The terminator & rise of RTO agents

Transport Commissioner Mahesh Zagade has earned the sobriquet ‘The Terminator’ for his efforts to correct the system wherever he goes on official assignments. After cracking down on errant officials and offenders in the Food and Drugs Department in the three years he ruled with an iron fist, Zagade is out to deal with alleged corruption in the transport department, which primarily works as a licencing authority for motorists and regulatory/enforcement agency for vehicles that ply on state roads.

Zagade, who got elevated to the IAS from a state service cadre, has a knack for discovering elements that encourage malpractices. On January 17, he banned private (RTO) agents from all the 50 offices, who, according to him, facilitated a nexus between the officers and clients. The agents are now up in arms against him. They want Zagade to withdraw the ban by February 20, or else they will stop people/vehicles from visiting transport offices.

The agents met CM Devendra Fadnavis last week after staging a sizeable protest at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. They have now shifted their focus to Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, whose party legislator Diwakar Raote is transport minister, because the CM did not promise them anything. The agents expect friction between Raote and Zagade to work in their favour. Fadnavis’ role will be crucial in the entire episode.

RTO agents argue that they charge people for easing the RTOs’ extremely intricate and time-consuming procedures. They say they get authority letters signed by vehicle owners to work on their behalf. They claim the method was endorsed by the high court 16 years ago. Zagade refuses to accept this version, but Raote has political reasons to sympathise with thousands of agents working unofficially at transport offices across the state their constituency has incre-ased over the years with the growing number of vehicles.

It is common knowledge how the cash-fired system works perfectly in RTOs. The agents charge as per clients’ needs and type of work. They retain their commission and pay government fees. It is no secret who, other than the agents, gets the money charged in excess of government duty. Usually, these transactions do not lead to complaints to the ACB because of the mutual benefits they deliver. However, ACB raids conducted in the past on officials charged with corruption had exposed the enormous financial stakes in the transport department. No wonder then that postings in RTOs where commercial vehicles ply in abundance, where driving schools thrive, and lucrative border checkposts are most sought after.

Last year, a number of Motor Vehicle Inspectors (MVIs) had delayed joining new postings by two-three months for want of lucrative assignments. MVIs, who account for half the total strength of officers of all ranks, play an important role in issuing driving licences, renewal of fitness certificates and registration of new vehicles.

Under-the-table transactions do mar the quality of technical work the transport officials are paid their salaries for. Imagine the skills of drivers who get licences issued in improper manner or the environmental damage caused by faulty vehicles which get fitness certificates without running checks in RTOs. Rampant violations pose a grave danger to the motorists and passengers who use vehicles with imperfect roadworthiness. Bogus taxi and vehicle permits go undetected and cause losses to the state exchequer. Overloaded vehicles remain a concern.

The transport department has several issues to deal with, essentially because they directly aid corruption. The department has gone online in certain segments such as licencing. The system works fine when glitches do not affect it. The state needs to rope in experts to fine-tune it. It needs to tell people how they themselves risk their lives by procuring licences in a wrong manner and using unfit vehicles. It also needs to create an atmosphere which would make visits to RTO offices an experience in itself. Ruthless reforms supported by technical expertise could only bring transparency in the department, which perhaps is one of the most indisciplined of the ‘uniformed’ services.

Meanwhile, the sights remain set on Zagade and his political bosses, who, as it appears currently, have not reached a consensus on the reforms agenda.

Dharmendra Jore is Political Editor, mid-day

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