India’s archaic and obsolete laws are seen by many as its most burdensome legacy.
Among those which remain on the books are more than 300 dating from the colonial era, as well as rules to manage issues arising out of the Partition of India. There are more than a dozen laws imposing redundant taxes that yield little and cost a lot to collect, as well as outdated laws relating to former princely states and the nationalisation of industries and banks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi says one of his missions is to rid India of a “maze of useless laws”.
During the election campaign he promised that for every law passed, his government would repeal 10 obsolete ones. More recently, in a speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden, he said he planned to get rid of one such law every day. His government has already placed a bill in parliament, recommending 36 obsolete laws be revised. A Delhi-based citizens’ group has gone a step further and compiled a list of 100 laws to delete from the statue books.
Here are laws, picked at random, that India could easily get rid of:
India Treasure Trove Act, 1878
The law defines treasure specifically as “anything of any value hidden in the soil” and worth as little as 10 rupees (16 cents; 10 pence).
The finder of such treasure, according to the law, will need to inform the most senior local official of the “nature and amount or approximate value of such treasure and the place where it was found”.
Also, if the finder fails to hand over the booty to the government, the “share of such treasure … shall vest in Her Majesty”. It’s worth remembering that the British left India in 1947.
The Bangalore Marriages Validating Act, 1934
Walter James McDonald Redwood, a priest in the southern city of Bangalore, solemnised many local marriages during his time, mistakenly believing that he was authorised to do so.
The law was introduced to validate those marriages.
It’s less clear what relevance it has these days.
Salt Cess Act, 1953
The law levies a cess – a tax imposed for special administrative expenses – on salt manufacturers at the rate of 14 paise (2 cents) per 40kg on all salt made in a private or state-owned salt factory.
The proceeds – after deducting the cost of collection – are used to meet expenses of salt-making, labour welfare and research.
In 2013-14 collections from the tax amounted to $538,000 (£343,400), which was nearly half the cost of collecting it. Given that collections are so low, says the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society, removing this act – and tax – would have little effect on the government’s finances.
A High Level Salt Enquiry Committee set up in 1978 recommended that the tax should be scrapped since the “annual collection was very small” while the total cost of collecting it was more than half of the total collection. The recommendation is still pending.
Although 92% of salt in India is produced by private companies, its salt industry is controlled by what is called the Indian Salt Service, employing some 800 officers.
Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950
The law regulates possession of telegraph wires by Indians.
A person who possesses telegraph wires – with precisely defined diameters – is expected to inform authorities about the quantity in his possession. Anybody possessing more than 10lb (4kg) of such wire has to convert the excess into ingots.
The problem with this law is India sent out its last telegram in July 2013, after which telegraph services were shut.
The Indian Post Office Act, 1898
The law says only the federal government has the “exclusive privilege of conveying by post, from one place to another”, most letters.
There are a few exceptions, including one particularly bizarre one: “Letters sent by a private friend in his way, journey or travel, to be delivered by him to the person to whom they are directed, without hire, reward or other profit or advantages for receiving, carrying or delivering them”.
India’s thriving courier industry circumvents this law by sending “documents” rather than letters.