2015 will go down in history as a year in which the Sindh Police publicly declared that driving licenses were mandatory for driving on roads. However basic and apparent this declaration may appear, the fact remains that there has been a near silence on this issue since 1947. This has resulted in an estimated 2 million individuals who perform vehicular acrobatics in a state of anarchic frenzy on the streets of Karachi – without having ever known a document called ‘driving license’. Of the 3.8 million car owners only 1.24 million possess a driving license. Regrettably the majority of the licenses held by individuals were never issued by the Licensing department, placing them in the same league as their notorious cousins – fake gun licenses and fake university degrees. The DIG Police (Licenses) confirmed that a random sample of 10,000 driving licenses when sent for verification, revealed 8700 fake licenses – outrageously making it one of the world’s greatest licensing scandals.
The Sindh Police ought to take the largest responsibility for creating the ‘driving license crash of 2015’. For sixty long years it operated an institutionalized system that allowed the offenders to drive away after a minor greasing of palms. License making was an unwritten joint venture between police and its touts who hovered around the licensing premises, offering to get you any license in an hour or two.
It is easy to suddenly wake up and announce a huge penalty for anyone without a driving license. It is more difficult to design an efficient and customer-friendly licensing process and it is yet more difficult to implement one. A system currently handling around 400 licenses per day cannot be over-night expected to handle a crowd of 5000. Placing scores of extra policemen at each branch can only add to the confusion as the primary process remains unchanged.
Information is always the first need of a license seeker. A large notice board at the entrance of the Clifton Licensing Branch (partially covered by bushes) is conspicuous by its vagueness. It keeps the applicant guessing on where are those undefined counters and what undefined forms may be filled to make those undefined payments. One has to queue at four different counters to make four different types of payment. There is no reason why the consolidated fee cannot be collected from an applicant at one location and in one go. The current driving test is an eyewash. Each branch needs to have a large-sized, scientifically designed and camera-monitored testing ground. The licensing staff is itself the biggest muddle factor, often breaking the queue, appeasing and providing fast-track services to the ‘high-ups’, who consider it an insult to rub shoulders with the common citizens.
Years of working as puppets to their political masters, the police has lost its capacity for any serious pro-active planning. The link between crime, militancy, guns, fake car registration plates and fake driving licenses has never been understood. Car registrations and driving licenses are not subject to NADRA’s verification of an individual’s thumb impression and CNIC. If this could be done for 130 million SIMs, surely it can be done for a few million vehicles and driving licenses. This is an essential security check that links every vehicle and driving license to a unique individual and CNIC. Currently one can register a car or obtain a license on a fake CNIC and a fake home address. The extra step of requiring an applicant to make a second visit to collect his / her registration book or driving license can be completely eliminated. Posting these documents to the specified home address will not just save an extra day for millions but also help traceability and verification of the specified address.
Having no license or a fake license is just as hazardous as having no number plate or a fake number plate on one’s car. It is estimated that some 100,000 to 300,000 vehicles move about on the streets of Karachi with fake, illegal or deceptive number plates. There are numerous creative ways of committing this crime. Thousands of individuals simply paint their private numbers on green background adding ‘Government of Sindh’, to make them appear as official vehicles. Many use forged number plates which are not registered with the E&T department. Hundreds of vehicles go around with number plates of foreign countries or plates that carry personal names or insignias. Many continue to evade taxes by using AFR (Applied for Registration) number plate for several years.
Vehicles with various shades of deceitfulness have been increasingly used in crime, kidnapping and bomb attacks. By failing to recognize this link and remaining a silent observer, the Sindh police may well have made a huge contribution to the spread of crime. A major hurdle in this process is the Sindh government, that is itself guilty of not having registered thousands of vehicles that are in its own use. Very few of those that are registered pay their annual motor vehicle tax. These unlawful practices offer a huge opportunity to criminals who can unabashedly use fake, fancy or ‘look alike’ government or police number plates to gain access to high security zones or indulge in criminal activities. The police is simply too scared to check vehicles that appear to be official, foreign registered or display plaques like ‘MNA’, ‘Commissioner’ etc.
Regrettably the Sindh Police responsible for fighting crime and militancy in the province has carefully evaded every attempt at modifying its performance or improving its capacity. The police has refused to use even the most basic but adequate instrumentation that every police person has been gifted free of charge by nature – a pair of eyes. Most of the irregularities relating to vehicle number plates can be visually spotted from a distance – only if the police had the slightest inclination. Perhaps it is building up the crescendo, on the pattern of driving licenses, to announce one day, the existence of millions of fake and unregistered vehicles.
The use of computers or hand-held tablets, with internet facility to directly access the data of any vehicle at any time of the day is a routine practice by police in most countries. Ironically while any plain citizen with a smart phone in Pakistan can access the E&T Department’s website and see most of the data relating to any vehicle, the Sindh police has chosen not to do so.
The near zero checks on vehicles and driving licenses suggest a deliberate abandonment by the police of its primary responsibilities. It may therefore be appropriate to begin by holding the police accountable for gross neglect and for letting matters reach this chaotic stage. The driving license process needs to be re-engineered and the police needs to acquire the technology to check complete details of a vehicle including the driving license data within a few minutes. An Excise and Taxation department that has not been able to issue standard number plates for the past 18 months ought to be considered for either ‘shut-down’ or major surgery. Can any of these reforms be led by a government, whose own vehicles are averse to registration and payment of the annual motor vehicle tax ?