Licences for Transport Vehicles | Day 2: Passengers in Danger if all are Allowed to Drive Transport VehiclesValidity of ‘Light Motor Vehicle’ Licence to Drive ‘Transport Vehicle’
The Supreme Court continued to hear arguments on whether a person licenced to drive a ‘light motor vehicle’ under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (MVA) is automatically entitled to drive a ‘Transport Vehicle of Light Motor Vehicle Class’ with an unladen weight of less than 7500 kg. Seven advocates argued against allowing standard licence holders to drive transport vehicles, raising concerns of safety. At the end of the four hour hearing, counsel supporting the use of standard licence for transport vehicles began arguments.
In Mukund Dewangan v Oriental Insurance Company Limited, (2017) the Supreme Court was asked to decide if ‘unladen’ transport vehicles under Sec. 10(2)(e) which are less than 7500 kg would be considered a light motor vehicle under Sec. 10(2)(d). That is, would a person holding a licence to drive a light motor vehicle need a separate licence to drive a transport vehicle which was less than 7500 kg before any goods were loaded on it. A 3-Judge Bench held that ‘A transport vehicle and omnibus, the gross vehicle weight of either of which does not exceed 7500 kg would be a light motor vehicle’.
In March 2022, the appellants, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance argued that the Supreme Court erred in allowing holders of the light motor vehicle licence to drive a transport vehicle. They claimed that the MVA created starkly different rules for each. Provisions of the MVA and Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 (Motor Vehicles Rules)—which concerned age of eligibility for driver’s and learner’s licence, duration of validity of licence, required medical clearance and training—were distinct for the two categories of vehicles.
On March 8th 2022, a 3-Judge Bench of (then) Justice U.U. Lalit, S.R. Bhat and P.S. Narasimha referred the case to a larger bench to review the points omitted by the Court in Mukund Dewangan. The case was listed before a 5-Judge Bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, and Justice Hrishikesh Roy, P.S. Narasimha, Pankaj Mithal and Manoj Misra.
Transport Vehicle Recognised as Distinct from Others throughout Motor Vehicle Regime
Sr. Adv. Siddharth Dave began the day’s arguments. He built on his submissions from the previous day, on how weight was only one of the considerations in the MVA. Instead, he submitted, usage was the key consideration in how vehicles were categorised. He referred to Chapter IV of the MVA, which concerns registration of motor vehicles. Section 41(4) specifies the requirement to indicate the exact type of vehicle—the design, construction and use of the motor vehicle—at the time of registration. Dave argued that it was at this juncture that weight was crucial. He also added that weight is considered in the Income Tax Act, 1961, (Section 44(ae)) which concerns incomes derived from transport vehicles. It is not pertinent elsewhere.
In response to the Bench’s request to look at the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, Dave took the Court through various Rules that corresponded with the provisions of the MVA. It mentioned the requirement of a distinct medical certificate and the certification requirements for drivers of transport vehicles. Further, it set different standards of eligibility for a learner’s licence and driver licence for transport vehicles, compared to other motor vehicles.
Next, Dave brought the Court’s attention to the syllabus followed by driving schools for various training for driving licences. Rule 31(3) set out a separate syllabus for transport vehicles, again making the distinction between transport and Light Motor Vehicles clear. For instance, a driver of a transport vehicle undergoes 30 days extra training, and has to study fire fighting, first aid, and even public relations. This prompted Justice Hrishikesh Roy to comment that ‘if you look at our truck driver,…he is better educated’, with language and first aid. He joked that he didn’t think Sr. Adv Dave had himself learned all that before obtaining his licence.
The Bench’s attention was drawn to the driver’s licence card. Dave and Sr. Adv. Jayant Bhushan showed the Bench that the layout of the card is such that it explicitly states whether a licence is ‘TP’, that is, Transport Vehicle or ‘NT’, Non-Transport Vehicle. Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud asked the Court room for a driver’s licence card. Justice Narasimha offered his, which they both curiously examined. They found that Justice Narasimha’s Driver’s Licence indicated that it was an NT card.
Sr. Adv. Jayanth Bhushan: Mukund Dewangan Wrong on Two Fronts
Senior Advocate Jayanth Bhushan began his arguments by highlighting that Mukund Dewangan v Oriental Insurance Company Limited (2017) made mistakes on two aspects. It failed to consider Section 3, which specifically requires a separate licence to drive a transport vehicle. He referred to Nathi Devi v Radha Devi Gupta (2005), which held that ‘effort should be made to give effect to each and every word used by the Legislature.’ Thus, he argued, the Court must not avoid reading that part of Section 3. Justice Narasimha agreed, that if transport vehicles are read to be part of light motor vehicles, the second part of Section 3, along with half the MVA would become redundant!
The second reason Mukund Dewangan was wrong, Bhushan explained, was because it gave weightage to the general law, rather than the specific law in the MVA. Section 10(2) listed a category of transport vehicle and light motor vehicle. It specifically mentioned transport vehicles as a distinct category. Instead, Mukund Dewangan (2017) read transport vehicles to fall within the broader, general category of light motor vehicles. Chief Justice Chandrachud resonated with this argument, pointing out that the separate category of transport vehicles was introduced with the Amendment to the MVA in 1994, as distinct from an already existing category of light motor vehicles.
Why does the MVA Require a Different Licence Transport Vehicles?
Section 2(47) defines transport vehicles as ‘public service vehicle, a goods carriage, an educational institution bus or a private service vehicle’. Section 2(35) defines ‘public service vehicle’ as a vehicle ‘ used for the carriage of passengers for hire or reward’. Bhushan argued that there was a different and more stringent framework to obtain a transport licence, because a driver of this type of vehicle would be driving passengers, school children, strangers, who had vested their trust on the driver.
This reason is further reflected in Section 3 of the MVA, which excludes ‘motor cab or motorcycle’ from the scope of a transport vehicle. Justice Narasimha gave the example of using one’s personal car for the Ola cab service. Bhushan pointed out that in cases where a personal car is used for others, a transport licence is necessary. In contrast, if a rented vehicle was used for personal use, it would not be considered a transport vehicle. The key difference is that in a personal use scenario, one wouldn’t be ‘putting others at risk’.
Sr. Adv. N.K. Kaul: The Licencing Regime Under the MVA is Rooted in the Use of a Vehicle, not Weight
Senior Advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul argued next. He pointed out that the inclusion of transport vehicles under 7500 kg in the definition of Light Motor Vehicles under Section 2(21) is only a broad definition, based solely on weight. It does not indicate that the licensing regime under the MVA is also based on weight. Licensing under the MVA is rooted in usage of a vehicle.
He then pointed to the definition of a Transport Vehicle, which refers to ‘public service vehicle, a goods carriage, an educational institution bus or a private service vehicle’. He argued that in the separate definitions for each of these terms there is one common factor that appears—each provision uses words such as ‘use, adapted to be used, constructed or adapted for use’. This clearly shows that this category of transport vehicles is based entirely on usage and not weight.
He ended his arguments by drawing the Court’s attention to its judgments in New India Assurance Co. Ltd v Prabhu Lal (2007) and Oriental Insurance Co. Ltd v Angad Kol (2009) which held the opposite of Mukund Dewangan.
Weight is not a Key Concern for the Licence Regime
The Solicitor General appearing for Oriental Insurance Company asked for just five minutes of the Court’s time. He highlighted that the ‘general architecture’ of the MVA is safety of the driver, passengers and passersby. The licensing regime under the MVA is also written in service of this purpose.
He argued that had the legislature viewed light motor vehicles and transport vehicles as the same, it would not have mentioned it separately in Section 10. Why then does the light motor vehicle definition under Section 2(21) include transport vehicles? That, Mehta argued, was for a different regime, set under section 113 and 115 of the MVA, which deals with the ‘limits of weight and limitations on use’ and ‘power to restrict the use of vehicles’. Here, vehicles of certain weightage may be prohibited in certain roads or areas. He argued that weightage becomes a concern in these instances—not when licensing is in question.
Advocate on Record, Archana Pathak Dave showed the Bench photographs of a bus weighing 7450 kg just under the limit of 7500 kg. This was a school bus which, she argued, a light motor vehicle licence holder could use. Weight cannot, therefore, be used for licensing. Weight may be used in other cases where taxes, permits and other factors are concerned.
The Society Against Drunken Driving argued that road safety is considered a fundamental right, under the Right to Life. Mukund Dewangan (2017) violated this right to safe roads, by allowing untrained drivers to drive transport vehicles. Section 7 of the MVA, which mandates that a person must have a driver’s licence for one year to obtain a learner’s licence for a transport vehicle, is a safety measure.
Striking Down Mukul Dewangan may Harm Insurance Holders
The Bench asked the Counsels for the insurance holder how much time they would need. CJI Chandrachud said that while the Bench was ‘impressed by the arguments’ of the insurance companies, it was important to hear a ‘contra-perspective’ and that the Bench would be ‘open until the last word is said’.
Advocate on Record Devvrat argued that the petitioners were wrong in characterising weight as an unimportant factor in the MVA. He went on to point out the provisions in the MVA that are based on weight of the vehicles. The two main facets on which a licence is granted are Light and Heavy categories of motor vehicles—LMV and HMV.
Further, Devvrat argued that a motorcycle used for hire to carry a passenger, which would be less than 200 kg would fall under transport vehicle category. Lakhs of drivers offering their services on Rapido, a bike-for-hire service, would need fresh licences. Justice Narasimha stated that this issue was, in fact, being debated at the moment. He spoke of the Union’s stance that unless a specific licence is mandated, safety of rider and passenger cannot be guaranteed. He said that there was no clarity on what would happen to a rider or passenger if an accident were to occur—would the rider be eligible for insurance, would the passenger be protected?
The Bench, which had heard arguments for four hours already, listed the case to be heard on July 20, 2023.