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Jan Vishwas Bill: No Jail for Reading Someone Else's Letter, But Concerns Linger

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

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(This story was first published in April and is being republished from The Quint's archives in light of the Lok Sabha clearing the Jan Vishwas Bill.)

Opening someone else’s letters. That’s it.  At the moment, that’s all it will take to land you behind bars for six months in India.

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

If that is as surprising to you, as it is to most of us, here’s more:

  • Selling more tea than is allowed in a single transaction could lead you to being imprisoned for six months

  • “defiling or injuring post office letter boxes” could send you to prison for a year.

But, there’s good news (not all of it though) –  the Jan Vishwas Bill, introduced in December 2022 and discussed in the Parliament’s ongoing budget session aims to change all of the above and more.

Jan Vishwas Bill: No Jail for Reading Someone Else's Letter, But Concerns Linger

  1. 1. What Exactly Is This Bill Going To Do?

    Simply put, the Jan Vishwas Bill  seeks to decriminalise several offences, including minor ones, that currently invite jail terms.

    If brought in, this will amend 42 acts administered by 19 ministries including various legislations governing environment, air pollution, housing, money laundering, etc.

    Introduced by Commerce and Industry minister Piyush Goyal, the bill will replace imprisonment penalties under several acts with monetary fines.

    Here are some examples:

    • If and when the bill is passed, one will only have to pay Rs 500 for trespassing, or permitting cattle to trespass on a reserved forest. These offences were earlier punishable by six months in jail (Section 26, Indian Forest Act 1927)

    • Oh and the bill finally omits Section 66A from the Information Technology Act, 2000, which criminalised sending “offensive messages” online

    The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
    • It also decriminalises begging on trains as opposed to the current provision which prescribes a fine of Rs 2000 and a year of imprisonment (Section 144 of the Railways Act, 1989)

    • But also...if an adult shows an A-rated film to a minor, then the adult will have to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 or less. This is as opposed to being imprisoned for six months (The Cinematograph Act, 1952)

    Expand
  2. 2. The Govt Says This Will Help With Ease Of Doing Business

     "The fear of imprisonment for minor offences is a major factor hampering the growth of the business ecosystem and individual confidence,” union minister Piyush Goyal said, while introducing the bill.

    Meanwhile, the Bill's statement of objectives affirms this:

    "A web of outdated rules and regulations causes trust deficit. It has been the endeavour of the government to achieve the principle of 'Minimum Government, Maximum Governance', redefining the regulatory landscape of the country under the Ease of Living and Ease of Doing Business reforms."

    So, Goyal added that “for minor mistakes, people should not be penalised. For minor offences, there should be a provision for paying fines."

    Legal and environmental experts, however, point out that imposing fines might not be the best way to proceed when it comes to certain legislations.

    Expand
  3. 3. ‘Will Aid The Rich’: What Experts Are Saying

    Besides the examples cited above, the bill in question also proposes to substantially reduce monetary penalties for offences under the three environmental legislations (Environment Protection Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991).

    For instance, for violating any provisions of the Environment Protection Act, the current penalty stands at one year of imprisonment,  a Rs 1 lakh fine or both.

    But, the Jan Vishwas bill will change this to a maximum fine of Rs 5 lakhs. 

    So, all is well?

    The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

    Not quite.

    “Imprisonment may not be the best punishment for all environmental offences. However, the blanket removal of imprisonment provision might also remove the deterrence effect of the environmental legislation, especially for large corporations profiteering from the offence,” Debadityo Sinha, Himanshu Alhawant and Sashannk Pandey, specialising in environment laws, explained in an analysis of the bill for the Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy.

    Moreover, hefty fines are convenient only for those with resources. And shouldn't people, especially those alleged to have partaken in such minor offences, have the choice to choose between fines and imprisonment?

    “A rich person or a brat would not mind paying a fine, however hefty, whereas others would simply not be able to cough up.  Where will the violator of agricultural produce grade mark go to mobilise the requisite fine of Rs 8 lakh? If a person has no means of paying up he should be allowed to serve the equivalent prison term,” S Murlidharan, a chartered accountant, wrote for Moneycontrol.

    The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
    Expand
  4. 4. And Who Decides Which Provisions To Decriminalise?

    This bill barely “makes a dent in the landscape of laws that use criminal provisions for compliance,” Naveed Mehmood Ahmad, who has worked extensively on decriminalisation, pointed out in a piece for Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy.

    “While this bill only seeks to amend 42 laws, there are approximately 400 central laws that have criminal provisions. Many of these laws criminalise and provide jail terms for mere non-compliance of procedures or trivial acts/omissions," he added.

    For instance, committing cowardice is punishable by up to 3 months of imprisonment (Under the Police Act, 1861). The law, however, does not define what ‘cowardice’ is.

    Multiple laws similar to the Police Act, criminalise rather ambiguous acts and are yet to be decriminalised, Ahmad explained.

    This problem arises, according to him, because the government, with this bill has only focused on "ease of doing business" as a motivation for decriminalisation.

    "Freeing ourselves from the colonial mindset seems to be a distant dream. More so with the decriminalisation conversation being undermined by the ease of doing business push. A summary decriminalisation exercise must not replace a sustained effort to make India’s criminal law making practices more responsible, informed and principled," Ahmad added.

    The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
    Expand
  5. 5. In Some Cases, This Could Be Potentially Dangerous

    Experts have also pointed out how some of the amendments that the bill proposes could be potentially dangerous.

    Here's how:

    The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, regulates the manufacture, storage and sale of medicine in India. This law contains criminal penalties for manufacturers whose drugs fail to meet quality standards.

    Currently, there are three categories of offences under this law: adulterated, spurious and ‘not of standard quality.”

    Interfering with the quality of medicines, as Ahmad says in his analysis, is a "rather serious act, which may at times endanger human lives."

    This is potentially why Section 27 (D) of the act, currently prescribes a punishment of a minimum one year in prison with a maximum of two years and a fine of Rs 20,000.

    The Jan Vishwas bill however, proposes that accused companies can avoid a prison term as long as they pay a fine.

    Expand
  6. 6. So, Should You Be Worried?

    Well...

    The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

    (GIF Courtesy: GIPHY)

    It is complicated.

    The bill, as stated in its objectives, does take a step in the direction of  shedding ‘the baggage of antiquated laws affecting India’s developmental trajectory.’

    'Decriminalising of minor offences will certainly reduce the burden on judiciary and prisons while easing the doing of business and easing the living of the individuals at the same time,” a 31-member parliamentary committee report, analysing the bill, said.

    But, Suyash Rai and Anirudh Burman, who specialise in economic reforms, point out in a paper for Carnegie India, that the bill's potential to reduce imprisonment and increasing penalties could turn out to be a double-edged sword:

    “On the one hand, this could lead to greater entrepreneurialism among businesses, but on the other, it may embolden the state to enforce these provisions more energetically."

    Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee report has added that decriminalisation will reduce "the burden on our judiciary," but experts have pointed out that courts will still have a role to play in the process.

    "The Bill is a bold attempt at saving state resources. But some of these violations may still have to be reported to the police and tried by criminal courts, some will require administrative procedures to take over," Ahmad said in his piece.

    "Whether they save time, energy and resources, only time will tell."

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Exactly Is This Bill Going To Do?

Simply put, the Jan Vishwas Bill  seeks to decriminalise several offences, including minor ones, that currently invite jail terms.

If brought in, this will amend 42 acts administered by 19 ministries including various legislations governing environment, air pollution, housing, money laundering, etc.

Introduced by Commerce and Industry minister Piyush Goyal, the bill will replace imprisonment penalties under several acts with monetary fines.

Here are some examples:

  • If and when the bill is passed, one will only have to pay Rs 500 for trespassing, or permitting cattle to trespass on a reserved forest. These offences were earlier punishable by six months in jail (Section 26, Indian Forest Act 1927)

  • Oh and the bill finally omits Section 66A from the Information Technology Act, 2000, which criminalised sending “offensive messages” online

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
  • It also decriminalises begging on trains as opposed to the current provision which prescribes a fine of Rs 2000 and a year of imprisonment (Section 144 of the Railways Act, 1989)

  • But also...if an adult shows an A-rated film to a minor, then the adult will have to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 or less. This is as opposed to being imprisoned for six months (The Cinematograph Act, 1952)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Govt Says This Will Help With Ease Of Doing Business

 "The fear of imprisonment for minor offences is a major factor hampering the growth of the business ecosystem and individual confidence,” union minister Piyush Goyal said, while introducing the bill.

Meanwhile, the Bill's statement of objectives affirms this:

"A web of outdated rules and regulations causes trust deficit. It has been the endeavour of the government to achieve the principle of 'Minimum Government, Maximum Governance', redefining the regulatory landscape of the country under the Ease of Living and Ease of Doing Business reforms."

So, Goyal added that “for minor mistakes, people should not be penalised. For minor offences, there should be a provision for paying fines."

Legal and environmental experts, however, point out that imposing fines might not be the best way to proceed when it comes to certain legislations.

‘Will Aid The Rich’: What Experts Are Saying

Besides the examples cited above, the bill in question also proposes to substantially reduce monetary penalties for offences under the three environmental legislations (Environment Protection Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991).

For instance, for violating any provisions of the Environment Protection Act, the current penalty stands at one year of imprisonment,  a Rs 1 lakh fine or both.

But, the Jan Vishwas bill will change this to a maximum fine of Rs 5 lakhs. 

So, all is well?

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

Not quite.

“Imprisonment may not be the best punishment for all environmental offences. However, the blanket removal of imprisonment provision might also remove the deterrence effect of the environmental legislation, especially for large corporations profiteering from the offence,” Debadityo Sinha, Himanshu Alhawant and Sashannk Pandey, specialising in environment laws, explained in an analysis of the bill for the Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy.

Moreover, hefty fines are convenient only for those with resources. And shouldn't people, especially those alleged to have partaken in such minor offences, have the choice to choose between fines and imprisonment?

“A rich person or a brat would not mind paying a fine, however hefty, whereas others would simply not be able to cough up.  Where will the violator of agricultural produce grade mark go to mobilise the requisite fine of Rs 8 lakh? If a person has no means of paying up he should be allowed to serve the equivalent prison term,” S Murlidharan, a chartered accountant, wrote for Moneycontrol.

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

And Who Decides Which Provisions To Decriminalise?

This bill barely “makes a dent in the landscape of laws that use criminal provisions for compliance,” Naveed Mehmood Ahmad, who has worked extensively on decriminalisation, pointed out in a piece for Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy.

“While this bill only seeks to amend 42 laws, there are approximately 400 central laws that have criminal provisions. Many of these laws criminalise and provide jail terms for mere non-compliance of procedures or trivial acts/omissions," he added.

For instance, committing cowardice is punishable by up to 3 months of imprisonment (Under the Police Act, 1861). The law, however, does not define what ‘cowardice’ is.

Multiple laws similar to the Police Act, criminalise rather ambiguous acts and are yet to be decriminalised, Ahmad explained.

This problem arises, according to him, because the government, with this bill has only focused on "ease of doing business" as a motivation for decriminalisation.

"Freeing ourselves from the colonial mindset seems to be a distant dream. More so with the decriminalisation conversation being undermined by the ease of doing business push. A summary decriminalisation exercise must not replace a sustained effort to make India’s criminal law making practices more responsible, informed and principled," Ahmad added.

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

In Some Cases, This Could Be Potentially Dangerous

Experts have also pointed out how some of the amendments that the bill proposes could be potentially dangerous.

Here's how:

The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, regulates the manufacture, storage and sale of medicine in India. This law contains criminal penalties for manufacturers whose drugs fail to meet quality standards.

Currently, there are three categories of offences under this law: adulterated, spurious and ‘not of standard quality.”

Interfering with the quality of medicines, as Ahmad says in his analysis, is a "rather serious act, which may at times endanger human lives."

This is potentially why Section 27 (D) of the act, currently prescribes a punishment of a minimum one year in prison with a maximum of two years and a fine of Rs 20,000.

The Jan Vishwas bill however, proposes that accused companies can avoid a prison term as long as they pay a fine.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

So, Should You Be Worried?

Well...

The Jan Vishwas Bill decriminalises rather 'ridiculous offences' but is all of it good news?

(GIF Courtesy: GIPHY)

It is complicated.

The bill, as stated in its objectives, does take a step in the direction of  shedding ‘the baggage of antiquated laws affecting India’s developmental trajectory.’

'Decriminalising of minor offences will certainly reduce the burden on judiciary and prisons while easing the doing of business and easing the living of the individuals at the same time,” a 31-member parliamentary committee report, analysing the bill, said.

But, Suyash Rai and Anirudh Burman, who specialise in economic reforms, point out in a paper for Carnegie India, that the bill's potential to reduce imprisonment and increasing penalties could turn out to be a double-edged sword:

“On the one hand, this could lead to greater entrepreneurialism among businesses, but on the other, it may embolden the state to enforce these provisions more energetically."

Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee report has added that decriminalisation will reduce "the burden on our judiciary," but experts have pointed out that courts will still have a role to play in the process.

"The Bill is a bold attempt at saving state resources. But some of these violations may still have to be reported to the police and tried by criminal courts, some will require administrative procedures to take over," Ahmad said in his piece.

"Whether they save time, energy and resources, only time will tell."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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