to illiterate persons” Bloomberg Quint, May 29, 2019, available at: https://www.bloombergquint.com/law-and-policy/rajasthan-high-court-orders-cancellation-of-driving-licences-issued-to-illiterate-persons (last visited on June 5, 2020).