It was a sweltering day in my hometown, Chennai, and as my Maruti hatchback crawled through the morning peak-hour traffic, I decided I’d done well not to remove the one thing that protected me from the scorching heat of the midday sun, and the unwanted attention of leering bikers, drivers and commuters – the sun film on my car windows.
The Supreme Court of India had recently banned the use of adhesive black sun-protection film (or ‘sun film’ as it’s called in India), which car manufacturers will apply on windshields and windows for between Rs 10,000 and Rs 35,000. I’d been evading posses of policemen for weeks, but my luck ran out towards the end of August, when I was finally pulled up, on the city’s arterial Mount Road.
“Sir, there’s 50% visibility in the side windows and 70% in the front and back,” I tried arguing.
“Madam, sorry, Supreme Court regulations. Car window should be completely transparent.”
“But tinting of glasses for the same percentage of visibility is allowed. What difference does it make?”
“I don’t know all that, madam. Pay hundred rupees fine. When you have time, get the sun film removed.”
On April 27, the Supreme Court issued an order, effective from May 4, 2012, banning sun film on car windows, in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a man called Avishek Goenka, who calls himself a PIL activist on his Twitter page.
His website, http://saveaamadmi.com, reveals his irritating penchant for spending his leisure hours going through the crime pages of newspapers, filing petitions in the Supreme Court, and typing in upper case.
His latest cause reads: “users of 2.wheelers & sub 4 lac.fuel eff. cars paying premium for petrol whereas owners of fuel devouring suv.s devouring subsidised diesel … is it justified ??” It appears that his grouse is against subsidy on the price of diesel, which allows people who can afford cars that cost more than Rs 4 lakh (Rs 400,000) to spend less money on each litre of fuel than people with cheaper cars or bikes.
Though his contention that sun film facilitates rape, kidnapping and smuggling has drawn ire on several sites, including this blog and the comments section of an online petition, he appears to have the overwhelming support of India’s busy Supreme Court judges.
Calling him “public spirited”, the Court held that “alarming rise in heinous crimes like kidnapping, sexual assault on women and dacoity have impinged upon the right to life and the right to live in a safe environment.” Repeatedly citing shortage of policemen and the “scarce” availability of devices such as a luxometer, which can measure the opaqueness of vehicle windows, the apex court decided that the best option was to ban sun film. However, there is no ban on the use of tinted glass with the same visual light transmission (VLT) level. Nor is there a ban on the use of curtains for privacy.
The court also said, “Black films on the vehicles are also at times positively correlated with motor accidents on the roads” and blamed their “comparative visibility” for the fact that “persons driving at high speed, especially on highways, meet with accidents.”
Initially, the ruling wasn’t given much importance by commuters. Perhaps people thought it would only be taken as seriously as other traffic rules in India – wear helmets, wear seat belts, obey signals, drive on the right lane, keep to the left, don’t drink and drive, don’t use mobile phones while driving. After all, the conditional ban on sun protection makes considerably less sense than any of the above.
But in the first week of June, Commissioners of Police across the country were pulled up for not enforcing this particular order, and patrol teams immediately went into overdrive, ripping sun film off windows in addition to imposing punitive fees and threatening to revoke licences.
Once the media took the order seriously, contemplative articles began to question the soundness of the judgment. A report quoted legal experts suggesting that the Supreme Court had effectively brought in a new law.
Several review petitions were filed by manufacturers and distributors of sun film, and one was filed by an association of cancer patients, who contended that exposure to UV rays could worsen their condition.
On August 3, a Bench of the Supreme Court dismissed all the petitions. The Bench cited a “complete research article on the cancer scenario in India” submitted by Goenka to conclude that “cancer is much less in India [than in developed countries] despite the fact that most of the Indian population is exposed to ultra-violet rays for the larger part of the day for earning their livelihood.” It also helpfully suggested that people who want to protect themselves from UV rays may benefit from sun-block and sunscreen creams.
Not only did this kill an industry worth Rs 150 crore with a single thump of the gavel, but far from protecting women from voyeurs, lechers, and criminals, it only exposed us to sexual harassment. State governments have been known to respond to law and order trouble with knee-jerk reactions. However, the judiciary is usually more circumspect. I was to encounter the effects of this hasty ruling the very next afternoon, on the same road where I was fined and ordered to have the sun film removed the day before.
At a traffic signal, two boys wearing government-school uniforms, began to make lewd gestures at me, catcall, whistle and loudly discuss my appearance with each other. Worse, bikers, auto-men and van drivers peered at the source of their interest, and smiled encouragement, prompting boys about half my age to further their verbal assault on me. There was no policeman in sight.
I later chanced upon an article that assured me the presence of policemen wouldn’t have made much difference. In India, sexual harassment of women is described as “eve-teasing”, as if it were an old fashioned form of courtship. Unable to control crime against women, police across metros (including the national capital, Delhi) have advised us to stay home after 8:00 PM, and to avoid racy clothes that “ask” for rape. Worse, some victims of rape have given the media disturbing accounts of their treatment by the police.
Two years after I’d traded my bike in for a car, to escape being stalked, threatened and groped, a Bench of the highest court had made my life more difficult. A (hopefully) sarcastic comment on one website says: “I travel every day atleast 50 kms from home to office. Most of the private school buses, SRS buses, infant travel vehicles have not yet removed the tint. On the other end I can now easily see who is in the other car/cab and I can watch their move, see when the lady applies lipstick and when she combs her hair because the glass is transparent. [sic.] Thanks to SC and RTO who gave us the opportunity to watch all this and get entertained on the road.”
More direct outbursts have said this is akin to blaming domestic violence on the institution of marriage, or banning helmets so that criminals can’t hide their identities. Other angry responses wonder whether Goenka owns a shop that deals in tinted glass. Certainly the police have benefited enormously, with Chennai and Delhi traffic departments each collecting fines totalling over Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) in six weeks.
Less than four years ago, in the wee hours of November 26, 2008, terrorists who had stolen a police vehicle mounted an attack on Mumbai.
Ironically, it remains the case that someone could draw the curtains, install detachable sun-protection shades, or tint his car windows – all of which are still permissible under the law – and rape someone in his car to his loins’ content.
No women’s group appears to have filed a review petition. Going by the tone of the Bench’s response to the association representing cancer patients, it may not be worth the trouble of filing a petition. Meanwhile, women can wear burkhas if they are uncomfortable with being ogled.