Modi must not create rules that cannot be enforced

In his election campaign, Narendra Modi said that for every new law we should abolish 10 old ones. This admirable sentiment expressed a golden rule of good governance — create a minimum of sensible laws and enforce them fully. Don’t create a plethora of laws that overwhelm administrative capacity and remain unimplemented.

Alas, this principle is not being followed today. Consider the new anti-smoking regulations. The government proposes to ban the sale of loose cigarettes and raise the age of those who can buy cigarettes. But loose cigarettes account for 75% of all sales, at maybe a million outlets. Will the government appoint an army of inspectors to check loose sales by every cigarette vendor? Will another army check the age of every person buying cigarettes?

The administration is unable to check murders, rapes, thefts, or criminalized politics and business. Judicial delays are endless. Should we divert scarce administrators, police and courts from the most urgent tasks to loose cigarette sales? Massive vacancies have arisen in the courts, police and administration because state governments lack cash. That must be set right before forcing new responsibilities on staff already collapsing under existing obligations. Health is important. Smoking causes cancer. Yet there is no proposal to apply tough anti-smoking rules to beedis, which are just as cancerous as cigarettes.Treating beedis on par with cigarettes will curb smoking much faster than additional curbs on cigarettes. When we all know that, yet action does not follow, it’s clear the government is motivated more by political considerations (like maintaining employment in the beedi industry) than reducing deaths from smoking.

The same politicians that passionately denounce cigarettes happily provide irrigation and fertilizer subsidies to farmers growing tobacco! But let us not get diverted to hypocrisy: let us keep our focus on the folly of constantly creating new rules that, even if desirable, cannot be implemented. A plethora of rules leads only to mass evasion, corruption and cynicism. Rules that people will not observe and the administration cannot implement simply criminalize the whole population.

Delhi’s pollution is terrible. So, the National Green Tribunal has come out with several new rules. Alas, though well-intentioned, some will create new distortions and others are unimplementable. For instance, the tribunal has banned all vehicles older than 15 years in Delhi. Restricting the ban to Delhi makes no sense: pollution is a problem in all big cities. Besides, such bans have failed elsewhere: a ban in Mexico City induced suburban folk to bring in old vehicles registered outside the city, and these were sometimes more polluting than those phased out in the city .

The tribunal wants to criminalize the burning of leaves, wood, plastics and other items that add to pollution. But in winter every chowkidar lights such fires to keep warm. Slums in every city burn large quantities of dung and firewood for cooking. This worsens pollution, yet jailing all poor people who use such fuels would be cruel even if it was implementable. Priorities, please.

The ban on parking on tar roads is unimplementable right now: the police simply don’t have the capacity. Some judges think implementation is not their job, and pass decrees as though governments have unlimited capacity. Sometimes innovation can overcome capacity limitations. If the fines for illegal parking are made high enough to finance the purchase and operation of a huge fleet of towing cranes, private contractors will bid for contracts to tow away the guilty (this happens in many countries).

Last year’s Land Acquisition Act provided for a social impact assessment, plus expert committee examination, plus villager voting, plus relief and rehabilitation before acquiring any land. In effect, rules suitable for mass displacement by dams were made applicable to all land acquisition. Even a simpleton could have seen that no state had the capacity to do so much. So, land acquisition simply came to a halt, hobbling income and job growth.

There’s an old British saying, do not bring the law into contempt: that erodes voluntary observance of rules, which is far more important for a healthy society than stern police enforcement. Any legislature that enacts new regulations must also provide additional staff and finances for implementation. If additional staff and finances are not available or affordable, it is usually better not to have the new rules at all. Unimplementable rules mean mass evasion, rewarding law-breakers over law-abiders. Cigarette dealers will pay off the police to ignore the loose-cigarettes ban, so corrupt cops will be the only gainers from this supposedly noble rule.

Modi must return to his election pledge. For every new rule, he must abolish 10 old ones, opening up administrative space. Good governance means fewer but critical rules, well enforced.

What do you think?