IN INDIA, EVEN the most innocuous legislation can be devastating. A good example is that of a slew of Shops and Establishments Acts passed in the high noon of socialism. Each state had its own law, prescribing almost everything that a bureaucrat could imagine as worthy of being regulated. That may change soon. The Union Cabinet has just crafted a new model legislation that tries to get rid of some of the incongruous features of these laws, many of which date back to the 1950s. It will now be up to state governments to repeal old laws and bring in new legislation on the subject.
Some degree of regulation is inevitable even in a free economy. For example, no shop or commercial establishment anywhere runs without registration. But the Indian laws plumbed absurd depths. From prescribing classes of shops and their working hours to the time workers were allowed to work per day and per week, these laws went into minutiae that look ridiculously out of date.
Instead of serving any purpose, these led to chaos over time. The rules allowed ‘exceptions’ for particular shops and markets, ones that were used (or abused) routinely by shops and establishments that knew which palms to grease for a discretionary favour. Forget the absence of a common national market due to multiple tax jurisdictions, the havoc created by laws that specified when a light bulb could be switched on and when it had to be switched off ensured there would be no ‘market’ even along a single street lined with assorted retail outlets.
Hopefully, all that will change for the better now. The new law will do away with pernicious distinctions between men and women on matters of working hours. Not only has the nature of work changed, so has the nature of market spaces. Shops and other commercial outlets no longer cater to individuals in a small area, but almost the entire world. Ordering Indian sellers to shut shop at 8.30 pm when their customers in Western markets awaken and get ready to order goods is to mar the prospects of these sellers even before they can utter the word ‘competition’.
While the Union legislation is only a model and some degree of localisation is inevitable, hopefully state governments will get rid of the glaring shortcomings in their laws that have persisted on account of legislative inertia.