|(Top): A police car with a blue beacon in London. (Above): A government car, part of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s entourage, flashes a red beacon. Pictures: AFP and Amit Datta
To Calcutta VIPs used to installing flashing lights on their cars, this may appear odd, but not one emergency beacon was in evidence when 130 members of Parliament gathered last Tuesday in Soho, a congested area of London, with narrow streets full of fine restaurants, wine bars, theatres and strip clubs.
The MPs included 10 cabinet ministers who had been able to negotiate their way to Red Fort, an upmarket Bangladeshi-owned Indian restaurant, with a beacon.
They were guests of Keith Vaz, throwing a party to mark his 50th birthday as well as 20 eventful years as Labour MP for Leicester East.
On the less colourful — but more congested — streets of Calcutta, when will every Ambassador in sight ever stop flashing the red beacon'
On February 23, 2007, Calcutta High Court ordered the removal of all beacon lights from atop cars used by political leaders and government officials. “Only police pilot cars, ambulances and the fire brigade have the right to fit beacon lights atop their vehicles,” ruled a division bench.
Quite like the road rules in London. Instead of the red, Britain employs the flashing blue beacon, but its use is restricted to “emergency services”. The strict rules governing who may and may not use warning beacons were made available to The Telegraph by the Royal Automobile Club, which obtained them from the department of transport.
“Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations, 1989, on the use of blue warning beacons and special warning lamps” stipulate that “no vehicle, other than an emergency vehicle”, shall be fitted with “a blue warning beacon or special warning lamp, or a device which resembles a blue warning beacon or a special warning lamp...”
The police, ambulance and the fire brigade qualify as emergency services. Even these services do not switch on flashing beacons when not responding to an emergency.
Back at Red Fort in Soho, even home secretary John Reid came and went “in his own Jaguar” without recourse to a beacon to assist his way through traffic. “There were other cabinet ministers there, and none of them has a flashing light,” added Vaz.
Like other MPs, Vaz does not use a warning beacon on his car, nor did he have one when he was minister for Europe at the Foreign Office.
“I have travelled with the Prime Minister and he does not use a flashing light,” said Vaz.
Tony Blair and other cabinet ministers with sensitive jobs are followed by armed police officers in unmarked cars but otherwise, traffic is never disrupted or held up to allow official limousines to pass.
The Queen or a visiting head of state may have motorcycle outriders but the culture of flashing lights on cars simply does not exist in Britain.
Amber flashing lights are allowed in such circumstances as a slow-moving local authority lorry gritting roads before snow or cranes being moved on highways.
Judge Mota Singh, Britain’s first Asian judge, is a familiar figure at Indian parties but he has never used a beacon and neither has any other judge.
The Indian peers in the House of Lords — Swraj Paul, Meghnad Desai, Shreela Flather and many others — all have to lead beacon-free lives.
Indian-born MP Dr Ashok Kumar, Labour member for Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, has never had a beacon. “Nor do I want one,” he says. “If there is heavy traffic, we have to put up with it, the same as everyone else.”
Try telling that to a Calcutta VIP and he is sure to see red.