15 reforms towards a progressive Karnataka

15 reforms towards a progressive Karnataka

India did not become a federal polity by accident or a simplistic re-creation of a foreign model of governance. India's federalism is the culmination of constitutional developments that happened in parallel with the Independence movement in the first half of the twentieth century. It was, and remains, an incredibly diverse country and the Constituent Assembly was faced with the challenge of ensuring that whatever mode of governance they chose would adequately reflect this diversity and account for it while providing for a common basis for government.

That said, the Indian state finds itself more stretched than ever, with capacity gaps emerging in various areas, none more so than in the areas of legal research, drafting of laws, and reform of the institutions of law and justice.

The problem of state capacity is not limited only to the Union government. States across the country are finding themselves stretched as they grapple with social and economic challenges on a daily basis. The state administration is more likely to encounter the average citizen and meet her needs through welfare measures. Whether it is the public distribution system, the subordinate judiciary, law and order, or even local body governance, the burden falls on the state to deliver.

Even within the limits of capacity, it is perhaps not surprising that many innovative governance measures seen in India have been first tried at the state level before being extended nationwide. Free mid-day meals in schools, equal rights for women in coparcenary property, the right to information law, free and compulsory education for children, were all first attempted at the state level before being taken nationwide. In that sense, Karnataka has also been an innovator in policy much before an idea has gained widespread acceptance nationally.

What then are the issues that are being faced by people in Karnataka that requires redress? As with most parts of India, these range from problems of rural distress due to drought and climate change, to the impact of increasing automation and algorithms in the economy.

There are "15 reforms towards a progressive Karnataka" that we, at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, have tried to identify, in the form of a briefing book, where a legal intervention at the state level could address a problem, or at least mitigate it significantly. We have categorised the problems broadly into three large areas.

The first and foremost remains concerns relating to an individual's dignity, freedom and security as guaranteed under the Constitution. While the economic and human development indicators for the state are better than the national averages, more needs to be done to turn the state into a role model for emulation across the nation.

We therefore look at what legal reforms can address, among others, the problems of caste discrimination, making workplaces friendly to women, and environmental protection in an urban setting. By no means is the law or legal reform mooted the end-point of addressing these long-standing concerns, but rather the necessary first action for any meaningful and sustained change on these fronts.

Capacity building

Laws, at the end of the day, are applied by institutions following a certain structure and manner of functioning. Institutions, built or conceived once, need constant renewal and re-energising through building capacity.

The briefing book also addresses concerns being faced by institutions tasked with some of the most important functions of any government - dispute resolution, resource allocation, and administration. Some of these are old institutions facing new problems - the lack of judicial capacity in the Karnataka HC, for instance - whereas others are new institutions, facing old problems - the absence of a clear framework for the Karnataka State Finance Commission to operate in.

At the same time, Karnataka's recent history as the hub of innovation in information technology, medical sciences, and computing has meant that it will be at the forefront of regulatory challenges as innovations are put to the market. Being a leader in harnessing new technology, Karnataka's approach will not only inform the way in which other states in India will regulate them, but chart a course for the rest of the world to follow.

Even within India's federal framework, it is possible for states to innovate and adopt flexible regulatory strategies keeping local needs in mind. To this end, the briefing book looks at offering regulatory solutions to easing the friction that comes with the growth of e-commerce and the use of aggregator technologies for urban transport. Apart from specific solutions, we suggest approaches that could be applied across the board as well.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of problems of governance and conclusive legal solutions to them, nor do we claim to be the first to identify these problems in the state. What we do present is a road-map for the future - of a Karnataka that fulfils the constitutional vision of a progressive, modern state that allows residents to realise their innate human potential to the fullest. These legal reforms, we believe, will go a long way in ensuring a progressive and prosperous Karnataka.

(The writer is Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)