Almost everyone in India knows the name of Chotta Rajan today. He is a career criminal and, most probably, deserves all the punishment that is coming his way. But this story needn’t have turned out this way.
Chotta Rajan started his “life of crime” selling movie tickets in the black market outside Sahakar theatre in Mumbai. When you look at it today the activity that set him on this path seems almost trivial. Of course, we could argue that he had a penchant for crime that he showed when he indulged in this activity. However, selling tickets on the black market was a way for him to make ends meet. He took the trouble to get to the ticket counter before the others, buy the tickets in advance and then sell them. It was, in a different context, an entrepreneurial act. The movie could bomb and he could lose his “investment”; or the movie would be a hit and he could make a profit. It was no different from anything an Ambani or a Tata would do.
However, what changed everything for Chotta Rajan (and others like him) was when the government outlawed the selling of tickets in this manner. For these people, this was their means of income and overnight it became an illegal activity. Now, they needed protection from the cops who would harass them in the name of the law. This entailed joining a gang, protecting their turf and getting rid of competition. Sound familiar?
The argument I am trying to make is that control is something that tends to backfire. When you passed laws to stop the black marketing of movie tickets, you pushed a young man into a life of crime. When you pass laws against cutting down trees or accessing the wood in the forests, you create Naxalites among the indigenous people who subsist off the land.
Governments must consider the long-term repercussions of their acts on the lives of the ordinary people. The rich and the well-educated will take care of themselves. They have the connections and the knowledge to do so. But for the poor at the bottom of the bucket, it is a disruption that can change their lives in ways that make it hard to cope.
Some of these laws are necessary. For instance, the laws against black-marketing of tickets was put in place because it was found that theatre owners were actively encouraging the activity–a direct result of the government putting caps on the price of movie tickets. So the market value of a ticket that was sold for Rs. 30 at the counter was actually closer to Rs 100. The theatre owners saw this and saw the small-time black marketers as a way to extract the true value their wares. To ensure the proper implementation of such laws, the police force needs to be sensitized to the “spirit of the law” and not just the “wordings of the law”.
The recent demonetization is one more such event. It was done primarily to catch the people who were hoarding black money, but the people most hit were the poor and lower middle class. Not only were their livelihoods affected, but their Jan Dhan accounts were being misused by the rich and powerful to park their black money. In effect, the poor man whose livelihood was snatched away will now be seen as a criminal because of the unexplained money in the account. This will lead many of them to seek protection from the very people who got them to misuse their accounts in the first place.
Studies in the US show that at no time in history have there been so many people being sent to jails. Most of these incarcerations are for petty crimes. The real criminals continue to roam the streets freely and openly.
Government control and laws are powerful tools to help make a level playing field for everybody. But when they are misused and misapplied, they become the source for creating criminals who end up costing the country more than just a few movie tickets.