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Sir, your beacon slip is showing

President Barack Obama moments before his eulogy to Nelson Mandela at the memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday. (AFP)

New Delhi, Dec. 10: The Supreme Court today sought to limit the rampant use of beacons — saying their misuse reflects a “Raj mentality” — and directed states to stop the practice of enlarging the list of dignitaries at will.

Only high constitutional dignitaries, which includes the President, Prime Minister and judges, should be permitted to display red beacons atop their official vehicles, the court said.

Rules were also set in place on the use of multi-tone sirens. The court directed police to show neither fear nor favour in imposing penalties on offenders — easier said than done in a country where strict rules already exist but are breached with impunity daily in daylight by those wielding power.

The bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and C. Nagappan voiced what has been building up among countless citizens for decades: “The use of red lights on the vehicles of public representatives and civil servants has perhaps no parallel in the world democracies.”

But citing the framers of the Constitution who referred to a special category, the court said there was no reason to exclude constitutional positions from the ambit of “high dignitaries”. Several countries abroad follow a need-based criteria in which the possibility of exigencies, not the halo around a post, is counted as the sole deciding factor.

The bench made several scathing remarks on the misuse of beacons. “The contemptuous disregard to the prohibition by people in power, holders of public offices, civil servants and even ordinary citizens is again reflective of ‘Raj mentality’ and is antithesis of the concept of a Republic,” the court said.

A key rule the court iterated today is that most of the “dignitaries” are expected to use the beacon only while on duty. A rule flouted regularly in most places, including Calcutta’s Park Street where beacon-topped cars regularly line up in the evening in no-parking zones before restaurants.

Another rule is supposed to ensure that when the dignitary is not present in the vehicle, the beacon “shall not be used and be covered by a black cover”. Such sightings are rare.

The apex court granted three months to the Centre and the states to comply with its orders on beacons and one month to restrict the use of multi-tone horns. The following are some of the directives, issued by the court on a petition challenging the security status of a politician:

Only posts mentioned in two central notifications in 2002 and 2005 are entitled to “red light with flasher” while on duty.

The 12 posts include the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, former Presidents and Prime Ministers, deputy Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court judges, Lok Sabha Speaker, Union cabinet ministers and the deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission.

It is not clear which national emergency will be tackled by a former President or Prime Minister or a plan panel deputy chief zigzagging through traffic and jumping red lights.

Red light without flasher while on duty. The posts include the chief election commissioner, comptroller and auditor general of India, ministers of state, Planning Commission members, cabinet secretary, the chiefs of staff holding the rank of full general or equivalent rank and the chairpersons of the Central Administrative Tribunal, minorities commission, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission and the Union Public Service Commission.

The state governments cannot enlarge the scope of the term “high dignitaries” beyond what is prescribed in the two central notifications. The governments shall amend within three months the rules to bring them in tune with notifications of 2002 and 2005.

The Bengal government has been expanding the “dignitary” dossier over the years. If the central list on the two categories (plain red light and the flashing one) mentions 26 posts, the Bengal roster boasts 49.

The Supreme Court today said: “The governments of most states… have framed rules and issued notifications allowing use of red lights on the vehicles carrying large number of persons other than ‘high dignitaries’. Most of these notifications are far beyond the scope of… the notifications issued by the central government. There has been abysmal failure… to check misuse.”

Men in uniform, operational agencies which require unhindered access to the roads, those engaged in emergency duties such as ambulance services and fire services and police vehicles used as escorts or pilots shall not be entitled to red lights but lights of other colours like blue, white or multicoloured.

The chief secretaries of all states shall advertise the court’s directives in newspapers with wide circulation.

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