When first world outrage meets third world reality, what we get is a surfeit of legislation and a spiraling deficit of justice. We can enact all the laws we want, but in a country where very few interactions with the forces of administration occur without needing force or inducement the law on paper not only becomes ineffective, but it often turns into an instrument of exploitation. We seek minute perfection at the top, but make do with routine injustice at the bottom, and react only when the injustice turns horrific, preferably in a large metro town involving someone from the educated middle class. The disinterest in fixing the realities on the ground means that every new incident that displeases us, creates fresh outrage and new acts of tokenism. The cycle is seemingly never-ending, and hopes that someday, the realization will dawn that nothing has really changed, have so far been belied.
When a problem occurs, an administrative tantrum is thrown. This could take the form of banning something, increasing the paperwork involved in getting permission, making regulations more stringent, or as in the case of airports, making people go through the same checks many number of times. Regulations in India are often a bribe paid to the system to make it work better. When the intent of extra rules or regulations is to try and ensure that work that should have got done in the normal course of affairs gets done then we have a case of redundancy that has been built into the system.
In many ways, this is the single biggest problem that the country- its inability to translate legislative intent into delivered reality. Without fixing this, political will, elusive as it is in any case, counts for little.
Over the last few years, we have seen the gradual emergence of the idea of citizenry. As we transition from locating ourselves in a social matrix to a more civic one, we start depending much more on the rule of law. The ability of societal mechanisms to provide order, and to create a sense of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable is rapidly diminishing. The societal interdependencies begin to play a less significant role, and the responsibilities shift to more secular structures like the state.
Traffic, for instance needs a system of rules, monitoring and punishment that needs to work. The smooth flow of traffic depends, among other things on knowing that others will follow rules and will get punished in case they don’t. When this does not happen, or happens sporadically, every individual needs to fend for himself and use every means available to make his way. This is what is happening not only in traffic but also in most other walks of life.
A rule of law is not about creating the best legislation, but it is about creating a sense of predictable order. It comes from people knowing that there is a discernible relationship between action and consequence and that there is a price to pay for crossing boundaries that have been set. When things work as they are meant to, in an everyday unglamorous way. Where getting routine tasks accomplished is an act that is truly routine, and not a heroic endeavor. An environment of certainty needs the uneventful discharge of everyday responsibilities by those charged with these roles.
But as the latest incident involving an IPS officer in Punjab who has been transferred for daring to challan a judge for a parking violation demonstrates, far from pushing people to do their jobs, today there is a chance that they can be punished for doing that they are supposed to.
Today, bail is denied frequently as a way of frontloading punishment- here too the system compensates for its own inefficiencies by creating an alternative form of punishment. In an attempt to make a difference, the judiciary ends up subverting what should be its primary concern- delivering outcomes that are not swayed by any considerations external to the statutes laid down by law. If the law itself becomes malleable enough to be deployed with increasing amounts of discretion, then an air of great uncertainty gets created. Today, no business, for instance knows what judgment will come next and who will be made answerable, often for actions that go back decades.
Watchdogs that seek to keep an eye on the exercise of power either get compromised, or like the courts, overcompensate creating a greater sense of uncertainty. Activists press for more legislation to plug the gaps that exist in the delivery of justice, and the media wants instant and visible action to be taken, which results in more meaningless action. In a system where the instrument of delivery of administrative actions is deeply flawed, all attempts at improvement from above end up providing more ways in which extractive exploitation can take place.
The fact that this regime is in power because of the promises they have made to provide better governance is a good sign for it puts pressure on the system to make a visible difference. The Modi government has embarked on an ambitious project- the attempt is to move from a mental model of governance being about dispensing resources to one that actively seeks outcomes, but this needs an ability to convert programmes into measurable and repeatable actions on the ground. This will need a dramatic overhaul of the administrative infrastructure, and its understanding of the nature of power. It might be relatively easier to ring in the big changes, but the real challenge might lie in making a palpable difference in the everyday experience of governance. Boring, predictable governance is the need of the hour but to deliver that what we need are sweeping administrative reforms. Other more glamorous reforms will be rendered meaningless without fixing the nuts and bolts of governance