India’s Drunk Driving Menace: Will Road Safety Remain A Myth Amidst Bumpy Laws?

My family lost a son, husband, father, grandfather, brother and an uncle. Ask the drivers who were racing for life.

4 min read
India’s Drunk Driving Menace: Will Road Safety Remain A Myth Amidst Bumpy Laws?
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On 20 July 2022, my uncle Ravi Shankar, a Thrissur resident was killed after one of the two luxury cars racing with each other hit his taxi, killing him instantly. My aunt Maya Ravishankar, cousin Vidya Menon, niece Gayathri Menon, and their taxi driver Rajan, were also in the car and suffered serious injuries. Their crime? Using the Kottekkad road to return home after a visit to Guruvayoor temple.

So, how did an innocent family lose a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother and an uncle instantaneously? Ask the drivers who were racing and thought that their ten minutes of fun was far more important than my uncle’s life.

The crash occurred when the two cars, a BMW and a Mahindra Thar, were racing in Kottekkad. The Thar while attempting to overtake the BMW, crashed into the taxi coming from the opposite direction. While the Thar driver was handed over to the police, the passengers in the car ran away and the BMW sped away.

According to news reports, the driver of the BMW is the son of a prominent jeweller in Thrissur who remains absconding. The Thar driver has been identified as Ayyanthole resident Sherin Neelankavil who was in police custody and was found to be heavily intoxicated during the medical evaluation.

Neelankavil has been charged with Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) citing culpable homicide not amounting to murder to face imprisonment for life or for a term that may extend to ten years amongst other charges, but has since been released on bail. In such cases, bail is the rule and retention is an exception.


Drunk Driving Is a Common Menace in India

As a niece, this incident affects me because it has broken my family at its very core. My uncle was an honest, law-abiding citizen who lived for his family’s happiness. As the oldest person in the family, he raised us to lead honest lives, respect others and live life with kindness. A kind-hearted man who would rush to help anyone in need--his fate was decided by two men with a drink in hand and a luxury car in tow.

As an Indian citizen, this alarms me. This is not the first time such an incident has occurred. On 6 June 2020, high-profile IAS officer Sriram Venkitaraman drove his car under the influence of alcohol, killing journalist KM Basheer.

Venkitaraman was charged under Section 304, with a maximum punishment of ten years. Ten years-- the petty value for Basheer’s life. Two years since the incident, Venkitaraman had taken charge as Alappuzha’s District Collector and it is only recently that he has been removed from the post due to mass protests. The bottomline being-- something needs to be done about drunk driving ASAP unless it becomes an endemic.


Inadequate Legal Infrastructure To Address the Issue

The issue here is two-fold. First, our current laws and their implementation have been ineffective in curbing such behaviour. Police officers who have dealt with such cases in the past have aggrieved that the accused is rarely convicted.

The precedent set by the lack of appropriate punishment in such cases, enables others to test the limits of the law and continue to engage in such costly anti-social behaviour.

Second, the scope of the charges in such cases is not sufficient to address the nature of the crime. In my uncle’s and Mr. Basheer’s case, the accused were charged with Section 304 of IPC, punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, where, “if the offender, whilst deprived of the power of self-control by grave and sudden provocation, causes the death of the person who gave the provocation or causes the death of any person by mistake or accident.”

On the day of the incident, the Thar driver was speeding at 120 km/hr while heavily intoxicated, on a road with a 60km/hr speed limit. How can we treat the actions of adult men of reasonable intellect, who willingly consumed alcohol and got behind the wheel, as a mistake? This is a generous interpretation of their actions and a mockery of our rights as citizens.


Measures That May Drive Change

Until now, such crimes have been charged with Section 304. However, if we want change, if we want to protect innocent lives, we need to charge such crimes under Section 300. Under the law, to establish murder, one must evaluate the accused’s action and the intention. While the action is easily established here, for intention, the law requires the accused to have intended the murder.

Under the IPC, one of the definitions is, “if the person committing the act knows that it is so imminently dangerous that it must, in all probability, cause death, or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, and commits such act without any excuse for incurring the risk of causing death or such injury.”

Elaborating with an example, the IPC explains that if “’A’ without any excuse fires a loaded cannon into a crowd of persons and kills one of them. A is guilty of murder, although he may not have had a premeditated design to kill any particular individual.”

In simple words, if a person conducts an act that is so extreme in nature and can cause severe harm to others, then he need not have premeditated the death.

Thus, when an adult of reasonable intellect and knowledge, drives his car under the influence of alcohol at excessive speed, his actions are equivalent to that of a man shooting a loaded cannon into a crowd. Their actions here, are in all probability going to kill another man, even if through their actions they never planned to do so.

Our country today brings George Orwell’s words to mind: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Today, my family and I are living that reality. K.M Basheer’s family maybe still reeling under that reality. Our only prayer is that another family should not have to live this reality.

(Aishwarya is a law graduate from King's College London. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Road Safety   Law and justice 

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