Publius Tacitus is often quoted, because of something he wrote in the Annals: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” If you consider the Latin, it is by no means obvious that Tacitus was clear about the direction of causation, as opposed to correlation. An equally valid translation is, “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the state.”
India and many common law jurisdictions don’t follow the principle of desuetude, which means that unless used, a statute dies a natural death. Alternatively, an enacted statute can have a specific sunset clause, ensuring its demise after a stipulated number of years. In a loose sense, “law” doesn’t mean only statutes. Rules, orders and regulations are also “law”. Irrespective of definition, there are several strands in law reform — eliminating old laws, consolidation and harmonisation, removing excessive government intervention through legislation, filling gaps that exist and speeding up dispute resolution. A lot of attention focuses on “old” laws, because such pieces of dysfunctional legislation seem bizarre and anachronistic, and also because, though irrelevant, such statutes can be used to harass citizens and entrepreneurs. “Old” laws lead to amusement and other countries, too, have “old” laws.
Here is an example: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this act, in the event of any area being invaded, or in danger of an invasion, by locusts, the collector of the district or other officer authorised by him in this behalf may call upon any male person not below the age of 14 years resident in the district to render all possible assistance in carrying out preventive or remedial measures and in the destruction of locusts.” This statute is known as the East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act of 1949, and it is still applicable in Delhi. How will you know there is a locust invasion? Through the beating of drums.
In two doses, on May 13 and May 14, the Union government repealed several old statutes and a third such repealing act is imminent. However, “law” doesn’t mean the Union government alone. There are state-level statutes (and rules) too. How many statutes are there in India? Rather oddly, no one knows. Since an average state is often presumed to have 1,000 statutes, one can guess the number is 28,000 or 29,000. But unlike the India Code, which is a Union government list, there is no systematic collation for state governments. Some states have attempted collation, but with the exception of Rajasthan, I think they are all incomplete. This Rajasthan initiative is a recent one and deserves to be written about.
In counting statutes, does one list principal acts and amending acts separately, or together? What about rules? In Rajasthan’s case, the numbers were 405 for principal acts, 187 for amending acts and 598 for rules. Obviously, when a principal act is repealed, so will associated rules. (These were the numbers after some earlier repealing in 1997 of 303 amending acts.) Therefore, adding principal and amending acts, the number of statutes was around 600, not around 1,000. (Perhaps we have fewer state-level statutes than we think.) Next, one needed to get hold of the texts of these statutes. An administrative reforms committee had been set up and someone from this committee should write a case study on how the repealing exercise proceeded. For instance, there were 55 acts that were “missing”. One knew the legislation had been passed, but there were no copies in the state assembly. These acts were also missing in action, in the sense that they were never invoked. Eventually, the 55 missing acts were tracked down from the government printing press and archives. Having done this, the committee examined all 405 principal acts. (Let’s ignore the amending acts.) On the face of it, around 40 seemed to be ripe for repeal.
But each act is administered by a department and one needed to ask the concerned department. Why do you need this act? What happens if the act is repealed? This is a bit like the ZBB (zero-based budgeting) of the act. In any statute, the question of why one needs an act should be answered in the statement of objects and reasons. But this is rarely done satisfactorily. Once this process of consulting the departments was over, the number of acts that could be repealed shot up from around 40 to around 60, out of that corpus of 405. The chain isn’t over yet. A bill to repeal principal acts and another bill to repeal amending acts has to be drafted. These have to be approved by the cabinet and then, the repealing legislation passed by the assembly. However, by the end of September, Rajasthan will have repealed around 15 per cent of its statutes. One then moves on to the more complicated task of consolidating and harmonising remaining legislation. That’s the second phase.
Law reform is often perceived to be boring. The political classes and the bureaucracy rarely discern any mileage in it. Because of my biases, I think it’s exceedingly important. I also think no state government takes it up seriously, unless there is an active interest shown by the chief minister concerned and enthusiasm in the bureaucracy (the committee) for an apparently thankless task. In Rajasthan’s case, both these prerequisites exist. No, Rajasthan’s initiatives in law reform aren’t only about labour laws (factories act, industrial disputes act). That’s a misconception. There is much more to it and there is a template for other states to adopt. That case will be stronger once the second phase is also done.
The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal