'; }?> MadMan's Web: Old laws in India Logo - MadMan's Web

Old laws in India

March 20, 2005

As most Indians who have been through the Indian courts for a legal case will tell you, the Indian justice system is not famous for its speed or efficiency. The backlog of cases is in the order of millions of cases, and it is not at all uncommon for cases to languish in our wonderful courts for decades, making you wonder if the justice system should really be called "the injustice system".

For libertarians like me, a strong and effective judiciary is vital if we have to enforce property rights, resolve contract disputes, and make tort laws effective. (And if you ask Yazad, he will probably say that only private arbitration bodies are required.)

Over on The Examined Life, Ravikiran makes a case that legal options for regular folks like us are not desirable because our complicated laws actually favour large corporate groups with lots of money who can afford to wait around for years while the common man goes nuts waging his battle against them. Says Ravikiran:

Our legal system is too slow because we have too many laws. Each law is individually vague and each individual action is covered by so many laws that there is no way to tell whether an action is legal or not till it is actually brought to court and a judge actually pronounces on it.

Alas, this is all too true. I heard someone say on TV once that our Income Tax law is the longest in the world, having gone through hundreds of modifications over the years.

But to add to what Ravi is saying, our big problem today is that the laws governing us are so convoluted simply because they are so damn old! We are governed by so many archaic, anachronistic, useless laws that just the interpretation of them ties up cases for years. Many of our laws are a century old; some even older. These laws have to be interpreted in a modern context to deal with the realities of this century, but they were written in an age when none of these issues were thought of.

Want examples? All the telecommunications and broadcasting regulations in this country are governed by the Indian Telegraph Act of - guess which year? - believe it or not, 1855. The Indian Penal Code that makes homosexuality a crime? That's from 1860. The same law also makes adultery a crime, though only the male who has sex with a married woman can be imprisoned. (No, I'm not kidding!) Indian Contract Act? As recent as 1872. The Official Secrets Act is from 1923. The Banking Regulation Act is from 1949 (and so ATM transactions are a grey area.)

It's hard to believe that while we are living in the 21st century, we are still governed by laws from the 19th century. And as the years have passed, the government has added clauses that usually start with "Notwithstanding anything written in..." which added more crud to laws that were already complicated enough.

It's time to bring Indian law into this century by starting with a clean slate and starting, as Ravi says, with principles. But who in the government is going to take the initiative? Atal Behari Vajpayee, our former Prime Minister, had taken a bold step forward in the beginning of his last term by announcing that he would rewrite laws that didn't make sense. Unfortunately, that was the only step he took. As is usually done in this country, a committee was appointed for this. And as with most things in India that get assigned to a committee, that was the last we heard of it too. Unfortunately, our dear Mr. Vajpayee was abducted by aliens some time after the elections last year, and has since disappeared from this planet. So he can't even offer any counsel to our new government. Maybe the aliens will return him after they've completed their research into painfully slow speech. P Chidambaram, the Finance Minister, recently announced that he would introduce a completely new Income Tax Act by the end of this year. It's a small step, but it's welcome. What about the rest of them?

Hide nav bar
Show nav bar