Complexity is the defining characteristic of the present age. One is confronted with a surfeit of fine print for any given activity ~ be it downloading a computer programme, applying for insurance or even purchasing a parking ticket. The prospective user, generally, has no time to read the detailed terms and conditions, which even otherwise, would serve little purpose, because most users have no real option to refuse.
Then, arguing with a well prepared and more powerful opponent about one’s rights is pointless, as the States learnt to their discomfiture in the recently concluded GST Council meeting. According to the States’ understanding of the GST regime, they had given up their taxation rights in return for a guarantee from the Central Government to compensate them for their lost revenue. But right at the start of the GST Council meeting, the Finance Minister produced the Attorney General’s opinion on the liability of the Centre to compensate the States in these difficult times. Apparently, the fine print absolved the Central Government of any such obligation! Briefly put, it was for the Centre to pay, and the Centre decided not to oblige.
Of course, for common folk this kind of disappointment is not unusual. Ask the farmer putting up his claim under the Kisan Fasal Bima Yojana about the recompense he got or ask the electricity consumer who had received an inflated power bill for the lockdown period about the fate of his complaint. Most of the times, a customer wanting to air his grievance to some company’s Customer Care is put on an endless wait. Often, business entities send messages to their customers from mobile numbers which do not accept SMS replies because most businesses feel no need to deal with customer complaints.
The complexities of the judicial process have ensured that the average person feels hesitant in approaching a court of law. We have it from the Apex Court, in the infamous Vodafone Case that the form of a document is more important than its content. Taking a cue from this species of judicial thinking, moneybags hire sharp lawyers, who ensure that all their arguments and paperwork are in order. On the other hand, given the high costs and uncertainties of litigation, ordinary people prefer to give up their small but justified claims against the Government or moneyed corporates.
Judicial delays also play a part in the denial of justice; in many cases, judgments are delivered only after the remedy has become pointless. With a backlog of more than 44 lakh cases and more than 40 per cent vacancies in High Courts and a pendency of 3.1 crore cases and a shortage of 25 per cent judges in subordinate courts, it could not be otherwise. The question naturally arises as to what prevents the Government from filling up such crucial vacancies? Expected vacancies can be foreseen long before they occur and only bureaucratic sloth and lack of a sense of urgency delay critical appointments. Can the Government not bring a law to prevent any important post remaining vacant for more than a month? Over the years, the Government had established several sector specific tribunals like Consumer Forums, Administrative Tribunals etc. for quick and inexpensive redressal of citizens’ grievances against the Government or public bodies or even commercial entities. Retired judges were liberally appointed as presiding officers and members of these tribunals, and soon all tribunals came to be dominated by lawyers and the proceedings of these tribunals descended into incomprehensible legalese. Consequently, the disposal of cases in tribunals slowed down to the level of a regular civil court.
Later, the Government merged disparate tribunals, like the Cyber Appellate Tribunal and the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal were merged into the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal. This step has put a question mark over the availability of domain expertise with the tribunals, which was the main reason for their creation. Most tribunals are now little more than sinecures for retired civil servants and judges. Probably, the efficiency and efficacy of all tribunals can be restored by mandating that all tribunals would only hear arguments on disputed facts and give only findings of facts. Such a requirement would empower aggrieved persons to address the tribunal directly and curtail unnecessary legal arguments which only increase expenses and delay resolution. A reason for most laws being exceedingly complex is that laws are drafted by legal experts who revel in complexity; most Acts have accompanying Rules and Circulars/Notifications, with all the three required to be read together. Rarely is a law enacted in simple language that is comprehensible to the layperson. The Right to Information (RTI) Act is one of the few examples of simple and well drafted legislation. Delays in filling vacancies at the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and the resultant backlog of cases has blunted the sharp edge of the RTI Act. Yet, the extent to which citizens have been empowerd by the RTI Act underscores the need for simple and citizen-centric legislative enactments. Everyone feels aggrieved by the poor performance of government departments, but can the Government perform better with thirty lakh vacancies and outdated SOPs that shield government employees from all manner of accountability? Government employees feel little hesitation in behaving irresponsibly because there has been little effort to lay down parameters for their day to day functioning.
Because superior officers are unable to make their juniors perform their assigned duties, most Government departments are forced to outsource ministerial and cleanliness functions, even though they have enough staff on their rolls for such purposes. Most Government schemes fail because the framers fail to factor in bureaucratic sloth and callousness. Despite the use of advanced technology, there has been little improvement in bureaucratic efficiency, while the cost of governance has increased manifold over the years. Probably, all Government departments need to lay down comprehensive guidelines to fix accountability for their employees. The pitiable condition of government hospitals was cruelly exposed by the recent Coronavirus pandemic; with the miserly budget allocation towards health services coupled with manpower shortages and poor infrastructure, it is a miracle that things were not worse.
The same is true about another important sector, education. We feel disappointed when our universities are ranked far below their peers or the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reveals that most children of class five cannot read or write or add or subtract. Can we expect anything better with crumbling government schools, where one teacher teaches two or three classes in a single room? Can the new National Education Policy really make a difference if we go on spending only 1.6 per cent of our GDP on education instead of the optimal 6 per cent?
A simple solution could be having an Act on the lines of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act that mandates some minimum expenditure on sectors like education, health and agriculture. Of course, such an Act would curtail the Government’s ability to play to the gallery with populist schemes, but rescuing necessities like health and education from terminal decline should be the top priority for the Government.
Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the personal computer revolution and the co-founder of Apple, said: “That’s been one of my mantras ~ focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.
The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax