Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lack of third party insurance comes in the way of compensation

For V. Nirmala (31), life as she knew it came to a halt one afternoon in November 2004. Her husband, an autorickshaw driver, died on the spot after being run over by a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus. Seven years on and with a fair compensation nowhere in sight, the aftermath of the accident has proved to be as traumatic as the tragedy itself.

There are many like her, unsupported and left to struggle after the sole earning member of the family dies in a road accident involving a State Transport Corporation bus.

The MTC owes over Rs.31 crore in unpaid compensation to 731 victims who were either injured or killed by its buses since 2005.

That statistic does not even include all the victims.

Those are only instances where the victim's family had filed an appeal to the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal. In such cases, compensation should have been paid within two months of the order.

Sources in the MTC maintain that the Corporation does not have the money to pay compensation to accident victims/their families. The issue is not confined to the city.

Area of concern

The Transport Department's 2010-11 policy note identifies accident compensation as a major area of concern as the State-wide commitment has “gone up drastically from Rs.16.03 crore in 1991-92 to over Rs.190 crore in 2009-2010”.

The central problem in the existing framework is the lack of third-party insurance.

Experts say that no one is willing to offer such insurance to the State-run transport corporations as they are a major liability due to the sheer number of accidents. The loss-making corporations cannot afford to pay the compensation on their own too.

N. Vijayaraghavan, an insurance lawyer associated with the Consumer Action Group, says the rule appears to be that unless the buses are themselves awarded as compensation, after the State has exhausted all tiers of litigation up to the apex court, they rarely, if ever pay up.

He proposes a simple solution. Though motor insurance is compulsory under the Motor Vehicles Act, undertakings such as the SETC and MTC “may be exempt” subject to “a fund being established and maintained by the authority for meeting the liabilities”.

“In accordance with this enabling provision, the government has exempted the transport undertakings by creating a fund for Rs.40 crore long, long ago,” says Mr. Vijayaraghavan. “Compared to the liabilities now faced, the fund is paltry. It simply cannot meet the liabilities. The fund is virtually non-existent and defunct for all practical purposes.”

Withdrawing exemption

Just withdraw this exemption, he says and the government can no longer complain that insurers are unwilling to offer insurance covers. The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority has mandated that insurers cannot refuse to grant motor insurance policies if such insurance coverage is compulsory.

“Insurers may even vie with each other to offer cover since it would then become a legal obligation and they might as well have a share in the pie,” Mr. Vijayaraghavan adds.

“Seen as a privilege”

Stressing that accident compensation is being unfortunately treated as a privilege in the current scenario, consumer activists such as T. Sadagopan also say that it is high time a regulatory body was set up, on the lines of those in existence in sectors such as telecom and electricity.

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