The challenge with law enforcement

Develop local strategies that seek to increase the civic sensibilities and public responsibilities of citizens. 

The popular explanation for India’s dysfunctional democracy is its corrupt and weak governance. We despair at the lack of accountability within public systems and the resultant pervasive corruption. Opinion leaders lament at the state’s inability to enforce its own laws and statutes.


We have some of the most progressive legislations and well-conceived laws on every social or public issue. While there are many failings, it cannot be denied that most of these laws contain adequate penal provisions and clear enforcement mechanisms. But their implementation, to achieve the desired policy objectives remains a critical last mile gap.

Civic indiscretions like littering and public urination, building deviations, street encroachments, traffic violations, tax evasion and so on, go unpunished despite the egregious nature of their transgression of regulations. Failure to enforce the law on social and gender-related crimes and punish offenders is commonplace.  Corruption within public systems, despite being so pervasive, virtually goes unrestrained. A majority of public officials regularly abscond from work. The common feature of all these examples is undoubtedly the failure to enforce existing laws.

Why do we stumble when it comes to enforcing rules and regulations? Conventional wisdom has it that this enforcement failure is similar to governance failures elsewhere. Accordingly, corrupt officials take bribes and collude or the apathetic ones turn a blind eye to such offences. Some aver that it is a part of Indian culture. This argument does not hold true when we look at Indians, who flout all civic rules and norms in their own country embrace them when they travel abroad. They are disciplined and dedicated to their work. This highlights the importance of social environments in shaping human behavioral responses.

The governance failure explanation assumes that individuals violate laws because the penal cost of doing so is minimal or nothing. Therefore, compliance with laws will increase dramatically if there is a certainty of punishment associated with breaking law. But corrupt and apathetic officials, empowered with enforcement of laws, choose not to do so and let violators go scot-free. This simplified narrative does not convey the full story.

It gives the impression that fear of punishment is the primary reason why people abide by the law and that it is possible for officials to enforce laws if they choose to. Both assumptions are questionable.

The first overlooks the powerful influence of people’s civic sensibilities in bringing about collective conformity to law. In societies marked by widespread conformity to law of the land, civic sensibility is atleast as much responsible for enforcing compliance with laws as the fear of punishment. The deterrent effect of enforcement is meaningfully effective only at the margins, on the small minority most likely to violate them. In simple terms, strong enforcement will be successful in deterring the exceptions, not the norm. In contrast, when the overwhelming majority violates law, then deviance becomes the norm, the non-stigmatised convention.

In this context, behavioural psychologists have shown how positive messages that highlight conformity to rules or social objectives elicit far greater responsiveness than negative messages which either highlight the magnitude of the problem or warn about the consequences of deviation. Accordingly, messages which highlight that 80 percent of people are paying taxes, are more likely to be effective than those which claim that half the people do not pay taxes or which warns of exemplary punishments. Clearly, the realisation that you are deviating from the norm is very effective in discouraging potential violators.

Second, when the majority violates law, enforcement becomes expensive, beyond the administrative capabilities of a functionally and geographically over-stretched field level bureaucracy. It is impossible for even well-intentioned and committed officials to uniformly enforce law with the existing resources in any meaningful manner. It is no surprise that numerous such efforts over time, to enforce compliance on these apparently simple problems have very rarely succeeded.

There are no easy routes out of this low-level equilibrium in which we are entrapped. The ideal solution would be for strategies that seek to increase the civic sensibilities and public responsibilities of citizens. Inculcating civic spiritedness among people and getting them not to litter or comply with lane driving rules, and doing this on scale, is a very difficult transformation to achieve. Compounding the problems, India’s weak administrative system is in no position to manage this process effectively.

In the circumstances, a realistic approach to addressing this challenge is to expedite the process of social internalisation by bringing in local accountability. Since the nature of such problems and its possible solutions vary across areas, location-specific enforcement strategies are more likely to be effective. The design of such strategies in turn depends on local initiative, driven by the respective local officials and community.

Local governments and communities should be given adequate powers and finances and entrusted with the responsibility of managing these problems. Enlightened local government officials should be allowed to adopt strategies that enforce rules through local accountability. This aligns well with the political imperative of decentralisation. Such local initiative, when complemented with effective enforcement of prevailing laws, is most likely to internalise a culture of compliance with laws.

As a million local accountability initiatives bloom, a majority of them are most certain to fail. But the surviving bright spots should provide the impetus for social internalisation of our laws and regulations. It appears to be the best shot we have at increasing the enforcement of our laws and improving governance.

Photo: Prasad Kholkute