Nation of lawbreakers

Jeevan Thiagarajah (Daily News)

This piece is prompted by recent protests around revisions of fines for traffic offences.

Public space is regulated by plethora of laws. The application of which is without distinction in theory. There was a cry to appoint Independent Commissions to reportedly make allied institutions and services independent. Has it occurred?

A majority of motorists running afoul of the law will have vast arguments on why they should be exonerated. Private buses seeking preeminence. So the Interprovincial Private Bus Association (IPPBA) said they would go on a countrywide bus strike, if the Finance Minister failed to provide a reasonable solution to the proposed increase in the minimum penalty of Rs.2,500 for traffic offences from the current Rs. 20. Fines must keep pace with contemporary times. A fine applies only when laws are breached.

If citizens can haggle about the quantum of justice to be, Judges and Courts will come under siege in time to come. It follows law must be sane and reasonable. Some are ancient. Hence the ridiculous Rs. 20 fine. The cost of administering the Rs. 20 fine is likely to be infinitely higher!

Cartoon from InternetImage result for cartoons on law breakers

No trouble with traffic offences

It is said even police officers deploy buses on some routes. They are most unlikely to be fined of any offence. In the NCP a police officer had sought donations from owners including a lawyer on a particular route supposedly to buy a hamper for his Senior! Suffice to say the donors had no trouble with traffic offences on that route.

In another context the Police inspected a house on a complaint a pool was being constructed on a road reservation and damage to property due to illegal construction. The Senior officers including the SSP overseeing the area was of the view the complainant should obtain an injunction from Court to stop the damage to the property because of rental agreements between parties. Which means even if the Police see any illegal activity they need a complaint and even if you do complain what is construed to be in the domestic sphere they fear to intrude. In the worst case scenario the offender had a reasonably influential backer who could intervene and prevent the Police from acting. If the Police fear to tread to prevent destruction of property what is the purpose of the Police? In this instance heavy artillery had to be deployed and the desired outcome of arresting temporarily the actions of the offender was achieved. A majority of citizens do not have access to heavy artillery to deploy in times of acute emergencies of the kind described. Hence become helpless victims.

The PM was reported to have critiqued the Police for insufficient prevention of crimes. There is truth to the statement.

Police Commission

The drug trade pays off many and is sometimes run by rich and or influential figures. Traffic offences are met by organised lawbreakers such as Bus Associations or every traffic offender has someone who will call the Police officer to prevent charges from being pressed. Where the rich and the infamous are playing truant, all manner of pressure is applied to prevent even preemptive action from being taken. The helpless police officer upto OIC and at times SSP rank have to trot out lame excuses such as requiring Court orders to act. Police Commission does not really protect its cadre.

When the Police fail to act a poor public servant has to bear the burden of stopping illegal activity if they have sufficient powers to intervene. When all else fails or public officials need to cover their backs, matters are put to Court crowding court registers even further. Public Services Commission can up to a point support public officials from harassment. On the other hand public officials can become a law unto themselves listening to only a few. Politicians knowing this do their utmost to control them.

When systems fail, money takes over buying and selling justice and influence. Sometimes hoodlums are reared to dispense local justice and become brawn for hire until they are put down by another brawnier force. So who are the guardians?

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka? “The Commission organised a public campaign on the theme of “Stop Torture and organised a march which had wide participation including of the police, the military ,schoolchildren, university students, and state officials.” Despite the success of the march, the Commission states, the complaints received by the Commission illustrate that torture is routinely used in all parts of the country regardless of the nature of the suspected offence for which the person is arrested”. Clearly torturers were not shaking in their boots or urinating in their pants after hearing about the HRC marching the streets against torture.

Make roads safe

Mere constitution of Independent Commissions do not make services better when lawbreakers are protected, the public officials remain vulnerable. Those who seek preferential treatment, those intervening for selective treatment and those who succumb to the pressures of selective operationalizing of laws are as guilty as the original offenders. We continuously need to work on the application of the law for segments of society in a manner which is rational and realistic. Fines are insufficient to make roads safe. Serial offenders should be assessed not only by the number of times stopped by the Police but also by the seriousness of offences and should have their licenses suspended automatically for a specified period until wisdom surfaces amongst them.

The recent budget has opened the doors for private sector growth. It follows the assumption that businesses that follow rules, investments will be protected and laws would be applied evenly. The truth and reality of such assumptions should be at least critically reviewed.