The demonetisation policy has engaged the whole country over the last two-and-a-half months. Reactions have been strong and conflicting. But no one can say the purpose was wrong if eradicating illicit wealth, corruption or controlling use of money for nefarious purposes was indeed the government’s main intent. However, there are some basic principles of governance to which sovereign, democratic republics subscribe: ‘ownership’ of country vests only in the collectivity of citizens, and we have chosen to be governed by the ‘rule of law’ and not the rule of men.
If the intention is noble, does it mean the means can never be faulted? How does it fit with the concept of the people’s sovereignty and the rule of law? Can a government employ just about any means to achieve a valid purpose, and yet not violate these overarching principles? Can it impose measures, procedures and practices that curtail the basic freedoms of citizens in the process of implementing what may even be a munificent scheme? Can the government, of whichever hue, impose all-round, manufactured hardship upon its people to achieve what it considers necessary for the greater good?
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees that no person, citizen or otherwise, shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty, except according to procedure established by law. Our Supreme Court has drawn on this provision as the fountainhead of several more meaningful aspects of life, in effect saying that ‘life’ does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery, but that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity, safety, privacy and a clean environment. Even the right to sleep (2012 decision in the case of forcible eviction by the police of people sleeping in Baba Ramdev’s camp at Ramlila Maidan) and the right to essential medical and other facilities for pilgrims (2013 decision in a case related to the Amarnath Yatra) have been read into the right to life.
I should think that ‘life’ within the meaning of Article 21 must then also include the right to live without being foisted with government-created privation and inflictions, forcing people to upset their already complex lives, especially when the predominant majority of us have nothing to do with the generation of black money, or with funding of terrorism or drug-running or any other malady the government seeks to solve.
The larger question is this: the rule of law doctrine says a civilised society will be governed by a set of laws and rules, and not by a set of men, so personal predilections, perceptions and brainwaves of the ‘rulers’ will not dominate individual conduct. Ergo, there may be many well-meaning policies a government may conceive but not implement because of supervening considerations of the rule of law. There may be instant-coffee solutions to social evils available to policymakers, which, however, they may be hamstrung to employ—to avoid breaking a written or unwritten code that says there are some basic, inalienable entitlements of people that simply cannot be curtailed or hindered, no matter how noble the motive. Can the government, for example, restrict marriages or enforce sterilisation to prevent increase in population, or impose dietary restrictions to solve food shortage, or confiscate all cough syrup bottles to solve the problem of substance abuse?
Policy must be tested on the actual effects it has on the people, not only on the nobility of the policymaker’s intentions. When citizens elect governments, they do not hand over the reins of their lives, with a carte blanche to expose them to any hardship, for any reason, and then leave them to firefight for themselves, with the policy motivation and implementation being moving goalposts.
A government must be clear that its role is to run the country, as a team of executives is chosen to run a company; governments must not aspire to ‘ownership’ of the country, which in a sovereign, democratic republic vests only in the collectivity of citizens and in no one else. A government must conduct itself responsibly when implementing any scheme or idea. It is not the bounden, nationalistic duty of citizens to suffer whatever policy the government imposes. Nor is people’s suffering to be dismissed merely as collateral damage. In a representative democracy like ours, the government must justify the imposition of any distress upon its citizens. Policies cannot be ‘live-tested’ on ordinary people, since that is antithetical to the role of the government in a welfare state. And that is what accountability is all about.
(The writer is a senior advocate practising in Delhi)