The Long (H)arm of the Law (The Hindu)

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to scrap obsolete laws is welcome, but the task is easier said than done.

During his speech at the 68th Independence Day function on the Supreme
Court lawns, Union Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad took
into confidence an audience of judges and lawyers about a brief
interaction he had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Prime Minister wanted him to clear the clutter of obsolete laws from
the path of good governance. The task is daunting. Its history, not too
cheery: the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government
attempted the same through the P.C. Jain Commission in 1998, and the
United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government tried to do the same, but
never ventured beyond the “thinking” stage.
The Minister’s speech came just a few days after the Repealing and
Amending Bill, 2014, was introduced in Parliament on August 6. It sought
to repeal 36 obsolete laws and is still pending.
Critics say the Bill is just eyewash as of the 36 Acts listed in it, 30
are redundant. In its current form, the Bill will only have minimal
effect as only six laws are standalones. These are the Indian Fisheries
Act, 1897; the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1947; the Sugar Undertakings
(Taking Over of Management) Act, 1978; the Employment of Manual
Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993; the
Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation
Act, 2013; and the Whistleblowers Act, 2011. While the latter two are
up for amendment, the others will be repealed.
The Modi government has shown keenness in clearing the pile-up of
century-old laws. On August 27, the Prime Minister allowed the setting
up of a two-member committee, headed by R. Ramanujam, Secretary in the
Prime Minister’s Office, to introduce a comprehensive Bill for doing
away with obsolete laws by the winter session of Parliament.
While the government’s move has found approval from most sections, trade
unions are visibly unhappy with the move on labour reforms. Baij Nath
Rai, president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which along with
the BJP shares its membership with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is
deeply suspicious of such moves. “We support the review of laws in order
to strengthen punitive clauses against employers who currently bend the
rules. But we oppose reform or dilution of labour laws. Any review
should honour the spirit of these laws.” The BMS recently threw a
spanner in the works of the BJP-controlled Rajasthan Government’s move
to relax the application of labour laws.
Bureaucrats simply do not implement certain laws to overcome the
challenge posed by outdated laws for the time being. “If a law is
obsolete, we leave it to the discretion of the officer whether to
implement it or not. That way it does not impede our work,” former
Jharkhand Chief Secretary S.K. Choudhary said. He said problems arose
when bureaucrats had to interpret antiquated words used in colonial law
that is not in common use. “Such laws need to be redrafted.”
Though there have been several committees to advise on reform measures,
busy bureaucrats have prioritised routine tasks with the result that reports on administrative reforms gather dust.
Past efforts

The previous NDA government under Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee too had
attempted spring-cleaning through the four-member P.C Jain Commission.
The IAS officer-led panel, called the Commission on Review of
Administrative Laws, was formed in May 1998 by the Ministry of
Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions.

Five months and 43 meetings later, the commission filed its report. Mr.
Jain, in his letter to the then Cabinet Secretary, Prabhat Kumar, spells
out the hurdles created by obsolete laws in everyday life in a country
journeying through its first decade of liberalisation.
“They contribute to the persistence of dissatisfaction with existing
procedures, red tape, delays and harassment, the complexity of
administrative laws in India and the attitude of officials.”
He tells the Cabinet Secretary that some Acts have outlived their
utility or become anachronistic, adding to the disharmony in a country
where the sheer pace of development competes with the fact that 70 per
cent of the population lives in abject poverty.
There is an urgent need to bring about a radical change in the mindset
of administration at almost all levels. Officers are not accessible to
people for whom they exist. Grievance redress mechanism exists only on
paper. Complaints are not received or not acted upon. Reply to the
complaints is an exception rather than the rule, particularly in public
sector banks and utilities providing power, water, street lighting,
sanitation, sewerage and telephones. The helplessness of an average
citizen is to be objectively assessed to be believed,” he wrote.
Out of the total 1,382 Central laws, 700 pertain to Appropriation Acts,
114 relate to State subjects and 166 include 11 Pre-Nationalisation Acts
and 20 Validation Acts. Eleven relate to British statutes still in
force, 17 to wartime permanent ordinances, 35 to Reorganisation Acts, 12
to laws applicable to the High Courts and 12 to personal laws.
But it was only four years later, in March 2002, the government would
implement the Jain Commission’s recommendation, and that too partly, by
repealing just 315 Amendments Acts.
One of the suggestions the commission put forward, taking a leaf out of
the statute book of the United States, was the incorporation of a
“sunset provision” in a statute by which the law would be updated or
repealed automatically after a particular date.
A decade later, in May 2012, the “sunset provision” principle was mooted
by the UPA government. The Law Ministry debated whether it would be
feasible to have laws with expiry dates. This would compel lawmakers to
review the statute book periodically, they said.
The UPA’s lawmakers suggested that laws be made valid for 25 or 50
years, after which it would automatically get repealed if not extended
or updated. The Ministry even discussed getting rid of laws abandoned
for the past 15-20 years. They were aware that at least 174 laws were
passed before 1900. Some of these laws were pivotal for criminal justice
system such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Evidence Act, 1872.
But discussions had remained on paper.
(With additional reporting by Pheroze L. Vincent in New Delhi)
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