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For friendlier laws

Rajasthan law reform project is the most ambitious overhaul of outdated and obsolete statutes undertaken in the country.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: July 7, 2016 8:54:04 am
old laws, repealing obsolete laws, repealing old laws, narendra modi, bjp government, rajasthan govt, law commission, ramanujam committee reports, nda government, modi government, indian express column, ie column, bibek debroy column If there is agreement that statutes such as the Rajasthan Regulation of Boating Act (1956) can be done away with, we could reduce the final tally to just 100.

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 a member of the Rajasthan chief minister’s economic advisory council and subsequently, since 2015, as a member of the Niti Aayog.

As a citizen, I am supposed to obey the laws of the land. But, how can I do that if I don’t even know what the statutes, and the associated rules are or what they say?

Contrary to the general impression, it isn’t easy to get a list and text of the statutes. It’s not just the Union government, the states too legislate. No one knows for certain how many state-level statutes there are. A figure of 25,000 floats around, based on the 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 the important ones. Once the entire database is available, there are several steps required for statutory law reform; the 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First, are there old statutes and rules that can be repealed, similar to the recent Union government initiative?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, and avoid the confusion that lack of standardisation causes? Third, can one place all statutes/rules in the public domain? Fourth, can one reduce excessive government intervention in statutes/rules?

As a possible template, such a massive reform exercise doesn’t take off unless it has the personal interest and the blessings of the chief minister. That message has to percolate through to departments. To state something not often appreciated: Rajasthan government doesn’t administer a statute/rule; a specific department within the Rajasthan government does, and every such department regards its statutes/rules as proprietary stuff, not to be trifled with. That’s where the CM’s intervention is vital. Equally importantly, there has to be a faceless bureaucrat, who will take the CM’s 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, the additional chief secretary, I am certain we wouldn’t have delivered. This isn’t about the Industrial Disputes Act. This isn’t about the corporate sector. It is about all the laws/statutes and all citizens. It is about making laws 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. Rajasthan’s 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 but there were only 592 laws after some appropriation acts were scrapped. The 900 figure was plain wrong. Of the 592, 405 were principal acts and 187 were amending acts. But texts of around 45 were simply missing. Most bizarre was the fact that copies of these texts didn’t even exist in the state legislative assembly.

Eventually, texts were obtained from the government printing press. The first step was an outright repeal of the old and unnecessary statutes/rules. This required extensive haggling. In some cases, we had to justify a repeal and in other cases, we had to justify retention. In all, 61 principal acts and 187 amending acts were eventually repealed in October 2015. Eight ordinances, retained since 1949, too, were scrapped. That left us with 344.

In the leftover list of 344, there were other issues. There were 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. The Rajasthan Corneal Grafting Act of 1984 is an example. Next, we moved on to the rationalisation and harmonisation of statutes/rules. Why should there be 43 private university acts, and not one? Why shouldn’t the Rajasthan Identification of Prisoners Act (1956), the Rajasthan Prisoners Act (1960) and the Rajasthan Prisons Act (1894) be consolidated into one? That’s the stage we are in at present.

Initially, we had thought the task would take until February 2017, but we will be through with it in September 2016, when we would have trimmed the number of statues to just 277. With the state government’s commitment, this gives you an idea of how long it takes to get to this stage — roughly 2 years. All these statutes/rules will be available online; the process has already started.

But the consolidation is still partial. Take the revenue department as an example. As of now, we are consolidating statutes under four broad heads — land revenue, tenancy, land reforms and the imposition of ceilings. Though messy, it might well be possible to reduce all land-related statutes to a cluster of just 2 heads. When the next phase of consolidation is done, the 277 statutes will be down to 150. In fact, if there is agreement that statutes such as the Rajasthan Regulation of Boating Act (1956) can be done away with, we could reduce the final tally to just 100.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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