Law for social change.

Byline: I.A. Rehman

THE two-day conference in Karachi on law, judicial interventions and social change was well worth the effort for it dealt with a basic but generally ignored function of a legal regime, namely, the social development of the people.

Organised by the Rasheed Rizvi Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, the conference discussed labour laws in the broader context of modern labour initiatives that are enabling workers to enrich their lives. These efforts are relevant to Pakistan as post-independence governments have mostly used laws to curtail rights that even the colonial rulers had recognised. These new techniques of workers' mobilisation have borne fruit in Bangladesh and India and it should be possible to replicate them in Pakistan.

The session on judicial interventions and social justice generated a critique of the judicial system, especially of judicial activism, from more than one perspective. These discussions, however, squeezed the time for a debate on law as an instrument of social change. The importance of this subject is manifest. Western countries owe much of their social development to laws that abolished slavery and feudal relationships, and guaranteed equality of access to education, health facilities and social security. Now social development has become synonymous with growing respect for human rights.

People are not unfamiliar with laws designed to promote social change. There are examples from the abolition of sati and infanticide to Pakistani laws to eliminate social evils and the framing of family laws, the Indian Trade Union Act, and laws for compulsory education. However, this country faces two serious challenges in this area.

Is it not time to question the adherence to a retributive system of justice?

First, Pakistan has sustained pre-Independence social relationships. A large number of people are living in the tribal phase, a bigger number still subscribe to feudal customs, while a small minority professes post-feudal sensibilities. Naturally, inequalities at various levels have ossified.

Secondly, Pakistan has been drifting towards social regression. The decline in education and health is leading to an increase in the number of people who cannot benefit from their services. For a majority of citizens, access to justice is problematic and laws have been made to deny a large number of workers their basic rights.

The state has been trying...

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