The stern aspects of any state are represented by its police, paramilitary establishments and enforcement agencies. The bureaucracy too has considerable enforcement powers. Independent India has enacted several laws with considerable teeth with the professed purpose of ensuring the safety and security of the citizens and maintaining law and order in society. The Constitution provides such powers to lawmakers to circumscribe the freedom of a few for the benefit of the population at large.
Though the Supreme Court has time and again cautioned that this power to curb the Fundamental Rights needs to be exercised sparingly and with due diligence, we have quite a few such legislations enacted from time to time to counter and contain various threats to the integrity of the country and the orderly life of citizens. Parallel to the global ascendancy of trans-national terrorism, India too has, out of necessity, passed harsh laws to meet the menace. Major incidents like the attack on Parliament and the 26/11 Mumbai terror naturally forced the government to tighten the laws with stringent provisions. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA), the current law, is a harsher version of its predecessors like POTA and TADA. It gives extensive powers to investigating and prosecuting agencies. All these laws infringe on the citizens’ freedom to dissent.
Other than the anti-terrorism laws and the much discussed provisions on sedition, there are ample powers in the CrPC, Police Act and other Central and state laws that can, for a limited period, suspend the rights of the citizens. Besides these, there are special laws enacted to prevent child abuse, safeguard women’s rights and safety, insulate Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people from exploitation, etc. After the Nirbhaya case, laws to deal with rape and atrocities against women have been made stringent.
Draconian provisions may be necessary and perhaps justified, but the possibility of abuse is real. Despite the safeguards, they tend to be invoked arbitrarily. Human rights enthusiasts have often reacted against the abuse of these powers. The problem is not with the laws but in the manner in which they are used.
The government’s enforcement and punitive arm has to work in tandem with its welfare functions. For ensuring socio-economic development, governments formulate several schemes in every Budget. In fact, all taxation is justified by the protection and development it promises to citizens. But there is a mismatch between the enthusiasm for enforcing regulatory, preventive laws and the administration of welfare programmes. While admitting that such harsh laws are all for the protection of society and for its eventual progress, the lack of alacrity in administering welfare programmes makes its harshness more glaring. This has happened in several countries with not-so happy consequences. In India we seem to be witnessing this phenomenon of the harsh state and the eclipse of the welfare state.
In such an environment, the ordinary citizen feels alienated. Power brokers proliferate, business oligarchies flourish and these eventually make the government machinery more feared than loved. The political fallout of such an asymmetrical relationship is the increasing marginality of the economically and socially weaker sections. The government acquires the image of a distant and suspecting entity that would never be kind, compassionate or forgiving.
In order to prevent this danger, governments have to consciously focus and continuously sharpen the administrative machinery. As long as the bureaucratic style, outdated even by 20th century standards, continues unchanged, service delivery will remain a haphazard exercise bypassing the poor. It will thrive as an act of patronage or be kept alive by illicit gratifications. Corruption, indifference and lethargy are the major features of bureaucracy. No structural changes of any worthwhile magnitude seem to be taking place. A few e-files here and a few online services there are not e-governance as such. They are make-believe myths of efficiency, initiated mostly by well-meaning individuals, but often discarded on his/her departure. Admittedly there are several well-documented citizen-centric e-governance initiatives that have improved efficiency and reduced the scope of corruption. But they are exceptions and not the rule. The mindset in bureaucracy is not yet resilient towards the possibilities of the digital age, nor is it attuned to the needs of the citizens and their rights. The tone of patronage is still loud and clear in any government action. Besides, the style of decision-making is becoming centralised in the Centre and several states. The recent amendments to the Right to Information Act read in conjunction with the centralising tendency reiterate the notion that governance is becoming less transparent, less responsive and less participatory.
No developed country has a bureaucracy like that of India. And sadly enough, we are not still impatient about it. Overhauling it with wild decentralisation, outrageous delegation and stringent accountability for end results has not so far found a place in any political imagination. It has not been accepted as a development imperative. The urge to professionalise the bureaucracy at all levels and equip it to meet the expectations of speedy social justice in the new decade is missing from the narrative.
As long this gap between the harsh and kind aspects of the state exists, social restlessness becomes inevitable. It is the perception of the state as a harsh and stringent enforcer of freedom-negating laws that triggers this alienation. Conscious efforts, coupled with genuine attempts for structural changes of the bureaucracy, are a prerequisite for the state to emerge as a compassionate entity. This is perhaps what We the People of India deserve as we celebrate 70 years of our Constitution, the precious bedrock of our democracy.
The tone of patronage is still loud and clear in any government action. Governments have to consciously focus and continuously sharpen the administrative machinery. As long as the bureaucratic style, outdated even by 20th century standards, continues unchanged, service delivery will remain a haphazard exercise bypassing the poor and the needy
Former Chief Secretary, Government of Kerala and former
Vice-Chancellor, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University