Out of my mind: Rebuilding during a storm

It has faced criticism on inflation, the judiciary, Indians stranded abroad, minor misdemeanours by junior ministers and the Budget, which has been all over the newspapers.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:July 13, 2014 12:44 am
There will be great temptation to become defensive or fight each crisis as it comes; drifting, but not swimming. Yet, there is a way to convert a crisis into an opportunity for initiating long-term reform. (Source: Express Photo) There will be great temptation to become defensive or fight each crisis as it comes; drifting, but not swimming. Yet, there is a way to convert a crisis into an opportunity for initiating long-term reform. (Source: Express Photo)

No one repairs a roof when the sun is shining, nor do we install flood defences during the summer. Serious rebuilding is only done during a storm. In politics, this is truer than in real life. Here is a government whose ‘honeymoon’ lasted less than the time it takes for an ice-cream cone to melt under a blazing Indian summer. It has faced criticism on inflation, the judiciary, Indians stranded abroad, minor misdemeanours by junior ministers and the Budget, which has been all over the newspapers. In other words, life is normal for a party newly in power.

There will be great temptation to become defensive or fight each crisis as it comes; drifting, but not swimming. Yet, there is a way to convert a crisis into an opportunity for initiating long-term reform. The one such challenge is presented by the controversy with the judiciary. Seize the hour to rethink the entire system.

Judicial reform has been long overdue. The Indian judiciary is short on staff, operates in outdated buildings, has a large backlog of around 3 crore cases. At the top, there has been a debate for sometime now, with a Bill pending before Parliament on whether to reform the collegium system of appointing judges. Any attempt to reform the judiciary by the executive runs into the accusation of compromising the independence of the judiciary. But the collegium system was not there at the beginning of the Republic and only evolved as a response to doubts about the executive after Indira Gandhi strangled the judiciary. The situation is now different, with judges being less accountable than ever before. The case for reform can thus be reopened at the very beginning of the new government whose large mandate is fresh in the minds of the people.

Instead of thinking about just the top appointments, we should think of overhauling the system to make it more people-friendly. Law’s delays only help the crooked and deny justice to the deserving. Thus the first reform must be to vastly expand the capacity of the judicial system to deliver quick results. This will require a roadmap to increase the number of qualified magistrates/judges by a factor of five. Not all the officials need be Western-style lawyers. They can be people who can arbitrate in disputes, the innovative Janata Adalats can be expanded. It was interesting to see how many people misread the Supreme Court’s judgment about fatwas. The point was not that all Shariat court decisions are invalid but that, if a disagreement rises, they are not legally enforceable. But many civil disputes can be settled in Shariat and other community arrangements if the disputing parties are happy to accept the decision. This will reduce the burden on formal courts. After all, India has one of the lowest ratios of judges per million people. Any innovation or use of older institutions which can help reduce the load should be explored.

When it comes to judicial appointments, it is time the closed shop of the judiciary making its own promotions should cease. There should be a judicial appointments commission which can take expert advice to do the job. There are considerations of balance as between gender, social status and regional representations, which must be taken into account by the commission. The UK has moved to such an arrangement and it is time India followed suit since the system is British in any case.

Along the way can we also examine other remnants of the colonial system — India has retained all the institutions which the colonial masters set up. While the UK has moved on, India is stuck with the same old centralising, paternalistic culture 67 years after Independence. Whichever party is in power behaves the same, e.g. suppression of the Henderson-Brooks Report.

The arrangements for federal financial relations were set up in the Government of India Act, 1935.The Finance Commission is a legacy of that time. Why not have a permanent finance commission which can regulate Centre-state financial relations in a transparent and constitutionally legitimate way? If that means removing the Planning Commission from the scene, the better.

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  1. K
    Krishna
    Jul 13, 2014 at 10:23 am
    The two suggestions on Judiciary and finance commission are absolutely valid. Govt should implement steadfast.
    Reply
  2. P
    P.
    Jul 13, 2014 at 3:10 am
    Every new dispensation has about 12-18 months to make big changes. After that, the new becomes the entrenched, and begins to believe that any criticism of the situation is actually a criticism targeted towards it. So, it becomes defensive, re-active and reactionary. The BJP has a unique chance to sweep away lots of old junk. Provided of course it is interested. On the other hand, if it is just interested in enjoying the fruits of office, seeing itself more of an inheritor rather than as the change, it will tend to sit on its hands.
    Reply
  3. H
    harry
    Jul 13, 2014 at 1:16 pm
    Legal cases in India takes years. the lawyers take advantages, keeps on taking dates, fleeces the clients, and justice suffers. No wonder criminals have a flourishing business as people have no faith in the rules of law.
    Reply
  4. S
    sudharani
    Jul 13, 2014 at 10:04 pm
    The FM is looking a bit stressed so soon after the BJP win. The other area where reform is urgently required is in real estate.Property dealers and the authorities need to stop this scam. The 'registered price' needs to reflect the actual price, and that can be done partly by reducing the tax payable. Government needs to keep its eyes open when 'illegal' developments take place, rather than allow them to develop and try to make amends retrospectively.. by demolition. A very Indian solution indeed.
    Reply
  5. R
    Radhakrishnan Parameswaran
    Jul 14, 2014 at 12:51 am
    Perhaps a less controversial area is the judicial reform. The Law Minister Ravi S. Parasad seems to have understood this as he has already initiated to increase the number of judges by 20-25% and also to improve the infrastructure. Hope he will follow up on these matter and make the judicial system really delivers on a timely basis.
    Reply
  6. H
    Hari Subramanian
    Jul 13, 2014 at 3:00 pm
    As long as parliament and legislatures are not represented fairly by all demographic consuencies, tinkering with laws will happen to be whims and fancies. As long as laws are not fixated enduring a long term, no satisfactory solution of anything will emerge. At present, everything looks ad-hoc. Change that scenario. But do you trust politicians, irrespective of the hue, to achieve that?
    Reply
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