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We need a law to streamline the rules

To know the rules under each piece of legislation, there should be a law that would stipulate that they would be available on websites, they should be presented as a unified whole and each change in them should be notified

columns Updated: Dec 07, 2016 11:46 IST
The law on transparency of rules should suit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative
The law on transparency of rules should suit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative (PTI photo)

Irrespective of the long-term impact of the de-monetisation announcement, it should be clear that the country’s political leadership is now in the mood for radical changes. Many next steps are being suggested ranging from a simplification of the direct tax system to rationalisation of labour laws. However, there is one piece of small legislation that could have very large multiplier effects: let’s call it the Transparency of Rules Act (TRA).

Every successfully functioning country depends on the rule-of-law. All citizens are expected to know the country’s laws and to follow it. Ignorance of the law is not accepted as defence. However, this assumes that it is easy for ordinary citizens to find out what is expected of them. We are not concerned here about the quality and content of the laws and regulations but about the ease of finding out the existing rules.

This is no easy task in India, where citizens are expected to comply with a multitude of rules, regulations, forms, taxes and other requirements imposed by various tiers of government. I am not referring to the great laws debated in Parliament but the rules that are used for administration. Matters are made worse with every small change as one has to follow a long paper trail of circulars and notifications to know the current requirements.

This opaque mesh of rules is so complicated that even government officials often do not know, or pretend not to know, the most up-to-date version. This is not only the cause of a lot of confusion but is perhaps the single-most important source of India’s all-pervasive corruption and endless litigation. This is why we need a law that makes it the government’s responsibility to present the common citizen with the latest rules and regulations in a comprehensible format. In order to work, such a law needs the following three elements.

Three elements

The TRA must first specify that all rules, regulations, forms and other citizen-facing requirements must be placed on the website of the relevant department for them to be applicable (preferably in English, Hindi and regional language). Any rule that is not explicitly on the website should be deemed not to apply. Currently government websites often provide incomplete and outdated information that is misleading. No government official should be allowed to suddenly pull out an update or circular that was not already displayed on the website.

Note that this is not an entirely new idea as all state and central laws are currently required to be published in the Gazette. The new legislation extends this principle to the digital world and takes the additional step to say that a rule applies only if the citizen had a fighting chance of finding out about it on the website of the relevant department or agency. Simply placing a circular in the large heap of new rules and circulars in the Gazette is not good enough.

Second, all laws, rules and regulations need to be presented as an updated, unified whole at all times. Citizens should not have to wade through decades of circulars to find out the current state of play. This is already being done in some places on an ad hoc basis, but it is not useful if one is never completely sure that the so-called updated version has itself not been superseded. The format used by Wikipedia is a simple example of a format where the main text can be constantly updated but also allows people to look up document history in order to compare changes. A presentation of laws as an updated whole will have an additional benefit that it will make internal contradictions obvious.

The third critical element of the TRA is that the websites should clearly state the date and time when each change is made. This should be embedded in the software. Laws should be applicable after a specified time (say, seven days) after the rule has been posted. The principle is that the government must give the citizen a reasonable time to comply. The date stamp means that officials cannot retrospectively change a regulation. The text on the website is deemed the law even if it has a mistake, till the correction is made. The department, and not the citizen, must pay for the consequences of any error.

Note that the TRA needs all three ingredients in order to work. Leaving aside any one of them will create a loophole that will quickly make it unworkable.

Transparency rules!

The technology requirements of the TRA are simple and the cost of implementation will be trivial. Moreover, it can be implemented one department at a time and does not need large-scale co-ordination. Once a department has shifted to the platform, it can be deemed “TRA Compliant”. In my estimate, it should take no more than 18 months to make both the central and state governments fully TRA-compliant. What it needs is a bit of political will. The good news is Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be in the right mood. Indeed, this would fit well with his Digital India initiative.