Legality of Automobile Modification/Customization in India

Everyone of us have either did or would have at least thought of modifying/customizing our bike, our car as per your preferences and to make it look above the rest. However when I woke up on 10th January, my dreams of modifying my Royal Enfield Thunderbird shattered after reading the headlines “You can’t paint or modify your bike, car! It’s against the law”[1]. Newspapers are filled with such headlines after the Supreme Court reversed the judgement of Division Bench of Kerala High Court that allowed structural alterations in accordance with Kerala Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989.

After reading the headlines and abridged report, I went on to read to everything on the subject to have a better clarity on whether this is a blanket ban on each and every modifications or there are certain regulations surpassing which could lead to illegality of the modification.

The first impression of the Court’s ruling is certainly a setback for car and bike modification industry thriving on fancy requirements of their clients. Though these operations are confined to local garages the industry has seen some of the big names emerging too, these include DC motors, Rajputana Customs and Vardenchi. The industry takes care of modifications in the automobiles for performance enhancement and cosmetic redesigning.

Law in question

The Motor Vehicles Act ,1988 is the chief legal instrument relating to motor vehicles in India. It delves into all aspects relating to motor vehicles in the country including the changes in road transport technologies, pattern of passenger and freight movements, developments of the road transport network in the country and improved techniques in the motor vehicles management and the controversial judgement of the Supreme Court deals with Section 52 of this legislation only, that specifically talks about Alteration in motor vehicles. This section has been amended by virtue of Amendment Act 27/2000 in the following manner :

“Amendment Act 27 of 2000 – Statement of Objects and Reasons­­ – The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 consolidated and rationalized various laws regulating road transport .The said Act was amended in 1994.

2. Further amendments in the aforesaid Act have become necessary so as to reduce the vehicular pollution and to ensure the safety of the road users. It is ,therefore ,proposed and to ensure the safety of vehicles in any manner including change of tyres of higher capacity .However ,the alteration of vehicles with a view to facilitating the use of eco-friendly fuel including Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is being permitted. Further, it is proposed to conferpowers on the Central Government to allow the alterations of vehicles for certain specified purposes.”

Further the amended version of Section 52 that essentially deals with Alteration in a motor vehicle states

“(1) No owner of a motor vehicle shall so alter the vehicle that the particulars contained in the certificate of registration are at variance with those originally specified by the manufacturer”

Provided these modifications are in pursuance of the above mentioned objectives of enhancing fuel efficiency thereby reducing vehicular pollution or any other special purpose as exempted by the Central Government. Further, any modifications made in the vehicle need to be approved by State Government. 

Facts of the Matter

The dilemma began as in pursuance of the above law, the Kerala government issued a Circular specifying that the Registering Authorities must not issue a certificate of registration to those vehicles that are built or modified in violation of the prototypes set.  Based on the circular, a number of vehicles were denied registration on account of having dimensions different than those specified .This led to several vehicle owners filing Writ petitions in Kerala High Court against such denial. The decisions rendered by Single Judge benches of the High Court in two different cases were contrary to each other. While one decision stated that the Regional Transport Authority’s powers to “intelligently exercise their discretion” cannot be “fettered”, another stated that “derogation of a prototype cannot be approved.” Thus the matter was referred to a Divisional Bench wherein the High Court passed an order holding “structural alterations permissible as per the provisions of the Kerala Rules.”

Supreme Court’s ruling

The court found fallacy’s in the Divisional bench judgement mainly on the interpretation of the Rules . It held that the interpretation of the Rules should be done in a manner so as to support the intent of the Act. Further, the court on specific point of permissible changes held that the changes permitted under the Rules can be made subject to the exemptions imposed by Section 52 of the Motor Vehicles act while stating that Rules are subservient to the Act, the Court held .

“In our considered opinion the Division Bench in the impugned judgement of the High Court of Kerala has failed to give effect to the provisions contained in section 52(1) and has emphasized only on the Rules. As such, the decision rendered by the Division Bench cannot be said to be laying down the law correctly .The Rules are subservient to the provisions of the Act.”

Implications of the Judgment

It can be plainly assumed that no modifications shall be allowed in the vehicles unless those related to the exemptions under Section 52 , which namely includes changes done in pursuance with reducing vehicular pollution or ones specifically exempted by the Central Government.  However, does this mean any change can be done in the vehicle on the name of improving fuel efficiency?

Thus one carefully needs to understand the meaning of “alterations” as stated under section 52 of the Act.

“Explanation : For the purposes of this section, “alteration” means a change in the structure of a vehicle which results in a change in its basic feature.”

Thus, there lies ample space for the automobile modification industry to operate. Modifications in automobile may be approved if the basic feature of the automobile are intact and the modifications made thereupon does not harm road safety or violate the law stated above.

Some precedents mentioned in the judgement delve help us better understand the law :

  • S Rajesh Kumar v. The Additional Registering Authority of Kerala High Court[2]

In this case, the petitioner wanted to convert a a passenger vehicle into a cinema outdoor unit by fixing a generator set therein. The Court held that the petitioner has not made any alteration to either the chassis or the body of the vehicle as the manufacturer has manufactured only the chassis of the vehicle and not its superstructure . In pace of the seats meant for the passengers, the petitioner was fitting only a generator which was permissible. There was no violation of the provisions of section 52.

  • Javeed v. Union of India &Ors[3]

In this case chassis were changed as a necessity on account of an accident. There were no other changes in the structure of the vehicle. It was held that section 52(3) enables the owner of the vehicle to replace the engine of the vehicle but the factum of replacement has to be reported to the Authority within 14 days .Thus refusal of registration was held to be bad in law and set aside.

Thus it can be concluded, This Judgment is not a BLANKET BAN on each and every customization/modification  and it encompasses only the unwarranted cosmetic changes in automobiles especially application of higher capacity wheels or extension of body frames that pose threat to road safety or in any manner increases pollution caused by the automobile this would entail change in exhausts, changes in engine configuration. However, silver lining in the cloud is,  there is still room for modifications to continue in pursuance with objectives and exemptions laid under Section 52 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1989 and cutom houses like DC, Vardenchi abd Rajputana Customs will continue to rule our hearts with their magnificent designs.

Author: Mr. Shubham Borkar, Senior Associate – Litigation and Business Development  and Gursimran narula – Intern, at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys. In case of any queries please contact/write back to us at shubham@khuranaandkhurana.com or at www.linkedin.com/in/shubhamborkar.

References:

[1]https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/you-can-paint-or-modify-your-bike-car-it-is-against-law/story/308685.html

[2]K.S Rajesh Kumar v. The Additional Registering Authority of Kerala High Court delivered on 1.2.2010

[3]Mohd.Javeed v. Union of India &Ors. (2001) 9 ALD 88 = 2009 1 ALT 507

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