License to Kill?By Naeem Sadiq 21 December 2015 Newsline

2015 will go down in history as the year in which the Sindh Police publicly declared that driving licenses were mandatory for driving on the 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 two million individuals who drive on the streets of Karachi, without having ever known a document called ‘driving license.’ Of the 3.8 million car owners in the city, only 1.24 million possess a driving license.  Moreover, 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 8,700 fake licenses – outrageously making it one of the world’s biggest licensing scandals.

The Sindh Police is largely to blame for creating the ‘driving license crush of 2015.’ For 60 long years, it operated an institutionalised system that allowed the offenders to drive away after a minor greasing of palms. The making of licenses was a joint racket being operated by the police and its touts who hovered around the licensing premises, offering to get you any kind of license in an hour or two.

Suddenly they seem to have woken up to the reality, and announced a huge penalty for anyone without a driving license. While it is difficult to design an efficient and customer-friendly licensing process, it is even more difficult to implement one.  A system that currently is handling around 400 licenses a day cannot overnight be expected to handle a crowd of 5,000. 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 to the Clifton Licensing Branch (partially covered by bushes) is conspicuous by its vagueness. It keeps the applicant guessing as to where the counters are, where one can get access to the forms that need to be filled, and the license fee to be paid. What’s more, one has to queue up at four different counters to make four different types of payments. There is no reason why one consolidated fee cannot be charged from an applicant at one location and in one go. Moreover 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 in itself the biggest hindrance often  breaking the queue, and providing fast-track services to the ‘high-ups,’ who consider it an insult to rub shoulders with the common man.

After years of serving 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 ply 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 a green background, and add ‘Government of Sindh,’ to make them appear as official vehicles. Many use forged number plates which are not registered with the Excise and Taxation (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 an AFR (Applied for Registration) number plate for several years.

Such vehicles have been increasingly used in crime, kidnappings and bomb attacks. By failing to recognise this link and remaining a silent observer, the Sindh police may well have contributed hugely to the spread of crime. A major hurdle in this process is the Sindh government, that itself is 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 ‘Minister,’ ‘Commissioner,’ etc.

Regrettably, the Sindh Police, which is responsible for fighting crime and militancy in the province, has made no attempts to modify its performance or improve its capacity. It has refused to use even the most basic tool that every  police man is gifted with by nature – a pair of eyes. Most of the irregularities relating to vehicle number plates can be visually spotted from a distance – if only the police had the slightest inclination. Don’t be surprised if some day they decided to drop the bombshell and announce 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 the police in most countries. Ironically, while any ordinary 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 suggests a deliberate shirking of its primary responsibilities by the police. They have allowed matters to slide to this chaotic stage. The driving license process needs to be re-engineered and the police needs to acquire the relevant technology to check out the 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 the standard number plates for the past 18 months ought to be either shut down or go in for a major overhaul.

Can any of these reforms be led by a government, which is averse to the idea of registration of vehicles in its own use and payment of the annual motor vehicle tax?

 

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