Old but not gold

Much remains to be done in the project of repealing obsolete laws. But steady progress is being made.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:July 23, 2015 12:00 am
old laws, repealing obsolete laws, repealing old laws, narendra modi, bjp government, Law Commission, Ramanujam Committee reports, nda government, modi government, indian express column, ie column, Bibek Debroy column I don’t think the process of repealing unneeded laws is taking inordinately long. It is also an exercise that should have been undertaken in 1950, when the Constitution came into effect, and not in 2015.

More than one person has asked me what happened to the idea of repealing old laws. I am a bit surprised, because that information is in the public domain. It is just that the media hasn’t picked it up. First, the Law Commission reports: In September 2014, the 248th report of the Law Commission was submitted. This gave us a database of 1,086 Union laws. This database excludes the 253 laws that were recommended for repeal earlier, but still continue to be on the statute books. It excludes the 34 statutes that have been repealed — though some government ministries and departments don’t know that these have been removed from the law books. The database also excludes the appropriation acts. The 248th report recommended the repeal of 72 statutes and identified another 261 for further scrutiny. In October 2014, the 249th report of the Law Commission was submitted. This identified 77 more statutes for repeal. There were separate recommendations on partial repeal and on the 11 World War II ordinances. In October 2014, there was also the 250th report of the Law Commission. This identified 73 more statutes for repeal.

Without getting into the details of how the numbers add up, with these three reports, 258 statutes have been identified for repeal. Further, in November 2014, there was the 251st report of the Law Commission. With 30 more statutes added, the number of laws identified for repeal now went up to 288.

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That still doesn’t answer the original question. Commission reports are fine. What about action? In fairness, after a report is submitted, there is a process for repeal that has to be followed. One needs to write to the Union government ministries and state governments. One can only draft a bill to repeal a law after this process of receiving comment is over. Thus, on May 13 came the first Repealing and Amending Act (Act No 17 of 2015). This repealed 35 statutes (mostly amending statutes) and amended two others. Then, on May 14, there was the Repealing and Amending (Second) Act (Act No 19 of 2015). This repealed 90 statutes (amending statutes) and amended two. It is certainly true that getting rid of amending acts is an easier task. Repealing principal acts is more complicated, and especially for the 250th and 251st reports, feedback from the Union ministries and state governments is still pending. But at least some people know of the four Law Commission reports. I find it strange that few know of the R. Ramanujam Committee, though that information is also in the public domain.

This was set up by the prime minister’s office in September 2014. It submitted a mammoth four-volume report, more comprehensive than the Law Commission exercise. Thus, we know that since 1834, 6,612 Central statutes have been enacted. At some point or the other, 3,831 have been repealed. We are left with 2,781 Central statutes (as of October 2014), including amending legislation and appropriation acts. Of these, the Ramanujam Committee identified 1,741 Central acts for repeal. (The committee is also undertaking a consolidation exercise, but let’s ignore that.) Of the 1,741 statutes, 777 need to be repealed by the Union government; 83 by state legislatures, since these are Central acts on state subjects; 624 are Central appropriation acts; and 257 are Central appropriation acts on state subjects, which, therefore, have to be repealed by state legislatures. If one ignores those that have to be repealed by the state legislatures, the 125 statutes that have already been repealed — 90 by the Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2015, and 35 by the Repealing and Amending Act, 2015 — must be benchmarked against the 1,401 acts that have been identified for repeal (777 plus 624). It is true that we haven’t even done 10 per cent yet. But that doesn’t mean nothing is being done. Let’s get the appropriation acts out of the way first, because those are easier to handle. There are 902 of them, including railway and state appropriation acts. Once legal opinion has been obtained, these will go — it is only a matter of time.

Looking at the Law Commission and Ramanujam Committee reports together,  the picture is something like this: 637 acts can be repealed by Parliament (once the ministries send in their views); 84 acts have to be repealed by state legislatures; 58 acts can be repealed by Parliament, but only in consultation with state governments; and for 28 acts, which have something or the other to do with state reorganisation, the views of the home ministry are essential. Out of this complicated agenda, I suspect one will soon have a third repealing and amending act, whereby another 197 of those old statutes will be junked. I don’t think the process is taking inordinately long. It is also an exercise that should have been undertaken in 1950, when the Constitution came into effect, and not in 2015.

Having said this, it is important to appreciate another aspect. It isn’t always the case that a statute can be repealed in its entirety. There are cases where a statute needs to be retained, but has sections that should be scrapped. There are instances where a consolidation and harmonisation exercise is required. There are also instances where repeal has to be matched with new legislation to plug the gaps. These take more time than outright repeal.

If media reportage has been tardy on this repealing exercise, it has been tardier on a parallel and ongoing exercise in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan law reform project is not only about labour legislation. There, too, there is outright repeal, consolidation and harmonisation of rules as well as of acts. Some statutes have already been repealed and one is left with roughly 600 state-level statutes, 400 principal and 200 amending. At least 10 per cent of the former and 100 per cent of the latter are likely to go soon.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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