Two Fridays ago, an enormous tragedy struck Punjab. A train mowed down 62 people and injured 90 others. Unmindful of the approaching train, the victims had congregated on the tracks to view the concluding ceremony of the annual Dussehra festivities taking place in a small patch of land adjoining the railway line. Worryingly, this may not even be the final count.

True to the current political playbook, the enormity of the tragedy was buried under an unsavoury blame game that broke out between the ruling Congress and the opposition parties in the state. Worse, a week later, the news cycle seems to have moved on.

A magisterial inquiry has been ordered and presumably the events leading to the tragedy would be much clearer once its findings are made public. While this may be the case, it is apparent that there already exists a big takeaway: With all due respect to everyone who suffered in this unfortunate tragedy, it can be argued that it was a consequence of failing to adhere to the rule of law—it is India’s singular failing and something this column has dwelled on ad nauseam.

Take the Amritsar rail tragedy itself. There is a law against walking on rail tracks; specifically section 147 of the Indian Railways Act prohibits trespassing on rail tracks and, if caught, carries a punishment of imprisonment of up to six months and/or fine up to 1,000. Yet, as Mint reported last Monday, violation of this law in Jodha, Amritsar, had become a way of life; over the years, the organizers and the local railway guards at the level crossing arrived at an informal understanding wherein crowds spilling over from the venue could encroach on the tracks, which otherwise saw busy rail traffic. It was a miscommunication waiting to happen and the ensuing tragedy is a grim reminder of what it means to ignore the rule of law.

Organizers celebrated Dussehra at Dhobi Ghat based on verbal permission from railway crossing guards in Amritsar.

For some reason, the idea of the rule of law has eluded India and the consequences are there for all of us to see. Instead, we have embraced a discretion-based system, which in return for favours, condones such misdemeanours—something that fosters political patronage. It starts out as small missteps and then escalates into dramatic infractions, making it a part of civic culture—something that is eating out the insides of India. And it is not just about corroding institutions, but is an affliction at the individual level, too.

Take, for instance, our penchant not to adhere to traffic rules—ignoring the stop line, jumping lights, driving on the wrong side, reluctantly donning a helmet and even then leave it unstrapped and of course overtaking from the wrong side—or to jump queues (the most irritating one is at the security line-up at airports).

And then, of course, the host of scams that have afflicted regimes both at the centre and at the level of states in the last three decades in particular, bring home the consequences of failure to adhere to the rule of law, which can have unforeseen consequences. Corruption adds to the cost of doing business, making Indian products that much less competitive, besides fuelling the illegal economy.

This lack of probity in public life scaled a new high with the latest episode involving the top two officials heading the Central Bureau of Investigation. The fact that the leadership of the country’s premier investigative agency, who are supposed to enforce the rule of law, are accusing each other of corruption reveals the extent of rot in the system.

This despite the fact that India has taken baby steps in the last few years to implement a rules-based regime. But for this to seriously take root, it requires a fundamental behavioural reset. To achieve this, 1.3 billion Indians have to buy into this project; it is not something that can be forced top-down.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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