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Courts and Cars – Can Public Good go hand in hand with Industry?

It was the summer of April 2012. The Supreme Court of India ordered a complete ban on use of tinted plastic films irrespective of the degree of visibility on windscreens and other glass panels of vehicles, throughout the country. There had been an alarming increase in the number of crimes taking place within vehicles with dark tinted glasses. The government hadn’t taken enough steps to curb this rise in crime. The court had to. After all, it was pronouncing its verdict in the gruesome Nirbhaya rape incident in Delhi, which saw unprecedented nationwide public uproar against crime against women. The auto as well as accessory industry couldn’t understand why the court banned all window films irrespective of percentage of transparency.

Delhi Police’s advertisement warning the public about the impending crackdown on aftermarket black films

Fast forward to Dec 2015. This time, the apex court banned new diesel cars and SUV’s above an engine capacity of 2000 cc across the National Capital Region, till March 2016. Eight months later, in August, the court lifted the ban, but only on the condition that manufacturers pay a 1% levy for polluting the city’s air. The court appeared to be taking tough decisions the legislature ought to have taken a long time back.

More recently, on 29 March 2017, the Supreme Court of India ruled that vehicles not compliant with Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) emission standards cannot be sold after 31 March. In one stroke, the apex court made it clear that there will be no compromise on public health, even with Rs.15000 Crore worth inventory at the risk of not being sold. After all, sufficient time was allowed for the industry to make the shift to the relatively more stringent Bharat Stage IV emission norms. Many in the industry believed the rule will only apply to vehicles manufactured after March 31, allowing those manufactured prior to the deadline to be sold in the market. However, that was not to be, and the ban came into effect. Newspaper editorials hailed the move, praising the fact that the air had now been cleared (pun intended), and expectations rightly set for the upcoming shift to Bharat Stage VI emission norms in 2020 (Yes, India will skip Bharat Stage V). There will now be no expectations of a shift of goalpost, come the time to switch over, effective 01 April 2020.

Dealerships across the country offered huge discounts to push out BS-III inventory in a single day (31 March 2017)

As if all this wasn’t enough, another broth had been boiling alongside all of this. Or was it liquor brewing? The Supreme Court refused to revoke a ban on liquor shops located within 500 meters of India’s national highways. Why? The rising number of accidents and deaths caused due to drunken driving. The court ordered a shut down or relocation of all liquor outlets – big and small – that were within 500 meters of either side of the highways. This in spite of senior lawyers arguing that the move will hurt the state exchequer and that the order was unconstitutional. The court was clear – public health stands above economic considerations. And it should.

In fact, each of the judicial rulings we looked at here had that one very clear intent – public good had to be prioritised over the needs of the industry – be it the sun film industry, the automobile industry, or even the liquor industry. However, a common thread that binds these cases together is that they’re directly related to the automobiles, road safety, and security.

The question is, are public good and interests of the industry mutually exclusive? Do they have to be? Can the industry lead change, rather than react to litigations, and use that leadership as a competitive advantage? For example, could more companies have started producing BS-IV compliant vehicles without waiting for the judicial axe to fall on them? Or do Indian consumers not reward companies that are ahead of the curve? Answering such questions will hopefully lead the industry to a future that does not make it susceptible to judicial interventions so frequently.

The role of the Government must be examined too. For example, after the ban on liquor shops, some state governments are known to have started thinking of converting sections of national highways to regular roads, to work around the Supreme Court ruling. Should state governments prioritize revenue from the sale of liquor over safety on the national highways that pass through their states? If the industry and the government came together and lead with progressive laws and matching compliance, India’s judiciary would be spared of a large number of avoidable litigations, that otherwise take up valuable time of India’s highest court. Let’s hope the industry will be more proactive, and the government, not afraid to legislate bold laws.