On August 15, India celebrates its 68th Independence Day, the day that marked the end of British rule in India and the birth of a new nation. The Constitution of India that came into force in January 1950 laid out the basic framework and governing principles of how laws were to be framed in the country. As the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of the constitution enumerate, the idea was to deliver maximum freedom to the people. However, the Constitution was careful to include restrictions so that unhindered rights would not be detrimental to the rights enjoyed by others. Various legislations have been passed by the Indian Parliament over the 67 years of its history. Below, we list out six landmark legislations that have guaranteed and ensured freedom for the people in the country.
1. Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976: The Act abolished the practice of bonded labour in the country, freeing a person from any bonded services and liquidated the debts as well. The property of the bonded labourer was freed from bondage and the practice of bondage was made punishable by law.
2. Hindu Code Bills: This comprises several laws passed in the 1950s including the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act. The Hindu Marriage Act outlawed polygamy and set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years for women and 21 years for men, and made the valid consent of both parties mandatory for marriage. It contained provisions for inter-caste marriages and divorces, give daughters legal rights to inherit like sons, and also paved the way for the adoption of Hindu girls. However, these acts generated much controversy as it was targeted only at Hindus and did not concern any other religion. In fact, introduction of a Uniform Civil Code is still a subject that political parties shy away from.
3. Right to Education Act: One of the promises of the Constitution during independence came in the form of Directive Principles. These were rights the leaders felt the citizens deserved but the state was not ready to make it legally justiciable. The right to education was a directive principle that was later turned into a fundamental right of the citizen. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, means that every child has a right to full-time elementary education of “satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards”. The government authorities have to ensure admission and completion of elementary education for all children from 6-14 years of age. This Act, if properly implemented, could be the one that frees India from the shackles of illiteracy.
4. Criminal Law (Amendment) Act-2013: This Act raised the punishment for rapes to not less than 20 years and extending up to imprisonment for the rest of the life of the convict. It could hand out death sentences for convicts who had been convicted in the past as well. It also includes stalking (defines the term as well) as a non-bailable offence when repeated for the second time. The Bill was formed incorporating the suggestions of the Verma Committee. However the Bill left out the crucial suggestions of the need to review AFSPA (Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958) and change the provisions of marital rape.
5. Zamindari Abolition: Land is a state subject and land reforms had to be enacted and implemented by the state governments separately. Though there is no uniformity in the laws and the implementation was sketchy, the Union government amended the Constitution to remove right to property as a fundamental right. This then lead to the abolition of the extractive system of Zamindari, which was a baggage the British had brought with them. With the abolition of Zamindari came land ceilings, better tenancy rights and redistribution of land among the landless, aiming at more equitable distribution of wealth and income.
6. Food Security Act: Despite the controversies surrounding this Act, it cannot be denied that India ranks at a dismal 63 out of 78 worst performers in the World Hunger Index. The other South Asian countries fare much better, with Sri Lanka at 43, Nepal at 49, Pakistan at 57 and Bangladesh at 58. Child malnutrition is even worse, with the absolute number of malnutritioned children in India being greater than sub-Saharan Africa. The Food Security Act is the only such Act that is ambitious, but promises to feed nearly 70% of its population. If the government can work out the implementation of the Act, India might be finally free from the fear of hunger.