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Kerala High Court tells state to install tracking devices on all public transport vehicles by Jan 1, 2021

The Kerala High Court has directed the state government to ensure that vehicle tracking systems (VTS) and emergency buttons are installed in all public transport vehicles except e-rickshaws and three-wheelers by January 1, 2021. The court issued the order, in two public interest litigations (PILs) which sought strict implementation of provisions in the Kerala Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 dealing with emergency buttons for the sake of women’s safety.

Jaffer Khan, who presented himself as a human rights protection activist, had claimed in his PIL that in 2014, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had approved a scheme to enhance the security of women in public transport in the country, in the context of the Nirbhaya rape case. He submitted that the Central government had amended the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989 to mandate the installation of Vehicle Location Tracking Devices (VLTD). It had subsequently given state governments wide powers to implement the new rule in their own jurisdiction. Kerala had notified a deadline for the installation of the devices in September 2019, which it extended in February 2020.

Khan told the court that though the state government had issued these notification, it hadn’t taken any “effective steps” to implement the provisions. He also argued that the February 2020 order to extend the deadline was “highly illegal”, since it was issued in an arbitrary manner. The court subsequently noted that Kerala has not yet set up a command and control centre to implement the tracking system.

The second PIL, filed by the association “Pouravakasha Samrakshana Council”, told the court that the state government “is dragging the matter due to the reasons best known to them”. It also argued that installing tracking devices in goods vehicles, as stipulated in the rules, would also prevent illegal activity in mining, help prevent accidents by enforcing mandatory breaks for drivers and so on.

Meanwhile, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), told the court that it had already initiated the process of purchasing VLTDs and had issued tenders for the same. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted its financial health, and it is operating with “heavy losses”, it said. The state government reported that the VLTDs have already been installed in buses and other vehicles used to carry students to educational institutions and schools.

In its order, the court refused to accept the petitioners’ contention that the state government had acted arbitrarily or with “malafide” intention when it extended the implementation deadline. At the same time, however, it noted that the said rule about VLTDs had been notified by the state government more than two-and-a-half years ago. Essentially, the court said that the financial distress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t be accepted as a reason for the non-implementation of a rule that predates the pandemic. It then directed the state government to implement the rule by January 1, 2021.

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