Cutting down India’s forest of laws

Cutting down India’s forest of laws

A multitude of laws is the surest way to create a lawless society

For the past 10 years, governance in India has virtually come to mean the enactment of new laws and new entitlements. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government gave the impression that all the problems of the country could be legislated away, if only on paper. In the rush to make laws on everything under the sun, the government ignored the fact that often well-intentioned laws act as the real shackles to progress. If that were not enough, the burden of archaic laws stifles growth and innovation, and creates a messy legal structure that may not always be internally consistent.

The Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said that it will be his priority to repeal outdated laws. The resolve of the Narendra Modi government to undo the mistakes of the past and repeal outdated laws is welcome.

It is high time India removed the deadwood from its legal structure, address internal contradictions, and create a simpler legal regime.

A good place to start will be the recently released report of the 100 Laws Repeal Project, prepared by civil society organizations, the Centre for Civil Society and Vidhi Legal Centre and the Delhi-based National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Some of the irrelevant laws identified by the report have already found their way into the list of 72 laws which the Law Commission recently recommended for repeal. The 100 Laws report includes old relics from the British Raj such as the Dramatic Performances Act (1876) and The Sarais Act (1867). The former was used by colonial rulers to clamp down activities of nationalists and has no place in a modern democratic society. The latter Act, which requires a “sarai” to offer passersby free drinks of water was used in more recent times to harass a top hotel in New Delhi for not offering water to passersby. The report also includes obsolete laws such as the Drugs Control Act (1950) which provides for the control of the sale, supply and distribution of drugs. Given that the sale, supply and distribution of drugs are now controlled under the Essential Commodities Act (1955), the earlier Act is redundant and only serves to create needless confusion.

Unlike some countries where courts disregard statutes which have not been enforced long enough, our courts do not follow such a principle (known in legal parlance as desuetude). Therefore, it is important to repeal outdated laws and simplify our legal structure else these laws can become tools of harassment in the hands of venal law-enforcers.

India’s labour laws offer several examples of such antiquated provisions. For instance, the Factory Act mandates the provision of spittoons for workers “in convenient places” and the provision of “suitable places for keeping clothing not worn during working hours and for the drying of wet clothing”. There are countless other absurdities and infirmities in labour laws. The Industrial Disputes Act (IDA) restrains employers from changing the profile of workers. The Contract Labour Act tries to restrict contractual work to non-core activities in an era where outsourcing has obliterated the distinction between core and non-core activities.

India’s labour regime should be a prime target for legal reforms. Even if there is some disagreement among economists on the extent of rigidity in our labour markets, there is a broad consensus on the need to simplify labour laws, and to remove archaic provisions and internal contradictions. As economist Bibek Debroy pointed out in his writings, the root of rigidity in India labour laws does not lie in norms relating to hiring and firing workers. Rather, it lies in the multitude of laws and the great scope for corruption such laws provide.

Well crafted laws and clear regulations are fundamental requirements for a well functioning market. The Modi government needs to show as much zeal in repealing old and archaic laws as the previous government showed in enacting new ones.

Read the story on Live Mint website.