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None of your business

The Indian state tries to save us from ourselves. It may pat itself on the back for becoming an economic powerhouse, but it must realise that nations that over-govern destroy the very order they seek, writes Arvind Kala.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2007 00:11 IST

Axe your feet and ask why you are lame. The Indian State makes lawless laws and punishes citizens for breaking them. Nowhere in the West is gambling an offence. Nor do these societies have liquor offences as liquor is available legally. But the Indian state arrests hundreds of thousands every year under anti-gambling and liquor laws. The prosecution of these ‘violators’ — 728,000 in 2005 — paralyses our courts that are already clogged with 3 crore cases. The courts should be focusing on punishing those charged with cheating, robbing and killing. Instead, brought before them are lakhs of ‘offenders’ who typically are slum-dwellers gambling by the roadside, and unemployed youths crossing into a dry Gujarat with two liquor bottles to sell. The conviction rate for gambling offences is 85 per cent in India while it’s only 35 per cent for murder.

Our ‘anti-vice’ laws hit the poor the hardest. The laws stem from a Gandhian notion that people need to be saved from themselves. And one way to do it is to outlaw gambling and restrict drinking. Unlike India, sensible Western societies realise that regulating private behaviour is not the business of the State. If an individual smokes, drinks, gambles or even eats excessively, his family has to reform him, not the State. True, 2-3 per cent of people with addictive personalities actually drink themselves to death. But why should the excesses of a minority deprive a majority of pleasures they enjoy in moderation?

This elementary truth has prompted Western societies to liberalise laws relating to drinking, gambling, sex, prostitution, drugs and pornography. Even traditional China has shops that sell sex toys. But the Indian State has a don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that mindset that seeks to save us from imagined disasters. Some time ago, the government wanted to outlaw actors smoking on- screen, stating that it encourages audiences to light up. By that logic, reading murder mysteries would tempt people to commit murder. People distinguish between entertainment and reality. Smoking is freely shown in US movies and TV screens, yet adult smoking has halved in the US in the last four decades. And violent crime has gone down in America while violence on TV and video games has gone up.

The Indian state’s nanny mindset comes at a huge cost. Promoting personal and social freedom is good economics. Governments that leave citizens alone can get ahead with their primary task: to make policies that promote economic activity and wealth creation. Which is why the world’s free societies prosper far more than those that curb personal freedom. Unfortunately, the Indian State interferes with what we see, drink, or even eat. Nowhere in the West are films cleared by censors as it is done in India. Courts summon movie actresses for ‘lewd’ scenes that ostensibly ‘corrupt’ us. What we can eat or drink is also restricted by official fiat. The State feels it’s wrong to eat eggs and meat in Hindu holy towns. So non-vegetarian food is banned in those places.

The Delhi government thinks it’s wrong for us to drink on national and religious holidays. So liquor shops are shut on August 15, January 26, on Id and Janmashtami. The government even punishes people who try to kill themselves and don’t succeed. People who attempt suicide in the west are given emergency medical treatment and escorted back to their families. But here, they are arrested, prosecuted and face one year in jail, though they may have broken bones or burned their insides from swallowing pesticide. Imagine the economic, social and legal cost of these insane police investigations and prosecutions. India saw around 111,000 suicides in 2003. Also, unsuccessful suicides outnumber successful ones by three or four to one: a global average. So we have tens of thousands of wretchedly unhappy suicide survivors fighting court battles against a state that wants to jail them. Western societies see incarceration as a last resort. Only 7 per cent of convicted offenders in Britain go to jail. Western nations jail a person only if his action harms others.

People who gamble or drink excessively, or attempt suicide, harm themselves, nobody else. By prosecuting and jailing them, the Indian State ruins the lives of lakhs of families because these ‘offenders’ are often breadwinners. In 2004, three lakh people arrested for gambling offences were between 18 and 45.

When jailed, their families virtually starve. Similarly, people who attempt suicide successfully or unsuccessfully are largely poor, uneducated, ill or pauperised. They are also young — 40 per cent of them being under 30. They need compassion and therapy, not a jail term. India may congratulate itself on being economic powerhouse, but it needs to realise one truth: nations that over-govern destroy the very order they seek.