1. One hundred Acts of certitude

One hundred Acts of certitude

Even with the state government’s commitment, getting rid of obsolete laws has taken nearly two years

By: | Updated: June 30, 2016 7:04 AM

This is the story of the Rajasthan Law Reform Project, an exhilarating exercise I have had the good fortune to be part of since 2014, first as member of Rajasthan CM’s Economic Advisory Council and subsequently, since 2015, as member, NITI Aayog. How many statutes are there in India? What are these statutes, the law of the land? As a citizen, I am supposed to obey the law. How can I do that if I don’t even know what these statutes, and associated rules, are and what they say? Contrary to impression, it isn’t easy to get a list, and texts, of all statutes, not just important ones.

It is easy for the Union government, but states can also legislate. Strange though it may seem, no one knows for certain how many state-level statutes there are. A figure of 25,000 floats around, based on an assumption that there might be an average of around 900 statutes per State. However, this is no more than a guess. Don’t get me wrong. In general, we do know the important statutes and rules. I meant the entire corpus, not just important ones. Once one has that entire database, there are several steps to statutory law reform, speed of dispute resolution being a separate issue.

First, are there old statutes and rules that can be repealed, similar to the recent Union government initiative? Second, can one rationalise and harmonise statutes/rules, avoiding the confusion that lack of standardisation causes? Third, can one place all statutes/rules in public domain? Fourth, can one reduce excessive government intervention in statutes/rules?

As a possible template for replication, such a massive reform exercise doesn’t take off unless it has the personal interest and blessings of the CM. That message has to percolate through to departments. To state something not often appreciated, the Rajasthan government doesn’t administer a statute/rule. A specific department within Rajasthan government does and every such department regards its statutes/rules as proprietary stuff, not to be trifled with. That’s where CM’s intervention is vital. Equally importantly, there has to be a faceless bureaucrat, who will take that CM agenda and run with it, pestering and hounding departments, refusing to back off. Posterity will not pardon me if I let that bureaucrat remain faceless. Had it not been for Rakesh Verma, additional chief secretary, I am certain we wouldn’t have delivered. This isn’t about Industrial Disputes Act. This isn’t about the corporate sector.

It is about all laws/statutes and all citizens, to make law friendlier, including simpler language, where fresh drafting is involved. Rajasthan is the only state to have done this. Kerala repealed 697 statutes in 2005 and another 107 in 2009. That was huge, but not exhaustive. The Rajasthan exercise is exhaustive.

We began with the presumption there were around 900 statutes and tried to list all of them and get their texts. We had been given a figure of 900. There were only 592, after some appropriation Acts were scrapped. The 900 figure was plain wrong. If you want a breakup of 592, 405 were principal Acts and 187 were amending Acts. But texts of around 45 were plain missing. There had been no cases under these and most bizarre, copies of texts didn’t exist in the Legislative Assembly. Eventually, texts were obtained from the government printing press.

The first step was outright repeal of old and unnecessary statutes/ rules. This required extensive haggling. A department “needed” it, as opposed to the counter argument, “Why do you need it?” In the former, one needed to justify repeal. In the latter, one needed to justify retention. After this, 61 principal Acts and 187 amending Acts were identified and repealed through legislation, in October 2015. That left 344. Needless to say, when an Act was repealed, so were its associated rules. We also discovered 8 ordinances from 1949, still retained as ordinances. These too were scrapped.

In that remaining list of 344, there were other issues. There are statutes that had been overtaken and replaced by Union legislation and rules. Blissfully ignorant, the respective department continued to enforce an Act/rule that was obsolete. Rajasthan Corneal Grafting Act of 1984 is an example. We next moved on to rationalisation/harmonisation of statutes /rules. Why should there be 43 private university Acts and not one? Why shouldn’t Rajasthan Identification of Prisoners Act (1956), Rajasthan Prisoners Act (1960) and Rajasthan Prisons Act (1894) be consolidated into one? That’s the stage we are in now. We had initially thought this would take till February 2017, but we will be through in September 2016, down to 277 statutes. With state government commitment, this gives you an idea of how long it takes to get to this stage, roughly 2 years.

To reiterate the obvious, all these statutes/rules will be available online, an incremental process that has already started. But the consolidation is still partial. Take revenue department as an example. As of now, we are consolidating statutes under four broad heads—land revenue, tenancy, land reforms and imposition of ceilings. This is what revenue department has agreed to so far. Though messy, it might well be possible to reduce all land-related statutes to a cluster of 2 heads. When that next phase of consolidation is done, 277 will be down to 150. Finally, something like Rajasthan Regulation of Boating Act (1956). If we agree such government intervention is unnecessary, we will be down to 100.

The author is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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