Thursday, February 28, 2008

Short Arm Of The Law by Ronojoy Sen

Good piece. India accounts for about 10 percent of road accident fatalities worldwide. An estimated 1,275,000 persons are grievously injured on the road every year. Social cost of annual accidents in India has been estimated at $ 11,000. This cartoon captures the reality very well in its assumption that everyone else is a criminal especially when we are all guilty of the same crime. The text below the cartoon reads, "Crime, crime, crime...the country is going to the dogs I tell you!

The Times of India, 28 February 2008.

Sometime ago, a Norwegian professor asked me a seemingly innocuous question: Why do Indians jump traffic lights at major crossings, whereas a driver in Oslo will stop at one even in the dead of night?

The anarchy on the roads is something that makes an immediate impression, and indeed terrifies most first-time visitors to India.

I didn't have an answer for the Norwegian gentleman except for the stock response that Indians (read South Asians) are 'like that only'.

A couple of weeks ago, Delhi's lieutenant governor, while expressing his exasperation with the chaos on Delhi roads, preferred to lay the blame on what he felt was a north Indian penchant for breaking laws.

While many of us might well believe that things work better south of the Vindhyas, it would be a great leap of faith to imagine that south Indians are genetically hardwired to be more law abiding.

The Norwegian professor's query and the lieutenant governor's frustration with Indian drivers cannot, however, be dismissed with a shrug.

They point to a fundamental problem with contemporary India: absence of the rule of law. Rule of law has two elements. One is the citizen — you or me — who is supposed to obey the laws. The other is the enforcing agency i.e. the various arms of the state.

All of us are too acutely aware that the Indian state is unable to effectively enforce laws. This is not peculiar to India. It is common to many developing countries. The reasons for the state's failure in India are many, ranging from corruption to government agencies that are either ill-equipped or too overburdened to carry out their tasks.

The Indian courts are a good example. The latest figures show that in 2006 there were 36.5 lakh cases pending in higher courts while the lower courts had a backlog of a whopping 2.48 crore cases.

The chief justice of India estimates that an additional 10,000 judges would be needed in lower courts to clear this mountain of cases.

But what is perhaps more worrying than the inefficient Indian state is the attitude of Indians towards law. The driver on Indian roads is only a metaphor for the general disregard for rules. This is a problem of what some legal philosophers call the 'ought' versus the 'must' element in law.

This simply means that there are some things that must be followed on the pain of punishment.

So normally if we jump a red light we would expect to be fined and that would deter us. In India, because law enforcement is lax, people take the liberty to break rules with impunity.

This is one reason why some people wish there was an authoritarian system such as the British Raj or Indira Gandhi's Emergency in place. Such systems worked because they wielded the stick ruthlessly and kept people in line.

This is where the 'ought' element or norms of civic consciousness come in. Even if no one is watching, why do most people in Europe or the US stop at a red light, while many in India don't? Economists might even call this rational behaviour since the cost of breaking the law is low in India.

But how do we explain apparently irrational behaviour of the type shown by motorists who regularly flout lane discipline and end up causing snarls and increasing their travel time? Or people who litter their neighbourhoods even as they meticulously clean their homes twice a day?

Do we then conclude — as many foreign observers over the years have — that Indians are culturally given to breaking the law? That would be a logical jump similar to the one made by Delhi's lieutenant governor.

The great empires in India, including the Mughal empire which preceded the British, had sophisticated judicial systems. So why is it that contemporary India is marked by a weak rule of law?

We could plausibly argue that penetration of Anglo-Saxon codes of law has been uneven in Indian society.

This is surprisingly true even for the middle classes who have had maximum exposure to western education and norms. That also probably explains why the Indian government ever since independence has tried to foster a public spirit through homilies plastered in prominent places.

This obviously hasn't worked. Scholars studying colonial India have pointed out that the British judicial system often sat uneasily with traditional methods of administering justice.

While many years have passed since the British first began codifying law in India in the mid-19th century, alternative sources of authority are still powerful when it comes to determining behaviour.

Hence, pictures of Hindu gods on stairways and walls are an effective deterrent to the thousands who daily spit and urinate in public. Similarly, no one needs to be told that he needs to take off shoes before entering a place of worship.

Apparently, the threat of divine wrath works better than the opprobrium of fellow citizens or the power of the state.

The courts have sometimes tried to cut through this apathy for laws by passing fiats. But that is far too ad hoc, besides being an anomaly in a democracy.

What is needed is a law and order mechanism that works, and not just in fits and starts. Equally important is a primary education system that instils a sense of civic duty.

Indeed, we don't need to respect the law, but ensure we don't break it. That is part of the social compact between the state and its citizens. If that is flouted, it could become the biggest roadblock to India's growth and ambitions of becoming a big power.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice. Wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been for the Norwegian professor, and the piece turned out to be most interesting. Long time, now...