IT IS morning rush hour and Kuljit Singh Nagra, Congress MLA from Fatehgarh Sahib, is on his way from Delhi to Chandigarh. His white Innova is in queue at the toll tax barrier on the Chandigarh-Ambala highway, behind at least five other cars. Nagra is fidgety. With his beacon gone, the two-term MLA hopes the only other marker of his VIP status — the sticker on his vehicle windscreen that reads “MLA” — will do the job for him. So far today, it isn’t working.
“I have 15 functions in Fatehgarh Sahib today. And I need to make a stopover in Chandigarh for half an hour. If I do not get past this toll booth, how will I make it? This is the problem with removing beacons,” he says, before quickly adding, “It’s not that I am in favour of red beacons. In fact, I got mine removed during my last term. But we need to work out a system so that we do not get delayed.”
With the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab implementing its pre-election promise of doing away with the red beacon for most VIPs, MLAs in Punjab say life hasn’t been easy ever since.
According to a notification issued on April 15, only the Punjab Governor, Chief Justice and judges of the High Court, besides ambulances, disaster recovery vehicles, police and fire services, and security vehicles are permitted to use beacons.
A few MLAs, mostly first-timers, who resisted the removal of the red beacon, say the timing of the decision has been particularly harsh on them. “Why us? Our seniors enjoyed all the perks of being MLAs. Just when we get elected, they do away with the beacon. At least ministers wield power; the beacon was the only perk MLAs got,” says a Congress legislator from Majha region. Besides the privilege of zooming past boom barriers, VIP vehicles are exempted from paying toll at booths.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, another MLA recounts how, after the beacon was removed, his vehicle was stopped at toll tax booths and he wasn’t allowed free entry into venues of state functions. “All this wouldn’t have happened if I had a beacon. The other day, a woman at a toll booth counter did not believe me when I said I was an MLA. I showed her my ID card but she said anyone can get such a card made. It took me at least five minutes, at the end of which she didn’t look too convinced but let me go,” says another Congress MLA from Majha.
Gurpartap Singh Wadala, Akali MLA from Nakodar, says the “only problem” with the removal of beacons was “all this waiting” at toll plazas. “They should devise a way,” he says.
Another first-time Congress MLA says he had bought a red beacon soon after taking oath, but now it’s of no use. “I spent Rs 2,500. Now the beacon is lying at home. I look at it everyday and laugh at myself. Why have I become an MLA? To go to my constituency, collect piles of files and bring it to the ministers?” he says.
Harinder Singh Phoolka, AAP leader in the Punjab Assembly, says the party has always been against red beacons so “I do not understand all this rant of MLAs about delays. The idea is to behave like a common man and face the hurdles they do”.
Back at the Chandigarh-Ambala highway, Nagra’s car finally reaches the counter after a wait of about 5 minutes.
“MLA sahib hain (It’s the MLA),” says the driver, craning his neck out of the window and pointing towards Nagra on the back seat. The attendant gestures to a security guard, who walks up to the vehicle and peers through the windows of the car and asks, “Kaun hain MLA? ID hai (Who’s the MLA? Do you have an identity card)?”
Nagra takes out his card and hands it to the guard, who flips it around for a while. The drivers of other cars waiting in the queue begin honking. Another guard runs up to his vehicle and asks breathlessly, “Lal batti nahi hai (Doesn’t the car have a beacon)?” He checks Nagra’s card, salutes him and says, “Sorry sir, eh dono navein munde han (These two are new comers).”
As the boom barrier finally lifts, Nagra heaves a sigh of relief and asks his driver to speed up. After a brief halt at his residence in Chandigarh, about 20 km from the toll booth, Nagra starts his onward journey towards Fatehgarh Sahib. As the vehicle passes through Landran, 30 km from Fatehgarh Sahib, Nagra looks out of the car window and says, “Look at all these policemen posted here. If I had a beacon, they would have at least given me a salute.”
Just then, a Gypsy with blue and red beacons zooms past Nagra’s car. “Look at that. It is the Deputy Commissioner’s car. They will have a free pass everywhere, but not even a truck will allow us to overtake. And I am already running late,” he says.
There are some MLAs, however, who have managed to circumvent the beacon ban. “Some of us have got ‘Government of Punjab’ written on the number plates of our vehicles and others use SUVs as pilot vehicles so that they make way for our cars. Hun assi kariye vi ki? Kujh ta karna hi pavega (What do we do… we have to do something),” says a Congress MLA from lower Malwa.