Ashish R* has learnt his lesson to not drive in the streets of Hyderabad without a valid driver’s license. The 25-year-old was caught last month by the traffic police, a first for him – and while he thought he would have to pay a fine for the offence, he instead had to spend four days at the Cherlapally central jail. “I was terrified,” says Ashish, recounting his experience in prison, “In the nights we could hear some men who are serving life terms screaming and thrashing about in their cells. Another day, one man banged his head into a glass window and started chasing everyone holding a piece of glass.”
In Hyderabad, the Kukatpally court is cracking down on traffic violators by sending them to jail – even if they are first time offenders. All traffic violations caught by the police are diverted to this court. Traffic police say the trend of awarding jail time for minor traffic offences is specific to only the Kukatpally court.
Initially, when Ashish was caught by the traffic police in a routine inspection at Gachibowli and the bike seized, he did not give much thought to it. “I thought it would be just a fine that I have to pay at the court,” he says, “But the judge while hearing the cases did not even look at me. He was awarding jail time to everyone who was caught for traffic violations. Some people got two days jail time extra for just not raising their hand. Some second-time offenders were given 20 days jail time,” he adds.
In 2018-19 the Cyberabad traffic police booked 14,782 cases for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of alcohol and 4,203 individuals served jail time. This is the highest number of convictions in the last three years according to traffic police data. The police have no data on how many of them were first-time offenders.
“I am seeing this trend of giving jail time to first-time offenders only in cases that go to the Kukatpally court. I’m not seeing this trend at other courts in the city,” says Chandrashekar, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Cyberabad (traffic). “The judge is strict, he wants to change the society. Who gets jail time is totally in the hands of the court,” he added.
When asked if awarding jail time to first offenders were a harsh approach, the ACP replies, “Not at all, the judge is following the law, he is giving punishments prescribed by the law. Everyone should follow the law.”
Under the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, imprisonment up to three months can be awarded for driving without a valid license, giving one's vehicle to someone without a valid license and also for driving without valid vehicle insurance among other offences. Those driving under the influence of alcohol can face up to a maximum of six months imprisonment.
The court has the power to award jail time, but this is rarely exercised. "Other courts also send traffic violators to jail but at Kukatpally court the conviction rate is very high,“ says the official.
“I will never drink and drive again in my life,” says Vinod*, another first time offender who also spent four days at the Cherlapally central jail. The 26-year-old works with an IT firm in the city, and had consumed alcohol on New Year’s Eve. He had a blood alcohol content level of 77 mg/100 ml whereas the permissible limit is only 30 mg/100 ml. Vinod lives with his family in the city but has not informed them that he had spent four days in jail this January, “I don't want them to know. I have not informed my office either, just took a four days casual leave. But I’m afraid my office people will find out, I heard the traffic police now send letters to human resources saying an employee has been caught for drinking and driving.”
Vinod is not wrong, the Cyberabad traffic police earlier this month started the practice of sending letters to companies whose employees have been caught for driving under the influence. The police say the move is to act a deterrent.
“My greatest fear was if serving jail time would affect my future prospects of getting a visa to go abroad for studies or work,” says Vinod, “The police officials tell me that it won't be a problem and won't show up in the records.”
Recounting his experiences at Cherlapally, Vinod says, “I don't want anyone to go through it. The food was horrible, the toilets were disgustingly dirty. It was cold at night and we were all freezing as we were not given enough blankets. Initially, we were told that we could buy coupons that we could use at the jail canteen but the canteen is open for hardly half an hour. I spent Rs 1,000 and bought coupons that remained unused, so I gave them off to others who were still in jail when I was leaving.”
Soon after coming out of jail, Ashish has initiated the process of getting a valid driver’s license, “I didn't expect to get jailed for such a small offence but I will surely be careful from now.”