Ask why we cannot reform our laws
Much brouhaha has happened recently over assistant commissioner of police (ACP) Vasant Dhoble’s alleged war on the Mumbai night life.He has busted parties, fined pubs, and in some cases allegedly labeled innocent working women as prostitutes and put them behind bars. Rediff.com has even attempted some pop psychology trying to understand if ACP Dhoble is as strict with rules within the confines of his home. A complete non sequitur. Dhoble in his defense has pointed out that he is merely upholding the law and it is not the job of the police to distinguish between good and bad laws but merely to enforce the statute book at it exists.
Now, it is entirely possible that Dhoble has his own agenda. He may be motivated by puritanical concerns or may just be a publicity hound. Nevertheless, he is entire right. Here is a sample of Mumbai’s archaic drinking laws,
Under the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which remains in effect, a person who wishes to consume alcohol, even in his or her own home, must be 25 years of age and have obtained a permit from the government to be exempted from prohibition. (Never mind that prohibition itself was lifted in 1973). Violators face fines of up to $1,000 and five years in jail.(emphasis mine) [link]
Bear in mind that the punishment for causing death due to rash and negligent driving is merely two years. And there are surely many more such rules which have remained in statute book for decades. In other cases, the Maharashtra government has actually enacted new rules making it harder to obtain liquor legally: Only last year it increased the minimum drinking age in the state from 21 to 25 and prohibited all public functions from serving alcohol.
Noticeably, there was minimal outrage over these onerous new rules because everyone assumed that police simply won’t enforce them. For a price of course. And here’s the thing: even pub owners who are now up in arms against Dhoble frequently don’t mind such laws because it ensures that liquor and bar licenses are restricted to the rich and the politically well connected (in India they are frequently the same). Less competition happily translates into more profits. See for instance this Center for Civil Society policy brief to understand how difficult it is to obtain a liquor license in Delhi. That is why even in dingy Delhi bars the price of liquor frequently approaches upscale pubs in New York.
So labeling ACP Dhoble the ‘public enemy number 1′ misses the point. It is the law which facilitates his moral policing. And if you want to prevent the likes of Dhoble from running amok, the offended—and the well connected—citizens of Mumbai should demand that the rules are suitably modified. Indeed, that may already be happening and if the Maharashtra government decided to update its laws, Dhoble would deserve credit for inadvertently facilitating it.
One may ask: What was wrong with the status quo? After all, everyone routinely ignored the rules and Mumbai tipplers were not deprived of their evening entertainment. Ideally, the regulatory burden should be light, uniformly imposed and provide minimal discretion to the enforcement agencies. Discretion merely turns on the spigot of corruption and cronyism. This was what India’s license-permit raj was all about.
Worse, selectively enforcement encourages disdain for the law—even for those rules which make immense sense and are necessary for proper social functioning. Because the regulatory burden in India is so high and the rules so difficult to follow, citizens have simply given up trying. If you have paid a bribe to obtain a driving license, you are likely to do the same when stopped by a traffic cop for jumping the red light. Especially when you personally witness every day that those responsible for writing those rules never have to pay a personal penalty.
Finally, Dhoble’s crusade merely reinforces how selective India’s reforms process has been and how pervasive the license-permit raj remains. Dhoble’s will come and go; reforming the archaic system remains India’s principal challenge. Reforms are not merely about FDI in retail or attracting large investments. At their most basic level, they are concerned with making the life of the citizens simpler and ensuring that the state is less intrusive. Liberal commentators frequently lament the lack of popular support for reforms even among the middle class. It is mainly because they have failed to make the connection between the reform process and the day-to-day concerns of ordinary citizens. A Mamata Banerjee can claim that the entry of large chains like Walmart may hurt small shop keepers. What is the reformers counter-case? Where is Dr. Manmohan Singh or Pranab Mukherjee who are ostensibly in favor of these policies standing up and demonstrating that FDI in retail would lead to greater choices for consumers and farmers? Unless that happens, they would continue to lose the battle.