Finding laws in India is so hard that sometimes even the government can’t find them. During the court proceedings related to the ban on liquor sales on highways, Maharashtra had to admit that they couldn’t find one of their earlier notifications related to classifying state highways. If states can’t find their own laws, the plight of individuals is scarcely comparable.
Without a basic knowledge of laws that govern us, lofty constitutional ideals of democracy and rule of law will remain a pipe dream. But in our digital age, machine-readable laws should be able to solve this problem.
Many government and private sources allow access to digitally scanned legal text. Some of these are digital scans of print documents that function more like images, leaving it up to search engines to perform optical character recognition (OCR) and compare words against user queries. While text-based PDFs of laws exist, they lack the ability to hyperlink to specific portions and users are forced to manually read through the table of contents or an index and then proceed to that section. Simply put, they are not machine-readable and require laborious human intervention to trawl through, read and understand.
This leads to multiple issues. Older laws are typically uploaded in the most inaccessible format-scanned images or PDFs. This means machines cannot process the text without human assistance, and people have to physically go through every law to find specific content. This is time-consuming. For example, the 159-year old Indian Penal Code is full of amendments and repealed/substituted sections, and has sections that apply in almost all human interactions. It is simply not possible on a bare reading, even for most lawyers, to navigate the code in an expert manner.
Second, while government is the most authentic source of legal text, the content on government websites is often not updated. People visiting these websites are often looking at an outdated version of the law, without realising this is the case. This is misleading and leads to not only an ill-informed but a mis-informed citizenry. For example, Section 66-A of the IT Act was struck down by the SC in 2015. However, the section continues to be present in the copy of the IT Act available on the India Code website without factoring in the Supreme Court’s observations declaring a part of it to be unconstitutional. Third, the legal system is an intricate structure of laws, rules, regulations, notifications, etc, none of which can be read in isolation. For example, for a citizen to gain an understanding of the consumer protection law in the country, they would have to know about the existence of the Consumer Protection Act 1986, the rules formed under the Act, and various court judgments on different aspects of the law. Yet, such cross-linking of laws and rules is not available.
Making laws machine readable alleviates these concerns significantly. One way to implement this could be to opt for a widely used open-source solution that has plenty of documentation and support. Markdown syntax —a lightweight mark-up language with plain text formatting syntax that is designed to easily convert text to HTML and many other formats — meets this requirement. It isn’t a new computer language, but simply a way of adding certain markers before text to indicate meaning. Better still, it can work across multiple languages, including any Indian language that has keyboard support.
Storing these laws in markdown format as a repository that tracks changes, like GitHub, allows users to see the history of changes this law has undergone alongside its most recent version. This provides ready access to all laws in one place, with automatic updates and neat classification designed for readability. Add to that the possibility of machine-translated laws in various vernacular languages and access to laws is revolutionised.
Making laws more accessible has a direct correlation with strengthening the rule of law in India. The rule of law will exist beyond being an aspirational goal when citizens can make the law to work for them, and that can only happen when laws become more accessible. In election season, with manifestos promising the stars, a simple solution of machine-readable laws will go a long way towards India’s quest towards becoming a genuinely participatory democracy.