A look at some of the obsolete laws that the government proposes to junk
Deevakar Anand | October 9, 2014
In 1857, the then colonial rulers enacted a law and gave certain powers to the Oriental Gas Company (OGC). Among the work rights English firm got was the job of laying down pipes in Calcutta to manufacture, supply and distribute “fuel gas”.
Exactly 157 years on, as the Scots threatened to give another jolt to the size and significance of Great Britain, the Empire having morphed into a noun in dictionary and a chapter in history books, Calcutta having given way to the politically correct Kolkata long back and OGC taken over by the state of West Bengal and merged with a bigger public utility company soon after independence, something remains absurdly incongruous. Oriental Gas Company Act – Act 5 of the year 1857 – still remains in India’s statute books.
That a law dating back over a century and half is more than dated is not news. That there are many such laws still existing in our books is news. And the government now wants to dispose of all such “obsolete laws”.
While the Narendra Modi government might have started work in earnest to junk such Acts, this, too, is not an idea born yesterday. As early as 1984, the law commission of India, in one of its reports on the need to repeal redundant laws, especially those of the pre-independence era, emphasised that legislatures should undertake “periodic spring-clearing of the corpus” of its laws. The exercise, the commission stressed, would remove the “dead wood” and spare citizens of the inconvenience of taking notice of laws that have ceased to be relevant to current situations.
Three decades hence, India’s social, economic and political spheres have changed by leaps and bounds. The post-1991 era of liberalised markets, along with the more recent phenomenon of the internet, social media and newer scientific and technological advancements, has had continuous bearings on the relationships between the state and its subjects. Therefore the need for modernisation of laws. Laws that are more in tune with the present.
In September this year, the law commission submitted a list of 72 obsolete laws to the government, urging for their purging. In an interim report, titled “Obsolete Laws: Warranting Immediate Repeal”, it identified laws that are inconsistent with newer ones, with supreme court judgments and international conventions signed and ratified by India making them obsolete in many cases.
In the law commission’s words, the exercise culls out laws that impose “heavy burden” and whose “costs outweigh their benefits”.
Parallel to the law commission’s study, a committee headed by R Ramanujam, secretary, PMO, was appointed in August to examine 1,382 Acts recommended for repeal by the committee on review of administrative law, set up by the AB Vajpayee government in 1998. Only 415 of those laws have been repealed so far.
In its interim report, the law commission has pointed out more anomalies. It has found that 253 laws still exist on the statute books despite having been recommended for repeal. The commission also found that 34 laws that have already been repealed still figure on the government website.
The commission notes that certain laws passed by parliament are not listed in the chronological list of central Acts on the government website.
The 72 Acts that the law commission has identified to be fit for repeal belong to one or more of these three categories: (1) the subject matter of the law in question is outdated, (2) the purpose of the law in question has been fulfilled, and (3) there is a newer law overlapping the same subject matter.
This, though, is only the beginning. Legal experts say there needs to be more such committees and law commission notings to weed out other unwarranted laws and make the statute book up to date. This is the first interim report of the commission, and the panel is expected to come up with such lists periodically in future.
We look at a few of the “obsolete laws”:
Bengal Districts Act, 1836
WHAT: Relating to administration and development of local areas, the Act gives power to the state government to create new districts by notification in the official gazette. While new districts are now formed by other state governments under their respective revenue codes, West Bengal is a special case where it is still being done under the central Act.
WHY REPEAL IT: May be repealed if the power to create districts is included in the relevant West Bengal statute. This Act has been recommended for repeal by the PC Jain committee on review of administrative law formed in 1998.
Bengal Bonded Warehouse Association Act, 1838
? The Act was enacted to stipulate that only residents of the rresidency of Fort William in Bengal can be directors of the Bengal Bonded Warehouse Association, and that the association can sell its property only to East India Company.
x The East India Company no longer exists, neither does the presidency of Fort William as an administrative unit. Consequently, the law now stands redundant.
Sonthal Parganas Act, 1855
? The law was enacted to remove, from the operation of the general laws and regulations, certain districts inhabited by persons belonging to the Sonthal [Santhal] tribe. The preamble to the Act states, “The general Regulations and Acts of Government now in force in the Presidency of Bengal are not adapted to the uncivilized race of people called Sonthals’.
x The language of the Act runs contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. Further, Sonthal areas’ administration is now covered under the fifth schedule of the Constitution. It, thus, needs to be repealed.
Madras Uncovenanted Officers’ Act, 1857
? The Act was enacted to provide for the more extensive employment of uncovenanted officers [or those not bound by or in accordance with a covenant or agreement] in the revenue and judicial departments in the presidency of Fort St George. The distinction between ‘covenanted’ and ‘uncovenanted’ officers does not prevail within hierarchy of officers in the Indian administrative services (successor to the British-era Indian civil services).<
x This was an old division of Indian officers between those appointed under a covenant with the British government, and those who were not. This classification of officers ended as a result of the Public Service Commission of 1886. Also, there is no documented use of this Act.
Howrah Offences Act, 1857
? This law was enacted to prescribe penalties for various offences committed within the limits of Howrah, a suburb of Calcutta and a separate district. The Act lays down relatively insignificant sentences and fines while the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and other criminal laws have stricter penalties for the same offences.
x This Act has not been used in recent past, with the last recorded case being in 1956. While this law is redundant, concerns remain about its use as a legal escape route to avoid more stringent penalties under ‘IPC (or some other law).
Calcutta Pilots Act, 1859
? This envisages setting up a court for the trial of pilots employed in the Hooghly Pilot Service of the Port of Calcutta, and were accused of breach of duty.
x However, there is no evidence of courts being set up or cases reported under this Act. The Hooghly Pilot Service has been amalgamated into the Calcutta Pilot Service, which has its own set of regulations.
Government Seal Act, 1862
? Enacted to remove all doubts about the use of seals for certification of certain documents. It allowed the seal of the local government to be used in place of the seal of the East India Company.
x The situation of documents requiring seals of the East India Company can no longer arise.
Waste-Lands (Claims) Act, 1863
? Enacted to establish the procedures for adjudication of claims made in relation to wastelands. At the time of enactment, all land not used for agriculture was wasteland, and the colonial state asserted control over these.
x However, a majority of what was previously considered wasteland is now being administered under the Indian Forests Act, 1927 and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
Oudh Sub-Settlement Act, 1866
? Meant to give the force of law to rules made by the chief commissioner of Oudh for determining property title claims in the province.
x The Act is redundant as Oudh has ceased to exist as an administrative unit.
Converts’ Marriage Dissolution Act, 1866
? Allowed dissolution of marriages of converts from Hinduism to Christianity on grounds that they have been deserted or repudiated on religious grounds by spouse. It enables divorce proceedings to be initiated by the converted person, not his or her spouse.
x In the Sarla Mudgal v Union of India case, the supreme court said that allowing dissolution of marriage under the laws of the converted person is tantamount to destroying existing rights of the other spouse who continues to belong to the same religion.
Ganges Tolls Act, 1867
? Enacted to authorise levy of toll for improvement of the navigation of the Ganges [Ganga].
x The Act uses antiquated language, inconsonant with modern times. More importantly, it became redundant with the enactment of National Waterway (Allahabad-Haldia Stretch of the Ganga-Bhagirathi Hooghly River) Act, 1982, which covers the scope of the 1867 Act.
Oudh Estates Act, 1869
? This Act defines and regulates the succession rights of taluqdars and other landholders in certain estates in Oudh.
x Both Oudh and the taluqdari system no longer exist.
Other Acts held obsolete by the Law Commission
- Sheriffs’ Fees Act, 1852
- Bengal Bonded Warehouse Association Act, 1854
- Forfeited Deposits Act, 1850
- Sonthal Parganas Act, 1857
- Oriental Gas Company Act, 1857
- Sarais Act, 1867
- Oudh Taluqdars’ Relief Act, 1870
- Punjab Laws Act, 1872
- Foreign Recruiting Act, 1874
- Raipur and Khattra Laws Act, 1879
- Fort William Act, 1881
- King of Oudh’s Estate, 1888
- United Provinces Act, 1890
- Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and Assam Laws Act, 1912
- King of Oudh’s Estate Validation Act, 1917
- Sheriff of Calcutta (Power of Custody) Act, 1931
- Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933
- Junagadh Administration (Property) Act, 1948
- Mangrol and Manavadar (Administration of Property) Act, 1949
- Chandernagore (Merger) Act, 1954
- Newspaper (Price and Page) Continuance Act, 1961
- Women’s and Children’s Institutions (Licensing) Act, 1956
- Orissa Weights and Measures (Delhi Repeal) Act, 1958
- Travancore-Cochin Vehicles Taxation (Amendment and Validation) Act, 1959
- Mahendra Pratap Singh Estates (Repeal) Act, 1960
- Land Acquisition (Amendment) Act, 1962
- Land Acquisition (Amendment and Validation) Act, 1967
- Delhi and Ajmer Rent Control (Nasirabad Cantonment Repeal) Act, 1968
- Shipping Development Fund Committee (Abolition) Act, 1986
Dehra Dun Act, 1871
? The law was enacted to give validity within Dehradun to the operation of general Regulations and Acts in force in Saharanpur. This was done because the territory of Dehradun was on several occasions moved from one jurisdiction to another by various legislative enactments.
? Dehradun is now the capital of Uttarakhand and all laws enacted by the state’s legislative assembly are applicable to the city.
Laws Local Extent Act, 1874
? Declares the territorial extent of certain laws passed by the Legislative Council of India and the Council of the Governor General of India.
x The territorial divisions dealt with in this Act existed prior to 1947, and have no relevance to the modern-day demarcation of states. The territorial applicability of laws is now determined under newer laws such as the State Reorganisation Acts.
Central Provinces Laws Act, 1875
? This Act deals with the extension of laws to the central provinces.
x The central provinces are no longer an administrative unit.
Oudh Laws Act, 1876
? Enacted to amend and declare the laws to be administered in the princely state of Oudh.
x Oudh is now a region in UP and ceases to exist as a separate administrative unit.
Dramatic Performances Act, 1876
? Empowers state governments to prohibit performances that are scandalous, defamatory or likely to excite feelings of disaffection.
x It was enacted during the colonial era and extensively used to curb nationalist sentiments propagated through dramatic performances.
Elephants’ Preservation Act, 1879
? The law makes it an offence to kill, injure or capture wild elephants except in cases of self-defence, or in accordance with a licence granted under the Act. However, the Act imposes only an insignificant fine of Rs. 500 for its contravention, while a subsequent conviction attracts imprisonment for 6 months along with the fine.
x The purpose of the Act is now subsumed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which has similar provisions on the prohibition of killing wild animals and on procedures for licensing. Elephants are included within the ambit of the 1972 Act, which also has more stringent penalties.
Dekkhan Agriculturists’ Relief Act, 1879
? Enacted to provide succour to indebted agriculturists in certain parts of the Deccan.
x The relevant states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – all have separate debt relief laws now.
Agriculturists’ Loans Act, 1884
? Enacted to amend and provide for the extension to certain territories of the Northern India Takkavi Act, 1879. The 1879 law was enacted to provide for recovery of certain advances made to landholders in territories administered by the lieutenant-governors of the North-Western Frontier Provinces and the Punjab, and the chief commissioners of Oudh, the Central Provinces, Assam and Ajmer.
x These areas do not exist as administrative units in India any longer, making the law redundant.
Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, 1886
? Provides for voluntary registration of births and deaths of certain classes of persons, mainly Christians and Parsis, along with those governed by the Indian Succession Act.
x Now, registration of births and deaths is already provided for under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969, while marriages are registered under the Hindu Marriage Act, Special Marriage Act, etc.
King of Oudh’s Estate Act, 1887
? The Act was enacted to provide for the administration of the estate of Wajid Ali Shah, the nawab of the erstwhile princely state of Oudh.
x The law has no relevance any longer.
Reformatory Schools Act, 1897
? Enacted to amend the law relating to reformatory schools and to make further provisions for dealing with ‘youthful offenders’.
x The Act speaks of ‘detention’ in reformatory schools, which is against the scheme of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 that governs the juvenile justice procedure for children below 18 years, and provides for setting up of observation homes and special homes for juveniles in conflict with law.
Live-stock Importation Act, 1898
? Enacted to make provisions for the regulation of import of livestock that may be affected by infectious or contagious disorders.
x Since provisions of the Act have not kept pace with modern developments, this Act was proposed to be repealed and replaced by the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill, 2013 (which lapsed in Lok Sabha). The ‘statement of objects and reasons’ of the 2013 Bill specifically mentions that this Act and the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914, are ‘age-old legislations’ and ‘inadequate or obsolete definitions in these Acts need to be updated’. However, it cannot simply be repealed without new provisions to replace the ones being repealed.
Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911
? This Act empowered a district magistrate or commissioner of police to prohibit a public meeting in a proclaimed area if the officials believed such a meeting is likely to promote sedition.
x The continuation of this colonial legislation is unnecessary given the extensive provisions relating to sedition under the IPC.
Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act, 1912
? The law made it an offence to capture, kill or carry on trade of any bird or animal included in the Schedule annexed to the Act.
x The purpose of the Act is now subsumed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914
? Enacted to prevent introduction into and transport from one state to another in India of any insects, fungus or other pest that may destroy crops.
x This Act was proposed to be repealed and replaced by the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill, 2013, as was the case with the Livestock Importation Act, 1898. While this law is out of date and needs to be repealed, a new law must be enacted to govern the subject.
Police (Incitement to Disaffection) Act, 1922
? This colonial law was introduced to curb nationalist activities, making it an offence to spread disaffection among the police.
x This law acts as a significant curb on freedom of speech, though it is not obsolete given some documented uses. However, the need for this law should be reexamined in light of its potential infringement of Articles 19(1) (a) and (b) of the Constitution.
Public Suits Validation Act, 1932
? Enacted to validate certain suits relating to public matters instituted under Sections 91 and 92 of the Code of Civil Procedure (CrPC), 1908, which were pending in 1932, and where the previous sanction of the state government had not been obtained.
x Given that more than 80 years have passed since the suits governed by this Act was filed, this Act may be repealed with a suitable savings clause that ensures pending proceedings, if any, are unaffected by the repeal.
Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages (Supplementary) Act, 1932
? Enacted to supplement Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages Act, 1932 (the chief Act).
x The supplementary Act has no relevance since the main Act has been repealed.
Assam Criminal Law Amendment (Supplementary) Act, 1934
? The purpose of this law was to supplement the Assam Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1934 (the chief Act).
x The law mentions the chief Act and CrPC, 1898, neither of which exists any more. Further, CrPC, 1973, has replaced CrPC, 1898.
Bangalore Marriages Validating Act, 1936
? The purpose of this Act was to validate certain marriages solemnised by a certain Bangalore-based priest named Walter James McDonald Redwood.
x The law has served its purpose.
Berar Laws Act, 1941
? Enacted to extend application of certain central laws to the erstwhile province of Berar.
x Berar now ceases to exist as an independent administrative unit and is part of Maharashtra.
Railways (Local Authorities’ Taxation) Act, 1941
? Enacted to declare the extent to which railway property shall be liable to taxation imposed by an authority within a state.
x Section 184 of Railways Act, 1989, provides for ‘taxation on railways by local authorities’. After an assessment of both Acts and by inserting a suitable savings provision, the 1941 law can be considered for repeal.
War Injuries (Compensation Insurance) Act, 1943
? Enacted to impose on employers a liability to pay compensation to workmen sustaining war injuries, and to provide for insurance of employers against such liability.
x There is no evidence of this law being used in the last five decades. Further, provisions of this Act may be validly covered under the Personal Injuries Compensation Insurance Act, 1963.
Continuance of Legal Proceedings Act, 1948
? This Act authorises the continuance of certain proceedings against the then newly-created dominion of India or the provinces which were pending immediately before August 15, 1947.
x While recommending its repeal, the report mentions that the proceedings to which the Act refers must have by now been disposed of and hence, the law should be repealed as spent, subject to verification of the factual position.
Delhi Hotels (Control of Accommodation) Act, 1949
? This law grants the Director of Estates the power to reserve up to one-fourth of the total accommodation available in certain private hotels in Delhi for use by government officials. The Act was brought in to address accommodation shortage for government officials in Delhi.
x The issue is no longer alive as India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) hotels and state guesthouses can be used to accommodate government officials in transit.
Companies (Donations to National Funds) Act, 1951
? This Act enable companies to make donations to certain national funds, or any other central government-approved charitable funds.
x With the Companies Act, 2013, making it mandatory for companies to contribute a specified percentage of their profits for a social and charitable purpose, the purpose of the 1951 law stands subsumed.
Indian Independence Pakistan Courts (Pending Proceedings) Act, 1952
? Enacted to render ineffective certain decrees and orders which were passed by courts in Pakistan, and to provide an alternative remedy to persons who had secured such decrees or orders.
Newspaper (Price and Page) Act, 1956
? Enacted to provide for regulation of prices charged for newspapers in relation to their pages to prevent unfair competition among newspapers.
x Section 3 of the Act, which empowered the Centre to regulate the charges, was struck down by supreme court in Sakal Papers Pvt. Ltd. v Union of India case in 1962.
Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1956
? Enacted to prevent dissemination of certain publications considered harmful to young persons.
x ‘Young person’ has been defined under the Act as a person under 21 years, which is inconsonant with several other legislations defining the age of majority.
Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Repeal Act, 1976
? Enacted to repeal the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act, 1956.
x The original 1956 Act has been repealed and hence, the repealing Act of 1976 has served its purpose. It is now redundant. A newer law on this subject – the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act, 1977 – is now in force.
(This article appeared in the October 01-15, 2014 print issue)
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This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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