Posted on 1-June-2008
Very often, soon after leaving my house by car on my way out in one direction, I come upon a traffic light at the junction of my neighbourhood road with another, bigger, and busier. When the light is red I, naturally for me, stop and wait while other motorists just drive past me. I suspect these others think me a fool. When the light turns green and I start moving I feel really afraid that someone else, coming from my left or right, driving past his red light might hit my car. My experience at this light is not unique, not even rare. Recently, the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, whose job probably requires him to busy himself with larger questions than trivia like traffic rules, said at a conference on vehicular traffic in Delhi that people in this region, meaning people in North India, not only did not respect traffic rules but actually took pride in not doing so. He was attacked by politicians of all hues and was actually mauled by one Government of India Minister. Many said the Lieutenant-Governor had hurt the feelings of people of North India--luckily for him, he is himself a North Indian. Poor man, he had to make some pacifying noises.
But if traffic rules are small matters for small people or petty policemen to occupy their minds with, questions of public health are surely matters for important people to weigh and consider. In a newspaper article I read recently, the writer, a former senior scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, describes how different agencies in India, public and private, ignore or violate laws about the use of substances harmful for human health. Some of the examples he gives are: though the use of coloured plastic bags for storage and transport of foodstuff is prohibited, the law is routinely ignored; despite directions and orders from the Supreme Court, Indian firms have been illegally importing hazardous waste, including plastic--in 2006-2007, 9.92 million tonnes of plastic bottle scrap were imported for recycling; in Delhi alone, hardly five per cent of around 1.4 million tonnes of biomedical waste gets treated while the more than 4000 health care units, including government agencies, in complete disregard of all the guidelines, simply dump their waste in municipal garbage bins without disinfecting it; rules and limitations on the use of asbestos are simply ignored.
Examples of the violation of the law not only in the domain of public health but in practically any field of human activity can be found easily and in plenty. People, powerful people, do not hesitate to voice contempt for law courts, court judgments or law enforcement agencies. After the conviction and sentencing a few days ago of his son and nephew in a murder case, a politician, a former member of the Indian Parliament, half dismissed the court verdict as an instance of political conspiracy against him. In another case of a double murder, the relatives of a suspect who was remanded to police custody for three days, have filed a case of contempt of court against the police for not allowing the suspect's lawyer to sit in on interrogations even though that was stipulated by the magistrate. The police have not denied the accusation. Suborning and bribing of witnesses in criminal cases, often with the help of defending lawyers, sometimes with the help of the police also, is part of the quotidian. Extra-judicial killings by the police of suspected criminals, insurgents and others in fake encounters are so widely acquiesced in, even quietly approved of, that the press and the television often even lionise some policemen as 'encounter specialists'. Vigilante justice is common enough. Petty thieves and pickpockets have been beaten up and brutalised by crowds of ordinary people for much longer than their recent discovery by Indian television channels.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that India, which preens itself every time someone-- usually a Western politician or journalist or a narcissistic Indian politician--calls the country the largest democracy in the world, is deficient in respect for the law and in its implementation( vide Functioning Anarchy or Chaos? and Democracy and Discipline ). India's politicians have shown themselves very active in making new laws. According to one count the East India Company and the British Indian Government during two hundred years of their rule made 400 laws while independent India has in the last sixty years made 4000, and the Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, has been been amended 100 times, making one wonder whether the Constitution as originally adopted was so inadequate or whether many of the amendments were simply opportunistic--there would probably have been many more amendments, were it not for a Supreme Court ruling limiting the power of the parliament to change the basic structure of the Constitution. The ease with which laws have been made and the Constitution amended bespeaks either a cavalier attitude towards the law as a social institution or a preference in this land of Sankaracharya for the illusion of doing something by legislating about anything and everything over the reality of the sweat and the blood needed to ensure that laws are enforced. While laws have proliferated, individual Indian politicians have in ever increasing numbers been indulging with impunity in all kinds of illegal activities.
If it were just a small group of criminals, a small class of politicians or some other marginal groups that disregarded the law, the problem could have been dealt with over time. The problem looks more intractable if we consider the indifference of the entire middle class (urban and rural) towards the law. The reason for this may lie in the country's colonial past or it may lie in Hindu ethical values or there may be other causes that sociologists may debate about, but it is a failure of India's intellectual elite that it has done little or nothing in the past half century to promote and inculcate respect for the rule of law in Indian society. It is the more a matter of regret that so much self-congratulation over still tenuous economic achievements, or over even more insignificant foreign policy achievements, should be accompanied by so little discussion of what should be done to bring about some basic but badly needed transformations in Indian society. But what is certain is that a society which is not ruled by law cannot produce conditions necessary for its members to achieve their full intellectual or physical potential, for it will fritter away its energies dealing with disorder and recurrent social crises, a permanent under-achiever. The possibility that India may be headed that way is real.