Kottayam: Renjith Babu was busy rescuing people stranded in apartments in Aluva in Kerala's Ernakulam district on August 15, 2018 – the day flood waters began to rise in Periyar - when he received a call from his wife, Josy Mary Edwin. “I am standing in knee-deep water in our house. Water continues to rise. Please come fast,” Josy, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, pleaded him.
The distress call did not panic Renjith. He swiftly sat behind the wheel of his Willy's jeep, revved it up, headed to his home and took Josy to safety. “It was a minor thing,” he recounted. Indeed, it was a simple operation if one compared Renjith's rescue activities when Kerala reeled under floods in August last year. Renjith and his Willy's – a four-wheel drive vehicle (popularly known as 4x4) - waded through the waters and rescued hundreds of people stranded in inundated villages.
Renjith was joined by hundreds of 4x4 owners across the state in the rescue mission. The owners of these vehicles had been receiving distress calls much before the official rescue operations were launched. The police and firemen sought their help. What is more, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself urged their assistance through a Facebook post.
The vehicles could wade through the water because of the snorkel, the silencer fitted at roof height. It prevents water entering the engine when crossing water. Additional fittings, such as power steering and booster brakes, too made the vehicles fit for the rescue operations.
Sam Kurien Kalarickal, president of R&T Off-road Club, was surprised when he and his friend received hundreds of distress calls during the flood. “Our phones rang every other second, probably because the government helpline numbers were not available. Most of the the calls were from people abroad who had their parents stranded in homes,” he said.
Saviours turn outlaws
Off-roaders had won huge appreciation for their selfless service during the floods. The saviours, however, turned outlaws within a few months, thanks to a Supreme Court verdict in January 2019, which ruled that structural changes to vehicles are illegal. Majority of the 4x4 vehicles have undergone structural changes for off-road driving.
The apex court ruled that “no vehicle could be altered so as to change original specification made by the manufacturer.” It also set aside a Kerala High Court verdict that allowed such modifications under the Kerala Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989.
“There is no legal hurdle to add a cushion to your seat. But the structure of the vehicle should not be altered. Alterations can be made to components of the vehicle, including the engine, but they have to be replaced with the same components approved by the manufacturer,” Roy Thomas, Joint Regional Transport Officer at Kottayam, explained.
Roy said the rules were flexible before the Supreme Court verdict. “Earlier, we allowed to cover open vehicles. From now on, if a vehicle doesn't have a roof, it should be used as it is,” he said.
The rule change has dampened the spirits of the four-wheel drive enthusiasts. They seek to change the law, but until then they demand a more relaxed approach from the government.
“If we followed the rule book strictly, we could not have helped people during the floods. So the government officials should understand our concerns,” said Sam.
Responsible upgrade vs unsafe modification
“My jeep is 30 years old. The company doesn't produce original parts anymore. I have fitted it with a power steering. The vehicle rescued many people during the floods. Should I scrap the vehicle I love so much?” asked Tisson Tharappel, liaison officer of the Kerala Adventure Sports Club.
Auto enthusiasts said unsafe modification, such as installing loud silencers and use of tyres protruding out of the body, should be deemed illegal, but there should be no bar on responsible upgrades.
“A responsible off-roader will always keep their vehicle in perfect condition. What we do is an upgrade and not just a shape change. Changing the old steering with a power steering or adding booster brakes are quality upgrades that will make vehicles safer,” said Tisson, who is an automobile engineer.
“We request the government to conduct fitness tests. They can remove unsafe parts during the test. We are ready to pay the fees for it,” Tisson said.
Tisson said other states are more lenient towards off-roaders. “The rule is uniform across the country, but except Kerala other states are using their discretion in implementing it,” added Tisson.
He has appealed to the Supreme Court to differentiate between modification and upgradation, citing his technical study. The apex court has directed the Kerala High Court to look into his appeal. The off-roaders are now pinning their hopes on the verdict.
Sam said government should allow alterations that increase the safety and capabilities of the vehicles. “Companies provide basic spare parts at the time of purchase. A 4x4 that is supplied with Highway Tyres (HT) cannot be used for off-roading, so it should be replaced,” Sam said.
“Spare parts, such as a winch and snorkel, cause no harm to others on the road. We often help police to winch vehicles from accident sites,” said Sam, who trains forest and police department officials to drive four-wheel drive vehicles.
There are 19 off-road clubs in Kerala and almost all of them took part in the rescue and relief operations during the floods. In the process, many vehicles suffered heavy damages. The off-roaders were seen in action again, a week ago, when Kerala was hit by torrential rain and landslides.
The rescue mission damaged the exhaust, break and clutch of the Willy's owned by Renjith. “I had to spend at least Rs 1.5 lakh to bring it back to running condition,” he said.
Water did not enter Sam's Isuzu's engine thanks to the snorkel. “But water was at the level of the driver's seat. So the carpets and electric wiring got damaged,” Sam said.
The losses did not bother the off-roaders. “But we are worried more about the harassment on the road,” Tisson said.