An accident is not a crime, and a crime is not an accident. That distinction kept playing in my mind as I thought of the incident in which a drunken driver, Alistair Pereira, killed seven and injured eight pavement dwellers in Mumbai one night last November. The case against him was ruled to be one of rash driving and not one of culpable homicide by a court. Pereira was handed down a six-month prison sentence and a fine of Rs 5 lakhs (approximately US$ 11,000.)
That ruling by a lower court provoked the High Court of the state of Maharashtra to take suo moto re-examination of the case as a possible miscarriage of justice. “The HC issued notices to the state government, Pereira and relatives of the deceased and those injured, asking why the court should not examine and satisfy itself about the ‘correctness, legality and propriety of the findings, sentence and order passed during the trial,’ ” reports the Mumbai newspaper DNA. This comes as a welcome surprise to me and I applaud the action of the HC.
I agree with the conception of justice as fairness, as outlined by the Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921—2002). Fairness must be the cornerstone of any social contract that I live under and subscribe to. “Is it fair?” is the question that would most interest me when I am evaluating any institution or situation.
When I meditate on the deaths of those poor people, and realize that it was not an accident but a crime, I am revolted by a judgment that does not even amount to a slap on a wrist for the criminal. Yes, people are involved in fatal traffic accidents. But a drunken driver killing people is not a traffic accident. To drive under the influence of alcohol is a deliberate decision. That action is more voluntary than involuntary. If that deliberate act leads to the death of innocents, the driver is guilty of murder, not involuntary manslaughter.
Six months of jail time for killing seven people? That’s not fair in my opinion. If the man had killed – or even injured – someone rich and powerful, I am sure that he would not have gotten off so lightly. But in this case, the victims were the poorest of the poor in the city of Mumbai. They slept on the streets, occasional victims of drunken driving by the rich and powerful. If I recall correctly, one movie idol of Indian cinema also had mowed down a handful of sleeping street people not too long ago. He too got away with it.
Collectively I think that the Indian society lacks a sense of fairness. I know that my claim will upset many proud Indians but no more than it upsets me to reach that conclusion. I see too many cases of oppression around for me to conclude that as a society we do not have a very well developed sense of what is fair and what is not.
What would I have ruled had I been the judge? If the prosecution had demonstrated that the driver was drunk and killed a bunch of people, I would throw the book at the criminal. And in the imaginary situation, I would imagine the book to say the following in the case of drunken drivers turned killers.
First, for every person killed, the driver gets a 20 year sentence. Second, he has to pay monetary damages that are set equal to the life-time income of an average person. Ten of the 20 years have to be served in prison and ten outside, with prison years alternating. If the killer has resources to pay for the monetary damages, they will be recovered immediately. Any shortfall in the monetary damages will be recovered from the person’s earnings during his time out of jail. After having finished the 20 years of sentence time, he will be free but his earnings will continue to make up for any shortfall in the monetary damages. The monetary damages are to go to the next of kin of the deceased.
So in the case of Alistair Pereira, since he killed 7 people, the total sentence time is set at 140 years. And total monetary damages to be around $200,000 (7 people times $700 person per year times 40 years of working life). He is wealthy and the family will be able to pay that off immediately. Alistair can then settle down to do his time in jail for the rest of his natural life. The $200,000 can go to help the families of those killed by Alistair.
I am not in favor of revenge. I don’t think that hanging Pereira is fair and just. He is responsible for the harm he caused and by killing him, the harm cannot be undone. But if he were to continue to work to repair the monetary damage at least, it would be better for society as a whole.
What I do advocate is that cases of Pereira-like killings must be prevented. How? By making people aware of that drunken driving kills; that those who kill while under the influence of alcohol will have to pay reparations and also serve mandatory jail time; and most importantly, no one is exempt from the fair application of this law.
The drunk movie star who killed the pavement dwellers some time ago provided an excellent opportunity for society to curb the incidence of drunken killing. Society should have locked that “hero” away for life, stripped him of all his assets to the last penny, and then publicized the incident and the punishment to such as extent that no one who was not totally comatose for the subsequent year would be unaware of who committed the crime, what his punishment for doing so was, and how thoroughly he paid for it. This would effectively put the fear of god into even retards and they would not dream of going near a driving wheel when they have had a few drinks.
But life is cheap in India. The guys who drive SUVs and Toyota Corollas are rich enough to buy out the law enforcement officers. The police can be bought and so can the judges. Politicians, I kid you not, can also be bought. Sorry that my cynicism is showing. But unless the people have a strong sense of fairness, there is little chance that justice will prevail in a country.
That sense of fairness, I am afraid, cannot be bought in a tube of Fair and Lovely.