MUSTY RUSTED PROCESSES

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

Bad procedures have come to adversely impact delivery of service by the legislature, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. And an eventual breakdown of these would be a breakdown of state machinery.

Yet another session of Parliament is underway. The usual walk-outs, adjournments and protests are being repeated. When business actually takes place, Parliament barely challenges the government to provide meaningful answers to logical questions. Laws that get passed are mostly those already operational in the form of ordinances. No MP disrupting Parliament is really taken to task. In other words, the administration of the supreme law-making body is a mess.

The administration of the executive government is no different. Most ministers of every government are outsmarted by bureaucrats. Shrewd ministers hoodwink other ministers with the help of loyal bureaucrats who outdo not-so-loyal bureaucrats of other ministries. Governments are able to hoodwink Parliament with vague and confusing answers that can barely scratch the surface even with supplementary questions.

The administration of the third arm of the state – the judiciary – is equally messy. There is hardly any focus on the business process of justice delivery, and much of the attention is expended on judicial appointments. Different high courts across the country have different rules. Even within the same high court, different judges can adopt different and unique processes. For example, some judges allow out-of-turn “mentioning” of urgent cases while others simply disallow it whatever be the emergency. Such varied practices are not always written down and found in a single place – the approach of the judge has to be ascertained from the court’s associates.

In a nutshell, how the law-writer, the law-administrator and the law-enforcer govern their own administration leaves much to be desired. A simple look at the law that governs the conduct of their business by the three pillars of the State would show some common trait. They all smell musty and sound rusted – they are really old and written in an era that does not resemble the current ease and means of living life in Indian society. Amendments made every now and then have indeed led to a patchwork. For example, the Lok Sabha’s procedural rules were adopted in 1952 from what governed the Constituent Assembly that wrote the Constitution of India. The Rajya Sabha adopted rules of procedure in 1964. No serious reform to bring it in sync with current reality has been adopted. For example, today, the Right To Information law enables any citizen to ask the questions MPs alone could ask when these rules were written. But Parliamentary procedures do not reflect this reality.

Likewise, the Government of India’s rules for transaction of business and rules for allocation of business were all written in 1961. Indeed the current government has re-done the allocation of business rules. However, all these rules are mired in a different era. It takes scandals of criminal proportions for innovation and change in government processes – the e-auctions for coal and telecom spectrum are cases in point. What is now necessary is a surgical re-write rather than tinkering of existing outdated rules of conducting business. Another example is most of the serious appointments for running of regulatory agencies are conducted by “selection committees” and not by “search and selection committees”.

Achange from the former to the latter should be a no-brainer – most applicants who covet a post are supplicants who would be misfits while those who would fit the bill would also expect to be invited to apply.

The Supreme Court’s rules were recently rewritten to take effect in August last year, but are largely a re-write of the rules first made in 1966. Rules of various high courts are also very old and not homogenous. The civil and criminal procedure codes have barely kept pace with the quality improvements that modern technology could bring upon justice delivery. A World Bank study shows that a suit for enforcement of a small claim across India would involve 46 procedural steps (not counting any appeals). The transaction cost of bringing such a claim in Mumbai stands at 39.6 per cent of the amount claimed.

Clearly, bad procedures have come to adversely impact substantive delivery of service by the three institutions. An eventual breakdown would be a breakdown of the state machinery. That the state machinery “by and large” works can hardly be of solace.

Tweets: @SomasekharS

(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on May 8, 2015)


IT TAKES AN EARTHQUAKE

By: Somasekhar Sundaresan

In this day and age, it would be rare not to have experienced a mock fire evacuation drill at least at the work place, but one would most certainly never have had a mock earthquake drill, although it’s quite likely many of us have at least felt a tremor

When it happened, I was in a meeting in a leading five-star hotel in Gurgaon. I felt my chair rumble. A suggestion that we were experiencing tremors and an earthquake was potentially brewing, was duly laughed off. The laughter quietened a bit when the crystal chandeliers, jingling at first, started sounding like chiming puja bells.

But it did not alarm. Some checked the internet and social media to see if there was news about any earthquake, continuing to be seated under the chiming chandeliers. Others sauntered out and got coffee in the corridor. Some felt asking the hotel staff would be a great idea. The chef from the nearby kitchen came to take a look at the chandeliers. Asked if things kept in the kitchen were shaking too, he joked about how there were no chandeliers in his kitchen.

Further down the corridor, one of India’s largest media houses was having an in-house retreat. The journalists were similarly carefree. Some were visiting the toilet, some stood out to get a smoke while others lounged in the corridor of the hotel. When asked if they had any confirmations from their news desks about an earthquake, not many were enthusiastic about finding out.

Overheard voices narrated a wisecrack about PM Modi taking the Delhi Metro, causing the earth to tremble, and “Does not look like anything major here.” The tremor continued for an eerie length. Back in our respective rooms, the second round lasted longer with lesser dramatic impact — although the presentation screen kept shaking like an old movie because the overhead projector hung from the ceiling. “Aftershocks are normal,” said someone, meaning to be helpful.

No alarms went off. No evacuations were ordered. No loudspeakers asked for people to move out of their rooms and assemble at any rescue area. In short, the hotel had no drill to deal with earthquakes. Worse, every single person around seemed to have his own judgement on what was really going on and what was needed to be done. In a nutshell, no one is prepared on how to handle an earthquake even in the best of hotels and among the best of journalists.

The next time you close your hotel door, look for the fire evacuation drill displayed on the inside. Where your room is, where you are supposed to head when there is a fire, what to do and what not to do, would scream at you if only you cared to read. In many hotels, the first television channel advertises features of the hotel while the very next channel would display a continuous spool of how to react in case of fire. But an earthquake? You will find nothing. Not for us, they think. Earthquakes are expected only in places like Japan, Turkey and California. And they must have it all figured out so why bother?

In this day and age, it would be rare not to have experienced a mock fire evacuation drill at least at the work place. It would be extremely rare to have experienced a real fire accident. But it is likely that one would have experienced some mild form of a quake in a lifetime, but one would most certainly never have had a mock earthquake drill.

Earthquakes are considered even more remote than “spotting a black swan”. In human intuition, they are not meant to occur frequently enough to worry about what to do when one hits. At first blush, one would dismiss it as the Indian bravado against nature. But then, I do know that many in my meeting room keenly wear seatbelts in cars as a safety measure while others do so only because their cars annoy them with alarms until the seatbelt is clicked on. Fire brigade authorities conducted fire-preparedness inspections in multi-storied buildings in Mumbai after a recent high-profile fire.

What would it then take to build the same regulatory response to earthquakes? The Nepal Prime Minister projects that the death toll could touch the five-digit mark. Need it take anything more for legislative policy intervention to induce greater attention to safety regulations around earthquakes?

Tweets: @SomasekharS

(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on May 1, 2015)