The Cheat Sheet

The case for a ‘lawless’ India

Venky Vembu | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 12, 2017

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Seriously? Been patronising Supreme Court-compliant highway bars excessively?

Okay, that ‘lawless’ bit was meant to provoke, but in the same way that ‘cashless’ became code for ‘less cash’, when I say ‘lawless’ I’m really making the case for ‘less law’ — or fewer and less meddlesome laws.

Why this craving for minimalism in matters of law?

In recent times there’s been an epidemic of ‘special laws’ and rules and regulations. It’s not just the overzealous executive; even overreaching courts are getting to micromanage policy and implementation. As if India isn’t already a nanny state with excessive administrative control and judicial oversight over virtually every aspect of our lives.

But aren’t plentiful laws and rules the markers of a lawful society?

On the contrary, to paraphrase Roman historian Publius Tacitus, “the more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the state.”

Specifically, what are you riled up about?

Well, just last week, Maharashtra passed a Bill that makes attacks on on-duty journalists and media houses a non-bailable offence. Even giving allowance for the distinctive circumstances in which journalists work, it’s indicative of a ‘special needs’ entitlement-and-privilege mentality in lawmaking. In fact, a dispassionate enforcement of existing laws would have sufficed to protect journalists — or, indeed, anyone else. Like doctors.

Doctors?

In recent times, there’s been a string of attacks on on-duty doctors in Mumbai, by families of patients displeased with their service. So, is there a case for a ‘special law’ to protect doctors? I’d say no. Again, existing criminal laws will cover such contingencies.

I get your point, but I don’t see a larger pattern of a nanny state on overdrive.

What else would you call the succession of States enforcing total prohibition — which is a failed policy anyway — in recent days? And the Supreme Court directive on highway bars, which is already being flouted in inventive ways? And the even more absurd proposal evidently being contemplated by the Union Consumer Affairs Ministry to “define”—and perhaps even determine — the size of food portions that restaurants serve? Whatever the rationale cited, these are manifestations of a mai-baap mentality of a state that swears by excessive intervention in people’s lives. The irony is that these statist-paternalistic ideas are coming from a party that promised ‘minimum government, maximum governance’.

So, where does ‘minimum government’ begin?

It begins with repealing obsolete laws. In the mid-1990s, economist Bibek Debroy headed a project on law reforms to identify such outdated laws. The Ramanujam Committee, set up by the Narendra Modi government in 2014, identified over 2,700 Union-level statutes ripe for repeal, some dating back to 1834. Modi has claimed that his government had repealed 1,200 such obsolete laws.

But what harm can old laws do?

Oh, obsolete regulations are a law enforcer’s hideous instrument of harassment. As Debroy recalls, under the Aircraft Act, 1934, you needed a government licence even to fly a kite. Similarly, hotels could be hauled up under the Sarais Act, 1867, if they didn’t give free drinks of water to passersby! And factories that have installed fire extinguishers could still be in violation of a provision under the Factories Act, 1948, that required them to have a red-painted bucket filled with sand!

That’s bizarre!

Yup. Only corrupt nanny states need more new rules and regulations. What India needs is a healthy dose of ‘less-law-ness’.

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Published on April 12, 2017
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