Indian legal system

Cutting the jargon: Here's a website that translates Indian laws into simple English

Built on the Wikipedia model and launched on November 3, Nyaaya also has guides for crime victims and accused.

India has more than a thousand central laws, a larger number of state laws and a criminal justice system so complex, most of the population struggles to navigate it. A year ago, Delhi-based lawyer Srijoni Sen decided to make this system a little easier for the masses, one step at a time. The outcome of her project is Nyaaya.in, a website that describes itself as “India’s first free online repository of every central and state law, explained in simple English”.

Launched on November 3, Nyaaya.in has a simple mandate: to catalogue every single central and state law, translate important laws from legalese to simple, lay-man’s language, and offer comprehensive guides to help both victims and accused understand the police and court systems.

A screen shot from Nyaaya.in's guide to the law on domestic violence: the original law is on the left and the annotations are on the right.
A screen shot from Nyaaya.in's guide to the law on domestic violence: the original law is on the left and the annotations are on the right.

The website has, so far, catalogued the transcripts of 773 central laws and annotated guides to 10 prominent criminal laws, including those on domestic violence, caste atrocities, corruption, child sexual abuse and terrorism. The guides, for both victims and accused, come in the form of frequently asked questions, with minimalistic icons and graphics.

“Laws are not written with user experience in mind, and that is what we wanted to address through an interactive website,” said Sen, the chief executive officer of Nyaaya. “The idea was to open up laws for citizens.”

Modelled on Wikipedia

Sen studied law at Bangalore’s National Law School and Columbia University in the United States, but also spent three years as a business analyst with McKinsey. The idea for Nyaaya came to her last year, when she was working with the Vidhi Centre, a legal policy think tank in Delhi.

Sen’s work at the centre involved legal research and assisting the government with framing better laws, but she realised there was still a need to simplify laws and make them more accessible to the public. An opportunity to act on this idea came soon enough: Rohini Nilekani, the founder of water rights non-profit Arghyam, had set up the India Water Portal as an open access website to share knowledge about water resources, and she was keen fund a similar initiative in the legal sphere. Incubated by Nilekani and the Vidhi Centre, Sen soon began the set up of Nyaaya as a full-time venture.

By August, Sen had assembled a core team of three lawyers and two engineers to build the platform. They roped in more than 30 contributors – law students, legal experts and designers from around the country – who helped conceptualise, write and categorise the content of Nyaaya. Within three months, the team had made enough progress to launch the website, said Sen.

Three of Nyaaya's five core team members: Nidhisha Philip, Srijoni Sen and Kunal Rachhoya. Photo courtesy Nyaaya.in
Three of Nyaaya's five core team members: Nidhisha Philip, Srijoni Sen and Kunal Rachhoya. Photo courtesy Nyaaya.in

She, however, added that Nyaaya was still very much a work in progress, with hundreds of laws yet to be covered.

The idea, she said, was to create an online encyclopaedia of India’s legal system, using the Wikipedia model of crowd-sourced content. “Nyaaya will be like a modified Wiki that anyone can contribute to and anyone can help clean up, with the core team ensuring quality control,” she said.

Keeping it simple

While there are other websites, such as Indian Kanoon, that offer a searchable database of Indian laws and court judgements, Nyaaya stands out for its use of succinct, simple language to explain legal jargon.

“In countries like the US and Canada, there is a plain language movement in the past few years to make sure laws are written simply,” said Nidhisha Philip, a former corporate lawyer who is now the content lead at Nyaaya. “In India, we haven’t seen that kind of a push yet, but we’re trying to do that on Nyaaya.”

The guides for crime victims and crime accused focus on explaining relevant sections of the Criminal Procedure Code in simple terms. They answer basic questions that a victim or an accused would have – such as “what happens once I report a crime”, “what happens once a case goes to court”, “how does a criminal case start”, and “what are your rights at the time of arrest”.

Sen said, “We settled on these questions after talking to loads of criminal lawyers and other experts who often get these questions from their clients.”

Next, regional languages

Sen and her team have elaborate plans to take Nyaaya forward. In the short run, they will be developing annotated guides for many more laws that are commonly used by citizens. They also plan to take a closer look at state laws, many of which are currently difficult to find online.

“Also, a lot of government notifications, circulars and discussions on laws often end up all over the place, in different government departments,” said Sen. “We plan to put at least the most important of those documents in one place.”

Most significant, of course, is Nyaaya’s language plan. For now, the site is only in English. “But we are planning to translate the content in regional languages soon,” said Sen.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

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