Saturday, September 10, 2011

For A Driver's License

My driving license expired in 2010, while I was in Japan. Since I could not renew the Delhi-issue licence from Tsukuba my application for a Japanese Unten-Menkyo (driving license) was jeopardized and my trips to the issuing centre at Tsuchiura ended on a disappointing note.

The Test Course at Tsuchiura, Japan

The experience, however, gave me the opportunity to understand the protocols in the Japanese system; the seriousness with which DL applications are screened and the manner in which tests are conducted. The effectiveness of such a system are more than apparent in the extremely low incidence of traffic accidents in Japan.

Now, back in India, I found myself going through the motions of getting my licence renewed. It was no simple matter. Despite all the computer networking in India, a driving licence issued in Delhi could not be renewed in Kerala unless you produce an NOC (no objection certificate) from the Delhi RTO (even if you produce one it has to be cross-checked manually, over snail-mails). Its a strange rule because if I intended to go to Delhi for the NOC, I could get the licence renewed there itself! So the only alternative was to go through the motions of applying for a fresh licence.

At the Thiruvananthapuram RTO, the DL process involved the following steps:
  1. Applying for a Learner's Licence qualifying test (45 days waiting time)
  2. Qualifying the LL test and getting a date for the Driving Test (64 days later)
  3. Qualifying the Driving Test & the Road Test (half-day 8:30AM - 12:30PM)
  4. Qualifying the Road Test
  5. Obtaining the Driving Licence by registered post (10 days)
The whole process was painful and frustrating. At the same time, it was a study of contrasts and a great lesson on how a government department can manage a complex exercise in standard-setting with the absolute bare minimum in terms of manpower and investments.

In Japan the Unten-Menkyo centre had a large facility of its own - buildings with waiting areas and vending machines; test-vehicles in all categories; a custom-built ground for testing the candidates, qualified personnel and an arrangement with the bus companies to ferry applicants. On the other hand, in Kerala the onus rests entirely on the driving schools. The test facility at Shangumugham is just an open ground that belongs to another government department. A few shacks on its periphery provide refreshments and a semblance of shelter from the rain under tarpaulin sheets.

The RTO officers arrive after 8:30 AM in a single official vehicle and from then on, everything is "taken care of" by the 20 odd driving schools who flood the ground with about 200 applicants everyday. The officers sit on furniture brought in by one school; they sit in vehicles provided by another for observing the applicants as they go through their H's and 8's; they sip on refreshments others buy for them, and finally, the road-tests are conducted in vehicles provided by the schools.

Test Course at Shankumugham, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Is there a conflict of interest here? Of course. However, I could find no serious evidence of any deviation from the RTO's ultimate objective: to ensure that well trained drivers are issued licenses. For a state government that tops in financial mismanagement, its RTO seems to be doing excellent work with the bare minimum of resources and infrastructure. With just a handful of officers it is able to manage a large volume of applicants with the help of all the registered driving schools in the city.

Unlike in some other states, where you can easily get a driving licence in exchange for a few of bottles of rum, the system here seems to have got completely transformed over the past few years. Touts offering to "fix" things for you without a real test, have completely disappeared. The driving schools do all the running around but the fact that there are so many small players seems to ensure a system with its own checks and balances. The chances of an undeserving candidate clearing the tests are very low indeed.

There is, of course, a lot of scope of improvement. For starters, the RTO could at least construct some waiting sheds for the applicants; it could invite local vendors to set up regular refreshment stalls. In the test procedures it could do away with the test for archaic "hand-signals" which have long been replaced by electronic indicators in all vehicles.

No comments: