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Mainstream, VOL LX No 2, New Delhi, January 1, 2022

State of the Rule of Law in Assam: A Real-Life Experience of an ordinary citizen | Sarma and Sunder

Tuesday 28 December 2021

by Atul Sarma and Shyam Sunder *

It is a mere cliché that the Rule of Law is crucially important for efficient functioning of a market economy since timely disposal of property disputes and enforcement of contract form the core of a market economy. This has assumed far greater importance in the context of Assam government’s resolve to take the state to the fifth place among the Indian states by 2026-27.

The United Nations defines the rule of law as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires as well measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision- making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency” (Report of the Secretary —General, The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies (2004).

To put it simply, the rule of law requires enforcement of laws and of all contracts based on law. This means that governance reforms includes rule of law through legal, judicial and administrative reforms.

The Assam government has long recognised the importance of good governance both for efficient service delivery and faster economic development. In fact, way back in 2005, the GoA set up the Assam Administrative Reforms Commission. Even before that in 2003 the Asian Development Bank provided technical assistance to India for preparing the Assam Governance and Public Resource management. As a follow-up of the Vision for Assam in 2030 Tapan Lal Baruah Committee, MP Bezbarua Committee and RT Jindal Committee were constituted to recommend steps towards institutional Reforms in core areas. The basic idea was to bring professionalism to all rank and file to ensure optimum utilization of the human resources so to make them the agent of change.

Nevertheless, based on the evaluation 50 indicators covering ten broad sectors, the Department of Administrative and Public Grievances (DARPG) and Centre for Good Governance (December 2019) ranked Assam sixth among the ten NE and Hill states. As for quality of governance 2020, Assam ranked 13 among 18 large states.

At another level, Assam has participated in the ranking of states and union territories done by the World Bank and facilitated by the Department for Promotion and Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) based on the performance in implementation of Business Reform Action Plan since 2015. The  objective was to increase the ease of doing business by way introducing an element of healthy competition among the states so to attract investment. Over all Business Reform Action Plan covers reform points in regard to starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. Assam ranked 22 among 35 states and union territories in 2015 and improved its rank to 20 in 2019.

Further the newly formed government has introduced several administrative reforms towards speeding up implementation of government policy and programmes. These are all commendable initiatives. However, as the above discussion suggests good governance or rule of law in Assam is a work in progress.

In this backdrop, Bhola Das’ (real name withheld) story of real-life experience brings out an ordinary citizen experiences the kind of rule of law in his real life. His story in brief is follows.

Bhola Das, a non-resident Assamese bought a piece of land of Myadi patta in Guwahati with the hope to return to his home state after retirement. Finding it difficult to take physical possession of the patch of his land, he solicited the help of the Settlement Officer (SO), Guwahati through DC, Kamrup Metro. The SO detailed a team to demarcate his piece of land. After a careful scrutiny of the relevant documents, the team explained that the pipe line laid for carrying crude oil divided the Dag into two parts: the larger plot on the north of the pipe line while the smaller one on the south. Bhola Das’ plot being lager falls on the north of the pipe line and accordingly, the team detailed by the SO marked the boundary of the land instructing Bhola Das to take possession of the land according to its demarcation. As Bhola Das started constructing boundary wall, there came the owner of the smaller plot on the south of the pipe line claiming his land on the northern side of the pipe line. Even SO’s explaining that there is no scope for dispute since the two plots on the north and the southern side exactly match the measure of land bought by Bhola Das and the claimant, did not help. The claimant brought an injunction order from court staying the construction of boundary walls halfway through. Thus began in 1996 the endless journey of judicial process.

To cut the long story short, after a decade and a half, the Gauhati High Court Gauhati issued order to the effect that the plot of land truly is of Bhola Das. Incidentally, Bhola Das had faced adverse verdict in lower courts which had forced him to make an appeal in Gauhati High Court.

While the court case was going on, some people encroached the land and even constructed semi-permanent structures despite the court’s injunction. What is worse, one party could get his name registered for a portion of Bhola Das’ land and even started paying land revenue to legitimize his ownership. That speaks of the sanctity of land ownership and land registration.

Following the Gauhati High Court order, Bhola Das filed an eviction suit in February 2014 in Civil Judge No 3, Kamrup Metro. From then to August 2021-long more than seven and a half years, as many as 65 (sixty five) business dates were fixed. About three years ago, Bhola Das made a prayer to the Chief Justice, Gauhati High Court for speedy settlement of the eviction suit. All that happened was the eviction suit was shifted from Civil Court-3, Kamrup Metro to Civil Court No 1, Kamrup. And the journey that had begun one and a half decades ago is continuing without seeing the end of the long tunnel.

Bhola Das is now in his eighties. He has given up any hope of his case being settled in his life time. What he has experienced is the collapse of the rule of law in Assam: land ownership and land registration are not sacrosanct subject to manipulation through corrupt practices and even lower courts are not above board. What is more, of justice delivery involves unending process. Both together indicates the sorry state of the rule of law in Assam. An ordinary citizen deserves a lot better while for efficient functioning of a market economy enforcement of property right and of contract is a precondition.

* (Authors: Atul Sarma (sarmaatul[at]yahoo.com) is Distinguished Professor at CSD, New Delhi and Shyam Sunder (shyams.eco[at]gmail.com) is working with an Indian Corporate)

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