Separate Licence for Transport Vehicles | Day 4: Legality is a “small thing”, social impact is bigger, says CJIValidity of ‘Light Motor Vehicle’ Licence to Drive ‘Transport Vehicle’
Today the Supreme Court heard the submissions of the Union on why they had introduced notifications in 2018 and 2021 and amendments to the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 (Motor Vehicles Rules). These changes had to permit Light Motor Vehicle (LMV) licence holders to drive transport vehicles. They explained that the changes were introduced to comply with the decision in Mukund Dewangan. However, they believed that the Court’s view in the decision was not “in tune with the legislative intent” of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (MVA).
In the previous hearing, the respondents argued that the Judgement in Mukund Dewangan was valid, as it had been accepted by the Union Government through two notifications in April 2018 and March 2021. Therefore, the Court had sought the Union’s position of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, and the assistance of the Attorney General, R. Venkataramani.
The Supreme Court directed the Union to assess the social impact of the licence regime after Mukund Dewangan. The Union is expected to connect with stakeholders and arrive at an understanding of what the transport sector requires and how the livelihoods of gig workers in the sector will be impacted in two months.
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 three-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 three-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 five-judge bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, and Justices Hrishikesh Roy, P.S. Narasimha, Pankaj Mithal and Manoj Misra.
Mukund Dewangan must be reconsidered and modified, says Union
Venkataramani appeared for the Union and read out a note submitted to the Court. He stated that the notifications and the subsequent amendment to the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 (Motor Vehicles Rules) were to bring the law in line with the decision in Mukund Dewangan. The interpretation of the MVA made by the Court in Mukund Dewangan, he said, did not align with the intent of the lawmakers.
He clarified that the notifications “may not have any bearing or conclusiveness” on the case at hand. Venkataramani further expressed that the “Union of India is open to the need, if any, to issue necessary guidelines or regulations to address the perceived gaps in the law as understood by Mukund Dewangan.”
Bench instructs the Union to review the social and economic impact of different transport vehicle licence regimes
As Venkataramani completed reading his note, Justice Roy urged the Union to “look at the large number of people, drivers, who are driving commercial vehicles—look at the livelihood issue.” CJI D.Y. Chandrachud added that there “may be lakhs of drivers across the country who are, today, engaged in driving commercial vehicles” based on Mukund Dewangan. “They will be completely put out of their livelihood”, making this case more than a question of interpretation of the law, and instead a “question of the social impact of the law.”
The CJI then stated that any decision in this case must factor in the “rapidly evolving” transport sector. “We might have autonomous vehicles coming up”, he said, with Justice Roy adding that the question of licences itself may not arise in the future with driverless cars.
“The Government has to look at this holistically”, CJI Chandrachud went on. The Union would have to consider road safety, insurance, livelihood and the increasing demand of the rapidly growing transport sector. “The easiest thing is to interpret the law and come to the conclusion that Dewangan was wrong,” the CJI said, “but it’s not that simple.”
Senior Advocate Jayanth Bhushan appearing for the insurance companies argued that livelihood would not be hindered by the demand for a specific transport vehicle licence. Drivers would simply need to take a new driver’s test. On road safety, Bhushan argued that people who are not equipped to drive transport vehicles and carry passengers would be allowed to continue driving commercially.
Supreme Court cannot make policy changes, says CJI
On the plan going forward, the Chief clarified that the Court “cannot decide issues of social policy in a Constitution Bench.” He suggested that the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways review the consequences of interpreting the MVA as per Mukund Dewangan. If it finds that Mukund Dewangan is wrong, it can make a suitable amendment to clarify that an LMV licence does not apply to transport vehicles. The Bench said that this may not be a constitutional question, but a statutory one.
Bhushan pointed out that once a reference to a Constitution Bench is made, “the Bench has to answer that reference.” The Court has to interpret the “existing” law as it stands, which is as per the regime set in Mukund Dewangan.
The Bench reassured Bhushan that they will not close the reference, and instead want to hear the Union’s submissions on the impact of the post-Mukund Dewangan regime and changes in the transport sector.