Old laws in India

As most Indians who have been through the Indian courts for a legal case will tell you, the Indian justice system is not famous for its speed or efficiency. The backlog of cases is in the order of millions of cases, and it is not at all uncommon for cases to languish in our wonderful courts for decades, making you wonder if the justice system should really be called “the injustice system”.
For libertarians like me, a strong and effective judiciary is vital if we have to enforce property rights, resolve contract disputes, and make tort laws effective. (And if you ask Yazad, he will probably say that only private arbitration bodies are required.)
Over on The Examined Life, Ravikiran makes a case that legal options for regular folks like us are not desirable because our complicated laws actually favour large corporate groups with lots of money who can afford to wait around for years while the common man goes nuts waging his battle against them. Says Ravikiran:

Our legal system is too slow because we have too many laws. Each law is individually vague and each individual action is covered by so many laws that there is no way to tell whether an action is legal or not till it is actually brought to court and a judge actually pronounces on it.

Alas, this is all too true. I heard someone say on TV once that our Income Tax law is the longest in the world, having gone through hundreds of modifications over the years.
But to add to what Ravi is saying, our big problem today is that the laws governing us are so convoluted simply because they are so damn old! We are governed by so many archaic, anachronistic, useless laws that just the interpretation of them ties up cases for years. Many of our laws are a century old; some even older. These laws have to be interpreted in a modern context to deal with the realities of this century, but they were written in an age when none of these issues were thought of.

Want examples? All the telecommunications and broadcasting regulations in this country are governed by the Indian Telegraph Act of – guess which year? – believe it or not, 1855. The Indian Penal Code that makes homosexuality a crime? That’s from 1860. The same law also makes adultery a crime, though only the male who has sex with a married woman can be imprisoned. (No, I’m not kidding!) Indian Contract Act? As recent as 1872. The Official Secrets Act is from 1923. The Banking Regulation Act is from 1949 (and so ATM transactions are a grey area.)
It’s hard to believe that while we are living in the 21st century, we are still governed by laws from the 19th century. And as the years have passed, the government has added clauses that usually start with “Notwithstanding anything written in…” which added more crud to laws that were already complicated enough.
It’s time to bring Indian law into this century by starting with a clean slate and starting, as Ravi says, with principles. But who in the government is going to take the initiative? Atal Behari Vajpayee, our former Prime Minister, had taken a bold step forward in the beginning of his last term by announcing that he would rewrite laws that didn’t make sense. Unfortunately, that was the only step he took. As is usually done in this country, a committee was appointed for this. And as with most things in India that get assigned to a committee, that was the last we heard of it too. Unfortunately, our dear Mr. Vajpayee was abducted by aliens some time after the elections last year, and has since disappeared from this planet. So he can’t even offer any counsel to our new government. Maybe the aliens will return him after they’ve completed their research into painfully slow speech. P Chidambaram, the Finance Minister, recently announced that he would introduce a completely new Income Tax Act by the end of this year. It’s a small step, but it’s welcome. What about the rest of them?

16 thoughts to “Old laws in India”

  1. In my opinion, there quite a politically feasible solution here
    1. Moving much of these “central subjects” to the states will be both politically expedient and practically effective(or not as the case maybe).
    2. Moving away from Income Tax to sales tax.
    Why would the left raise an issue if the finance minister were to announce tommorrow that there will be no Income Tax ??…can’t this beat the commies in their own game?

  2. Nilu,
    If you moved it to the states, you’d just get even more variants of the law, just one for each state. So you might find that you can be gay in, say, Kerala, but not in Bihar. ;)
    2. Moving away from Income Tax to sales tax.
    Why, I proposed exactly that many years ago.
    Why would the left raise an issue if the finance minister were to announce tommorrow that there will be no Income Tax ??
    If you remember, the Left was actually asking for income tax to be raised to raise revenue for “welfare” programmes. The Left allegedly represents the “working class” who don’t pay any income tax, unlike us middle class and higher people.
    So if you banished income tax, you’d be taking money away that could be used for the exceedingly efficient government welfare schemes to “help the poor”. And we rich SOBs should pay tax because we make more money, damn it!
    Comrade Nilu, you have much to learn.

  3. Exactly my point Madman.If am not gay in Bihar, I might probably move there. This comparison might force states to reach the equilibrium of the minimum.
    And regarding the welfare programs and Taxation – can’t the Finance minister indulge in political grandstanding and specious rhetoric to spin welfare on it’s head??..I think it’s possible.

  4. The weekly blogside view of the Indian economy (7)

    Every week some not always blind men from not necessarily Hindustan alone describe what they think is the elephant. Here are this week’s perceptions….

  5. There has been some work done in this area. Too little, too slow for my taste though. Here’s Gurcharan Das writing on the progress last year.

    Manmohan Singh is aware that eliminating unwanted laws or simplifying them is a powerful way to improve governance. Ten years ago when he was finance minister, he set up a group under Bibek Debroy precisely to examine this. The group made an exhaustive study of central laws and concluded that 1,500 out of 3,500 laws were obsolete. If they were scrapped or significantly modified the citizen’s life would improve. Known as Project LARGE, the group brought out 30 reports and seven books that Allied published between 1994 and 1998. Arun Jaitley, as law minister, scrapped 350 of these laws. Now is the time, Dr Manmohan Singh, to follow through with the good work you began.

  6. The age of laws isn’t the problem, unless they become technologically obsolete.
    Nor is the fact that there are too many laws really an issue (every country has nearly endless lists of laws and regulations). If Parliament started passing laws to govern the kinds of issues that are becoming increasingly important in India right now, the length of the law books would be as long or longer than they currently are.
    But I agree that the justice system is way, way too slow. Why is that? I’ve never really understood why it takes 8 years to prosecute a case in India.
    If someone could cut out a lot of the red tape involved in bringing a case to trial, it would make a huge difference.

  7. The problem seems to be two fold – antiquated laws combined with lax enforcement. I am whole heartedly for fewer and more sensible laws that can be and ARE enforced!
    Correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe courier companies operated quite illegally for several years as under the original Indian Postal Act of 1898 private companies were not allowed to carry letters! This was corrected by an amendment after an appropriate delay (but of course) of several years, but there are some people who would love to go back to the good old days see ( http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=82901 ) for more.
    About bad legislation combined with poor enforcement – well internationally India is known to have one of the highest concentrations of illegal Small Arms/ Light Weapons in Asia. What does the government do about this? It keeps on making our already stringent firearm regulations even thougher. This of course has the wonderful effect of ensuring that it is usually difficult and often impossible for regular law abiding citizens to procure an arms permit and even if one does get a permit after jumping through more than a few hoops – the ban on legal civilian imports ensures that few can afford to purchase a (legal) weapon.
    As to the enforcement? Well Delhi Police admitted that in 2004 they were able to confiscate only 0.2% of the total estimated illegal firearms in the city – a total that keeps climbing each year. The figure for 2003 is even lower! Also, while the government has made it impossible for law abiding citizens to import weapons thus pushing up the prices of handguns to INR 200,000 and above – a similar weapon in the black market costs just INR 20,000!
    In essence our wonderful government is taking weapons out of the hands of the law abiding citzenry and putting them into the hands of criminals! I feel so much safer as I go to bed each night! :-P

  8. The Indian polity is goverened by archaic laws of british era which were specifically framed by masters for their servants and probablly were not used to govern their own subjects (British) but the post independence leaders in a hurry to grab vintage posts and positions failed to note this aspect and since having got the taste of powers asociated with them are unwilling to bring in anew set of laws befitting a citizen and not a slave indirectly for a common man the ruler has changed from a European to one amongst natives,actually there should be a constituent assembly every 20 to 50 years so as to keep the system in line and in tune with the fast changing world and also to make it more meaningful and effective.

  9. On the Supreme Court of India’s website, can you find a single phone number ? Or email address/phone/fax of the Chief Justice ? Or any other designated officer to whom public can contact the Supreme Court of India ?
    Try searching for an email address of the Finance Minister or click on ‘contact us’ link of the Finance Ministry website.. it goes to some weird page instead of contact details.
    In their feedback form also I have asked them about the Contact information of the Minister or his secretariat but no reply is there, as usual.
    I do not see they can bring any momentum for Dr.Kalam’s ‘Vision 2020’ if they have to keep hiding from the public like this and in the IT AGE they have not updated even the Parliament website for more than a year. Mr.Harin Pandya is dead. There is a link for him and his email is in the parliament contact pages.

  10. Decent article, although my intellectuality at this moment has deserted me I do want to add another extremely stupid law which is there just to be broken. The punjac excise act or something of 1910 according to which no one under the age of 25 can consume alcohol in the state of Delhi. If you were to be say 21 and barely travel 50 kms in any direction out of Delhi , it is legal.
    So here is what we do I say, A married 24 yr old man earning a decent 20k a month should tell his father to buy some alchohol for him so that he can share a glass of beer with his wife.

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