Repeal of obsolete laws: Well-intentioned but haphazard beginning

Topics laws | Narendra Modi

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Ignorantia juris non excusat, an old Latin phrase, means that ignorance of law is not an excuse to acquit someone for a crime committed. What is not taken into account are the innumerous obsolete laws of which, not only most people, but many lawyers and law enforcement agencies are unaware. Many of these can be traced back to the pre-Independence era. 

For instance, the Indian Aircraft Act, 1934, which deems kites and balloons to be aircraft. This means one has to obtain a licence from competent authorities before flying them! Or, the Hackney-Carriage Act (repealed only in 2017), which provided for the licensing of Hackney carriages, which are wheeled vehicles drawn by animals for conveyance of passengers. There was no record of this Act being used since Independence. This list of incredulous laws also until recently included the Indian Motor Vehicles Act of 1914, which stated that an inspector in Andhra Pradesh would be disqualified if he doesn’t have well-brushed teeth, a pigeon chest, knock knees, hammertoes, and flat feet. The East Punjab Agricultural Pests Disease and Noxious Weeds Act of 1949 says that at a time of a locust attack, drumbeats can be used to summon men to deal with locusts and other agricultural pests. Failure to do so could land one in prison.

While some may look ridiculous or have an element of humour, there are many that are also considered to be a serious infringement on individual rights. Prevention of Begging Acts in many states are still active, and state legislatures have not repealed them yet. The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 hasn’t been repealed, even when it excludes reconversions to one’s native faith. The Telangana Eunuchs Act, 1329 F, blatantly contravenes fundamental rights of eunuchs. It provides that every registered eunuch found in a female dress or ornamented in a street or a public place may be arrested without a warrant and could be punished with imprisonment of up to two years.

Some of these Acts also act as economic hurdles. The Sarai Act was used just a few years back against a 5-star hotel into providing free water for all passers-by. The Delhi Rent Control Act has a very limited scope as it exempts government and upper-bracket housing where the rent exceeds Rs 3,500. 

 “The issue with redundant and archaic laws existing in the statute books is that they can surface any time and create a hurdle for citizens. They increase unpredictability and affect good governance and ease of doing business,” said Neeti Shikha, head, Centre for Insolvency & Bankruptcy, Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and former national coordinator of the Repeal of Laws Project at Centre for Civil Society, which aims to identify and weed out obsolete laws. 

One way around such laws is to challenge them in the court of law. But that is a cumbersome and long-drawn process. “A lot of people say these laws cannot cause any problem. But the government has the power to implement these laws,” said Shreya Ralli, senior manager, advocacy, at the Centre for Civil Society. 

Several attempts have been made to identify and repeal such laws. Immediately after Independence, the Law Commission for the first time in 1957 made recommendations for the repeal of archaic laws. Since then, it has made recommendations in 1984, 1993, 1998, and most recently in 2014. Back in 1998, the P C Jain committee was formed. The committee recommended the withdrawal of 1,300 central acts. It noted that 253 acts that were earlier identified for repeal were still present in the statute books. 

Subsequently, the Commission on Review of Administrative Law recommended the repeal of 1,382 central laws in 1998. However, of these, only 415 were repealed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised in his 2014 election campaign, that for every law passed, he would repeal 10 obsolete laws. Shortly after his government came to power, the law ministry wrote to the Law Commission, seeking a report identifying laws which were obsolete. The prime minister set up a two-member panel for performing the task.

The Law Commission, in its report, recommended the repeal of 252 laws in a series of four reports. The two-member panel further identified and proposed 1,741 laws for repeal. The government has stated that it has repealed 1,175 laws through four repealing Acts in 2015, 2016 and 2017. 

Parliament recently passed the Repealing and Amending Bill, 2019. The Bill seeks to repeal 58 old laws and amend certain enactment.

Despite efforts, several obsolete laws are still in force. Moreover, the way in which repealing of these laws has taken place is haphazard, leaving room for exploitation of citizens. 

Another baffling aspect is that the common citizen would find it difficult to check whether a particular Act or provision has been repealed or not; many online platforms have not been updated, and some are expensive legal search engines that are not easily accessible. Individual Repealing and Amendment Bills would have to be scanned through to see what has been repealed. This makes it cumbersome and hard that sometimes even lawyers and researchers have difficulty cross-checking. This makes the public even more prone to exploitation.

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