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Law Governance and Development Initiative

Most assessments of the prospects of an independent and democratic India in 1950 were pessimistic about the chances of its success. Nevertheless, India has survived as a single political entity and is poised to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Despite this impressive political feat and the promise of economic growth, India houses the largest number of poor and hungry people in any country in the world. Hence, most recent reviews of India’s progress over the last six decades focus on the twin failures to fight corruption and eliminate widespread poverty. These failures are most often understood to be the result of flawed economic and social policy or the lack of political commitment. Our inability to recognize that the origin, structure and pathologies of government and of the legal system in India to be at the core of the problems of governance and development has hamstrung our response to these problems. The Law, Governance and Development Initiative at the Azim Premji University seeks to restore the study of the structure and practices of government and the constitutive and instrumental role of the legal system to the core of our enquiry into the problems of development and governance.

The Initiative primarily focuses on the creation of new and relevant knowledge to reconfigure our intellectual understanding of the problems of governance in India and to examine the capacity of legal system reform to resolve these problems. The creation of new knowledge is carried out by teaching and research activities at the University as well as by a rigorous practical engagement with the activities of the Foundation and its Resource Centres.

In course of time, the Initiative will create a law and policy advisory cell within the University to engage and assist the various activities of the University and Foundation by preparing legal briefs and advisories that contributes to the understanding and practice at the University and Foundation. The advisory practice which responds to problems and issues faced by staff in the field will allow the team to engage with empirical problems of policy formulation and implementation as well as challenge the premises and assumptions of existing theoretical frameworks.

This unique institutional design of the initiative as an academic and practice unit will create the environment and potential for making a significant contribution to the development activity of the Foundation as well as to the creation of new knowledge at the University. 

The Problem of Method

The study of law and governance in India is typically organized around two disciplinary frameworks: Public Law and Public Administration. Public law enquires into the legal organization of the state and the relationship between the organs of the state and the state and its citizens. It is divided in two parts: Constitutional law with a focus on the legislative and judicial organs and citizens rights and Administrative law with a focus on executive branch of government. Law schools across the country teach public law and the research in this field is clustered predominantly around questions of law. The focus on narrow legal questions has prevented legal academia from engaging with a more purposive enquiry into the failures of governance in India. 

Public Administration is a sub-discipline of political science and organizational theory oriented to the study of government institutions with a focus on the manner in which policy is created and implemented by the executive branch of government. A standard text book on Public Administration in India reviews the history of the administrative state and then reviews the organizational design of public institutions in India. While specialized institutes such as the Indian Institute of Public Administration and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration were set up to develop the discipline they have morphed into training institutes for the Indian Administrative Service and allied services. Unlike public law, the discipline of public administration has been anaemic and the quantity and quality of research in this field is modest.

In the last decade there are several new initiatives that identify governance as their central subject of enquiry and some of these have been promising. The Azim Premji University initiative however, breaks new ground with its enquiry into law and governance being informed by a deep knowledge of the law and the legal system and the adoption of a multi-disciplinary approach.

The field of law and development has a long and distinguished pedigree of research and teaching in several of the most prestigious institutions around the world. However, there is not a single law school or other university which engages with this academic field in India. This may be in part due to the blind spot that law occupies in the development discourse in India. The Planning Commission that draws up the Five Year development plans for the country has not engaged with legal systems reform as a worthy subject in any plan so far.

The recent initiatives of the law ministry to reform the legal system are the first reform measure backed by significant resources in the history of independent India. The failure to account for the institutional dimensions of development by the key policy agencies has had a significant impact on the failures of development and governance in India. However, the neglect of this field by policy makers is not an adequate explanation for the failure of the academic community to take this field seriously. The field of law and development is marked by a deep scepticism about the causal relationship between legal reform and a nation’s development. While there is some evidence that a more functional and efficient legal system is found in more developed nations, the evidence does not conclusively establish that effective legal reform results in rapid national development.

Hence, it is crucial to not to engage with the law and the legal system with a purely instrumental view that any improvement in the legal system will automatically translate into higher GDP growth or improvement in other standard development indicators. It may be useful to remind ourselves that a well functioning legal system is intrinsically valuable as it protects citizen’s rights against state power and redresses injustices between private parties. The Azim Premji University initiative engages with the field of law and development with a healthy scepticism towards instrumentalist claims about legal reform and with a view to develop the intrinsic values of a well organized legal system.