Saturday, January 23, 2010

Incompleteness Theorem for Indian Law

Mathematics in the early 20th century was full of excitement. Science in general had made huge strides and math was always leading it by a considerable distance of many decades. In many fields of thought, Utopia had never been closer. The celebrated mathematician Hilbert was on a mission to prove the consistency and completeness of all mathematics starting with a very small set of reasonable assumptions or axioms. But then Godel dropped the bomb shell: any consistent math built on axioms cannot be complete. In other words, there will always be some truths which mathematics or logic will not be able to conclusively prove to be true [1].

This result has been used and abused in many discourses in philosophy and theology. Let me carry forward the tradition. India has always been criticized as a soft state where citizens are not quite the perfect examples of law abiding beings. Rather, India is more like a chaotic system, oiled by corruption, which surprisingly works. I am not sure whether it is a good thing to abide by all laws and whether laws substitute ethics and morals. After all, slave trade and apartheid was legal in many parts of the world. So does it make us a good citizen by being law abiding? But, what I want to ask is that can laws, which are supposed to be based on reason deduced from some basic assumptions or ideals, ensure justice to all? Are they not precisely afflicted by the Godel's incompleteness?

I know the first counter argument to this claim would be the numerous countries where law is adhered to strictly and it works well. Well, in all those instances the countries are usually homogeneous to some extent and they have special provisions for handling exceptional cases. As one would ask, hmm..what's the problem then? Make strict laws in India and have provisions for exceptional cases. The problem is the size and diversity of India and also not the least the lack of many resources which oil the system in the first world. Assuming that even 0.01% of people shall fall into exceptional cases category for a particular law, we are dealing with 1 lakh cases. This percentage would be much higher in India due to its huge diversity. Going through the regular channels of appeals through courts and stuff, these exceptional cases would become a torturous ordeal. Having said so, it is not an argument in favor of a lawless state.

Speaking a few days before the 61st republic day, the Indian constitution has stood the test of time. But I am not sure that we would have had such a success story if every law had to be followed in letter and spirit. There have been around a hundred amendments to the Indian constitution and not the least were aimed to accommodate special cases [2] so that the courts do not strike them down as unconstitutional. Even the Supreme Court has changed its stand in many cases relating to the interpretation of the constitution[3].

While at the highest level such contradictions were taken care by intervention by the parliament or a rethink by the Supreme Court, we all live in a state of contradictions. The reason for a law gets turned on its head in many instances. Take for example the case of wildlife protection laws. Nothing could arguably be wrong with a law the prohibits keeping wild animals as pets. Yet this law lead to jailing of an innocent tribal in Orrissa who took care of an orphaned bear. Tribal people have a close relationship with the flora and fauna of their surroundings and it is not uncommon for them to handle wild animals fearlessly. The orphaned bear cub was found by Munda in the Forrest. Munda took it home and cared for it like a member of the family. Yet, this ran contrary to the wild life protection laws; Munda was arrested and the bear was "released" far in the jungle. The bear returned home and was put in a cage in the zoo as per the "law," where it refused to eat [4]. While this case made headlines in many dailies across the world, but such paradoxes happen more than often and in a subtle way at every road junction, every dhabha, bus and railway station. Had it not been for the notorious police constables many of us would have had visited the jail at least once in our lives.

There are also more challenging problems for law to find a proper clause to capture many de facto situations in India. For instance, consider the case of slums and homeless people in large cities. Slums are usually built illegally on government land and as per law should be demolished. But, where do such people go? These people have migrated in distress from the villages and other small towns, and have a right to a decent living. They perform many of the most critical jobs in the city which keep it running. The government, ideally, should provide basic facilities for such "internal refugees." In other words, the government should make the living conditions better in slums and give people a legal right to reside there. If that happens, the slums no longer remain a temporary structure for people in distress and penury to take refuge in for a while and then build their lives again. The slums transform into permanent and comfortable residence with the residents having much less motivation to move out. Thus in effect the internal refugees coming to the cities hence forth would have to build a new illegal slum somewhere else in the city. Similar is the case of the de facto owner ship of Forrest land by tribal people and their right to make a living out of the Forrest and many other cases where contradictions and diversity of India make it almost an impossible exercise to satisfy all.

Not least is the problem of implementing these laws and the vast amount of man power and infrastructure needed for the same. Ideally a law should lead to a game theoretic equilibrium where any one deviating from the law would gain nothing but that's hardly the case. All these reasons lead me to believe that we do at times go a bit far when we criticize India for being lawless. Just recently I, watched a movie Ramchand Pakistani. It is based on a true incident where a small boy, around 9 years old, unknowingly crosses the border from Pakistan to India. He is caught by the Sepoy on the border and he has to go through to the grind of Indian system for many years before he could be finally released. It pains me to see that though it was obvious to the Sepoy that the innocent boy had crossed the border unknowingly, he could not have sent the boy back without a rebuke from his law abiding seniors and fellow citizens. India is a land of paradoxes and contradictions, I do feel it is better for us that law (read law enforcement agencies) remains flexible and twists and turns it self according to the situation at hand. Of course this does have a downside, but those cases are far fewer than number of cases where law and intention do not agree.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The National Advisory Council Vacuum

During the UPA-I government, a body of social activists and experts was formed under the chairmanship of Sonia Gandhi. I was called the National Advisory Council (NAC). NAC, as the government claimed, was formed for the following purpose: [1]
"The National Advisory Council (NAC) has been set up as an interface with Civil Society in regard to the implementation of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) of the Government of India."

It attracted all sorts of criticism from being a tool of the left to influence the government policies to being a way of justifying the role of the 'super prime minister' Sonia Gandhi. It was actually a bit of both. But more importantly it provided the vital interface between the government and the social activists. The high and mighty, elite and the rich usually form the bureaucratic and ministerial part of the government. They belong to the upper middle class and many influential persons in the government are educated in the best universities outside the country. Thus the most of the views formed by the government were actually formulated in the drawing rooms rather than on the ground. The NAC provided the government a way to look at things from a different view point other than government sources and reports formed by administrative officers, who still enjoy the colonial luxuries of sahibs and are to some extent the most disassociated from the general public.

The NAC proved to be a very beneficial body for the country and the political prospects of Congress. It conceptualized the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Right to Information (RTI) Act and with the political will symbolized by Ms. Gandhi, the acts saw the light of the day. The skeptics bared their teeth when such socialist Utopian models started being taken seriously by the government [2]. Even the prime minister seemed not very enthusiastic about the act. But today, these acts are the two most important things that have happened to India. The impact of NREGA has been mind boggling [3] and RTI is stirring new revolutions day by day. Many nebulous ideas took shape in NAC during its heyday [4] but it started loosing some steam as the meetings of the council became more rare and many important members declined to be on the council again[5]. But it was finally buried when Sonia Gandhi resigned as its chairman following the office of profit controversy [6].

The UPA-II government came to power with a resounding public approval. Much credit for this success would go to the NAC. Yet, today the body stands dissolved and dead. The government is facing a crisis at multiple levels whether it is the climate issue or the Maoist problem. There is a a very urgent need of a fresh wave of thoughts to tackle these issues and the NAC -II can provide exactly the same. It remains unclear whether NAC became a success due to presence of left or Sonia Gandhi or both, but it is certain that we need a better dialogue between the sahibs and ground level workers to evolve into a better India.