Features | Law
Uses of Leniency
A joint committee of Parliament has submitted a report on an omnibus Bill that seeks to decriminalise provisions in forty-two laws by replacing jail terms with penalties
31 Mar, 2023
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
SECTION 3 OF THE PRESS and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867 states that every book or paper printed in India needs to have the name of the printer and publisher as well as the place of printing legibly printed. The failure to do so can lead to a jail term of up to six months and a fine of ₹2,000, possibly both. Among seven deletions to the Act proposed by the government, this provision will be scrapped too. Section 4 of the Act sets out an onerous declaration that owners of printing presses need to submit to district authorities further updates in case of a change of location. This provision, too, is sought to be scrapped. Instead of jail and fines, the government has proposed penalties up to ₹10,000 which do not incorporate a court process. A penalty of up to ₹2,000 is proposed for a printer failing to deliver copies of a newspaper to relevant authorities as required under the law. Finally, conditions for suspension of registration are set out in detail, including the means for the affected printer-publisher to argue his case. The terms “fines” and “jail terms” have been replaced by penalties and violations.
At a time when a fierce and divisive debate rages on whether freedom of expression is under threat, the amendments to the PRB Act are among changes to as many as 42 Acts contained in the Jan Vishwas Bill scrutinised by a joint committee of Parliament. Seeking changes to 182 provisions in the various Acts, the government is hoping to vastly reduce compliance burdens and decriminalise provisions in laws governing areas such as environment, forests, press and printing businesses, agriculture, information and technology, factoring and government securities, industry, Aadhaar, cinematography, the Tea Board, patents, trademarks, merchant shipping, and railways. The changes to the PRB Act are intended to do away with coercive action for relatively minor infractions that can inadvertently trip a printer or a publisher. Prison for making a false statement or failure to inform that a publication has ceased has been done away with altogether. Briefing the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) on the Centre’s viewpoint, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting submitted: “[I]t was felt that the provisions relating to imprisonment compromise on Press Freedom and hence there is a need to decriminalize the existing statute and to make it more consistent keeping in view the present day scenario. Hence, the proposed Amendments aim to decriminalize the existing statute. This is also in tune with the commitment of ensuring Press Freedom in the country.” In its examination, the committee closely questioned officials over cancellation and suspension of registration, assuring itself that the right to a hearing is not compromised besides the recourse to judicial remedy.
The JPC’S report was submitted to Parliament earlier this week and escaped notice amidst a political war of words between BJP and Congress over Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP. But its provisions, which enjoyed cross-party support in the JPC, present a bold and sweeping vision
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Under the Cinematograph Act, displaying a film categorised as ‘A’ to non-adults and breach of rules regarding documents to be given to distributors and exhibitors are proposed to be decriminalised. Instead, stiff penalties are provided as deterrents. On the other hand, altering and tampering with a film after certification will attract jail up to three years and a fine of not less than ₹10 lakh. An appellate authority will hear appeals against imposition of penalties. The penalty for use of a cinematograph in a manner other than licensed can lead to a fine of ₹1 lakh instead of the nominal ₹1,000 at present. “In order to adhere to the Government of India’s mandate of decriminalization, the punishment of imprisonment has been removed and only penalties would be levied in cases such as exhibition of ‘A’ film to non-adults… However, the quantum of penalty has been increased to act as an effective deterrent and to make it commensurate with the times.” In its report, the committee has suggested doing away with the terms “fines” and “punishable” with “penalty” and “contravention”.
Under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, any person who trespasses into a forest or uses it for pasture or causes damage to trees, even by negligence, can be punished with six months in jail, a fine of ₹500, or both. The provision has proved a hazard for forest communities who pick minor produce and those living in buffer zones. Tribal and forest-dwelling communities typically fall foul of the law, and are often victims of rules made without taking note of their customs and lifestyles. These provisions are proposed to be omitted, replaced by a simple fine, if needed, amounting to ₹500. Leaf burning or kindling fires will attract a similar fine. Any deliberate act of arson leading to forest fires will not be covered under these provisions. “At times, there are difficulties in differentiating between a major and minor offence and because of that punishments are often not distinct… Concerns have been raised with regard to imprisonment provision for minor violations which are simple infringements not leading to any injury to human or significant damage to forest. Further, the imprisonment provision, may cause harassment to citizens, especially to forest dwelling communities and forest dependent people living in and around forest, for simple non-compliance,” the government told the committee. The panel has held that the fine can be increased to ₹5,000 and incursion of cattle into a forest area by negligence be omitted altogether.
OFFICIALS OF THE Ministry of Communications told the committee that the ministry proposes decriminalisation of 23 sections of the Indian Post Office Act for minor offences. This would, in fact, lead to decriminalisation of the entire Act. The archaic provisions meant for the postal department workforce include punishment for failing to deliver mail bags due to intoxication or misconduct, “voluntary” withdrawal from a task, and false entries in registers recording visits, all attracting fines of ₹50 to ₹100. Punishment for diverting letters can mean up to six months in jail and retaining wrongly delivered mail bags a sentence of two years and a fine. Given the department’s use of technology and tracking, this provision is proposed to be scrapped too, unless a larger scheme of repeated diversion and fraud is brought to light. Painting, tarring or disfiguring post boxes is punishable by a fine of ₹50, fixed decades ago. A false declaration with regard to a postal article has a fine of ₹200. Fraud in connection with official “marks and excess postage receipts” or preparing and altering postal office documents are currently punishable by jail of up to two years. The thinking behind the proposed decriminalisation, said the Department of Post, is to encourage trust-based governance, reduce wasteful red tape and curtail legislation, including criminal cases that end up clogging the courts. In its deliberations, the committee noted: “It was elaborated by the Department that the entire Chapter X of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 has been touched for omission primarily because either the provisions have become redundant or obsolete or the same are covered under other provisions and enactments like the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 and various other enactments/rules.” In other words, acts of vandalism, for example, do not need any separate mention in the Indian Post Office Act.
Seeking changes to 182 provisions in various acts, the government is hoping to reduce compliance burdens and decriminalise provisions in laws governing environment, forests, press and printing businesses, agriculture, information and technology, government securities, etc
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In its examination of provisions relating to agriculture and farmer welfare, the committee supported stiff fines for violations like mis-grading and counterfeiting grade designations of agricultural articles rather than jail terms. Recognising that jail terms can be a means of harassment, the committee and the government concentrated on identifying effective deterrents with penalties ranging between ₹3 and ₹5 lakh. In an adjudicating process, the government has proposed that “An officer not below the rank of Deputy Secretary to the Government of India or an officer not below the rank of Deputy Secretary to the State Government, to hold an inquiry in the manner, as may be prescribed and to impose penalty.” Such an officer can summon and enforce the attendance of any person acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case to give evidence or to produce any document and impose a penalty. A process of timebound disposal of cases and recovery of any dues from land revenue is also provided. “In sync with national policy to reform and decriminalize the policies and laws to promote ease of doing business and ease of life, the (Agmark) Act, 1937, (was identified) to decriminalize by completely removing the imprisonment clauses and substituting monetary penalties,” the Centre said.
The JPC’s report was submitted to Parliament earlier this week and escaped notice amidst a political war of words between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress over Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP following his conviction in a defamation case. But its provisions, which enjoyed cross-party support in the JPC, present a bold and sweeping vision of change by seeking to get rid of archaic laws framed by rulers who did not trust citizens and instead saw them as potential criminals. In its scope and ambition, the Bill looks to give meaningful teeth to the promise of maximum governance.
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