Recently I had to get my LMV (i.e car) driving licence renewed. After some Googling, I downloaded and printed out a couple of forms – an application for renewal of driving licence, and a self-declaration regarding my medical fitness, and finally a medical certificate to be signed by a doctor.

Since the Tamil Nadu State Transport Authority’s website (which has downloadable versions of the forms) did not indicate if I needed the self-declaration or the one by the doctor, I filled out both. Then after more research, I found I needed the latter, so got that done and headed over to my local RTO (Regional Transport Office).

Standing in line

Licence applications can be done online now. However, being the sceptic that I am, I decided to just go directly to the RTO. There I found a desk at the entrance with two officials seated behind it, directing citizens. I approached and was told to hand over a photocopy of my current licence which was then attested by the official. I was next sent to a counter where I would get a number. The line was about 6 people deep so it took over 30 minutes for me to get to the counter. Here another official entered data from my photocopy into some software, jotted down my new driving licence number on the photocopy and told me to take that back to the desk. There, after a short wait, my photocopy was again scribbled on and I was now told, “Do everything online and come back to get your photo taken”.

Traversing the e-parivahan world

The friendly auto driver who had been standing in line with me earlier told me there were a couple of shops across the road who, for a fee, would “do all the online stuff” for me. So following a line of other hopeful applicants, I crossed the road into a tiny shop where I handed over the licence photocopy with its doodles, and the forms I had filled up. I was told that a DL (driving licence) renewal would cost Rs 500 (the government’s fee) and then Rs 250 for services provided and this would include a medical certificate duly attested by a doctor. Apparently this doctor was attesting to people’s medical fitness to drive a vehicle, sight unseen!

I told the person I had got my doctor to sign the form already; the fee promptly dropped to Rs 120. A helpful young woman busily entered data into the Government of India’s online portal (Parivahan). All I had to do was sign on a form and use my debit card to pay the Government Rs 500. Then my documents were scanned and uploaded online. All the hard copies were neatly pinned together and I was given the payment receipt that would be needed to pick up the licence.

I trotted back dutifully to the desk at the RTO and after another check, was directed to the last room where the photograph was to be taken. That was quickly done and I was told to come back at 5.30 p.m to pick up my licence.

There has been much mention recently of how processes have been streamlined and gone online for user convenience, accountability, and transparency. No doubt with a little focussed time I could have done all of this on my own, scanning and uploading the documents online. Even though exactly what one needs is not explained on the website; you learn as you go through the process. What stumped me was why then did my licence photocopy needed to be doodled on by the guy at the desk and my new DL number written on it before the documents and fee submitted? Defeats the purpose of the online process, doesn’t it? If I had managed to apply online, then would this step not be required?

On the other hand, many people in India continue to be slightly suspicious of “e-services”, preferring to go speak to a human being directly as could be witnessed by the number of people (of all ages) approaching the desk at the RTO. To send these people to go do everything online then is unfair. No one is going to head all the way home to do this, and not everyone has access to scanners or even internet at home. So one, perforce, has to rely on the mini-industry which crops up around the RTO – those little shops proclaiming in huge letters that they do all the online RTO work you need. For a fee, of course.

Overall it was not a horrible experience and took relatively little time though it displayed our bureaucracy’s penchant for sending one from counter to counter for no discernible reason. My grouse with the process though is that the focus is on red tape and not on actually trying to ensure that I (as an applicant) am not a menace on the roads!

Getting my licence renewed just underlined for me, how inadequate our licence-testing procedures are. People who do not know the basic road rules are given licences. The driving test for two-wheelers is a very arbitrary one – requiring the applicant to drive the vehicle in a figure of eight without putting her foot down! The car test is marginally better, but only marginally. When I took the test 20 years ago, I had to start the car, pull out, drive down a small residential road, take a left, and pull over. Less than 5 minutes of driving. How are these a test of one’s driving skills under different conditions, or of one’s knowledge of rules? It is not as if the written test is very comprehensive either. I have heard RTOs and Motor Vehicle Inspectors talk of how many licences they clear in a day; as if their sole role is to ensure everyone in India who applies gets a licence. In countries like the USA and UK, getting a licence is very difficult. The failure rate is high because the test is tough. Search You Tube and you will find several videos of what it takes to pass the test -a minimum driving time of 40 minutes on different road types with specific manoeuvres to be done. The RTOs (or their equivalent) and/or driving schools also provide a proper book with rules to be studied before taking the test. What do we get in India? A measly printout with the road signs on it.

No wonder India contributes 10% of the global deaths due to road traffic incidents. It’s not our roads that are killers. We are.