Saturday 16 January 2021

Settle differences in conference rooms, not on the streets (Sunday Guardian)



Would not keeping in abeyance a law on the reported ground that there are protests against it give an impetus for more such protests?

The Supreme Court of India may have had periods in its history where some of its verdicts were problematic when judged by the standard of safeguarding the rights of citizens. These protections are given in the written word and intent of the framers of the Constitution, that foundational document of our democracy. Overall, however, the Supreme Court has been a supportive and indeed comforting presence for the citizen. Not too long ago, the Court did away with such obscenities in a democracy as the criminalisation of same-sex relationships and even removed some of the toxic provisions of India’s Information Technology laws. Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the law have had their occasional moments of bewilderment, as for example happened when a Special Court (which is presumably subordinate to the apex court) declared innocent those who had been held culpable by the Supreme Court in its 2G judgement. That was among the most consequential of rulings from an economic standpoint, in that the effect was to eliminate all but a few players from the telecom industry. This was as a consequence of discovering malpractice in the grant of licences to them. The country would be better off were laws passed which ensure that such transgressions be punished not with the elimination of entire companies from a line of activity, but the imposition of financial penalties on them. Such is the practice in the UK or the US, although in India, successive governments have clung on to British-era laws that prescribe jail for a variety of offences that are compoundable or ignored by most democracies. Some laws have been taken off the statute books and some regulations de-criminalised under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much more of such pruning needs to take place to ensure that India emerges as an irresistible magnet for external and internal investment. The range of ways in which an unscrupulous business rival or a politician, official or even a non-official of sufficient means and intent, can send a citizen to prison is way too large for what ought to be an enabling and not fear-filled environment for investment and enterprise. Not that such laws are deterrents to the well-connected, who for long have led a charmed lives at the expense of the banking system and to silence from the regulatory matrix. What such colonial-era laws and regulations do is to get misused by the minority of officials who are corrupt to threaten their targets with prosecution even for non-existent, trivial or technical offences. Or to cripple with imprisonment those who are the target of the businesspersons who give the politicians and officials bribes so as to eliminate their competitors, actual and potential.

Across the decades, the judiciary has served as the final refuge for victims of such persecution, with the Supreme Court giving the lead in the dispensation of justice. Given the scholarship of the Justices and the comprehensive understanding that each has about the laws and the Constitution, it is understandable that the judgements given reflect the state of the law at a point in time and the duty of the Court to ensure that laws be obeyed. It may be less than satisfactory to base one’s understanding of something as complex as decisions handed down by the highest court in the country solely from watching news on television. With this caveat, let it be said that it was a surprise when the Supreme Court kept in abeyance the three farm laws recently passed, reportedly on the ground that there were many protesting against the laws, and hence they should be kept from becoming operational so that another effort was made towards conciliation. Would not keeping in abeyance a law on the reported ground that there are protests against it give an impetus for more such protests? Again judging by news reports, the Supreme Court has not said that the three farm laws are illegal or unconstitutional. What has been done by the Court is to halt their operation for a while so as to provide time for attempts at reconciliation between the protestors and the Central government. As yet, the former are standing by their single demand at the start of the agitation, which is that the three laws should be immediately withdrawn. More than a few are concerned that government doing so may embolden multiple groups to launch their own agitations so as to pressure the government to roll back several of its actions. In a democracy on the Westminster model, the government of the day, should it have a majority in the Lower House of Parliament, has the right to get passed the policies it favours. If these become unpopular, the nuclear option remains of voting in such a manner that the party in power loses the next polls, as has happened so often in the past. Judging by news reports, those at the forefront of the agitation have not agreed to seize the opportunity that the apex court has provided to them to settle the manner through dialogue, and are insisting of full withdrawal first. In other words, concede our demand and then we will talk.

The farmers of India are a national treasure, and the farmers of the Punjab and Haryana in particular deserve the gratitude of every citizen for the way in which they have kept starvation at bay even in the poorest households in India. The Supreme Court is correct in saying that farmers need to be consulted and convinced about policies being made that affect them. Hopefully, the protestors will accept the Supreme Court’s advice and resolve their differences with the government not on the streets but in the conference room. The laws could be made optional for each state to implement or not. Those states not doing so should be given support to continue with the old ways. It will soon be clear whether the laws are good for the farmers or not, for if they are, farmers in states adopting them would do better than those in states rejecting them. Changing policies and decisions through resort to the street is never a good idea in a democracy. More than half the population of India are in their 30s or younger, and need the economic growth that comes only with stability, and which will ensure they lead productive lives. In case the farm laws get proved in implementation to not be beneficial, that would be the time for the Government of India to replace them, and not because the streets around Delhi have for nearly two months been choked by those opposing the three farm laws recently passed in Parliament.

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