1 DECEMBER 2018
The death debate
Justice Joseph’s views on abolishing capital punishment require serious consideration
In questioning the merits of retaining the death penalty, Justice Kurian Joseph has re-ignited a debate that is important and requires serious thought. What he said cannot be ignored, though the law laid down in Bachan Singh (1980), upholding the validity of the death penalty and laying down guidelines for awarding death in ‘the rarest of rare’ cases’, still holds the field. Even the other two judges on the Bench have disagreed with Justice Joseph’s view that the time has come to review the death penalty, its purpose and practice. But it is impossible to ignore the ethical and practical dimensions of the debate in a world that is increasingly questioning the wisdom of capital punishment. Justice Joseph has underscored the arbitrary manner in which it is awarded by different judges and the way public discourse influences such decisions. Concerns over judge-centric variations have been raised in the past. The Supreme Court itself spoke of the “extremely uneven application” of the norms laid down in Bachan Singh. The Law Commission, in its Report in 2015, said the constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted in that case has failed to prevent death sentences from being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed”. Justice Joseph seems to endorse the Commission’s assertion that “there exists no principled method to remove such arbitrariness from capital sentencing”.
In individual cases, much of the conversation about the maximum sentence that may be imposed usually revolves around the nature of the crime, its gravity and cruelty, and the number of fatalities. In recent times, public outrage, the need for deterrence, and the clamour for a befitting punishment to render substantial justice have dominated the discourse. Theories of punishment on whether it ought to be punitive, retributive, reformative or restorative are less relevant to the public imagination and the law enforcers when the crime is grave and heinous. There is a conflict between those who sense the danger of inconsistent application and those who believe in condign justice. This conflict can be resolved only if the debate is taken to a higher plane: a moral position that there shall be no death penalty in law, regardless of the nature, circumstances and consequences of an offence. The Supreme Court has covered considerable ground in limiting the scope, to the ‘rarest of rare cases’. Post-appeal reviews and curative petitions are routinely admitted. Review petitions are now heard in open court. The treatment of death row prisoners has been humanised, and there is scope for judicial review even against a sovereign decision denying clemency. If there still prevails a perception of arbitrariness in the way death sentences are awarded, the only lasting solution is their abolition. The views of the Law Commission and Justice Joseph should not be ignored.
The ILO’s report underlines the need for wage expansion that is robust and also equitable
The International Labour Organisation’s Global Wage Report has put into sharp relief one of the biggest drags on global economic momentum: slowing wage growth. Global wage growth, adjusted for inflation, slowed to 1.8% in 2017, from 2.4% in 2016, it shows. Worryingly, this is the lowest rate since 2008. Excluding China (given its high population and rapid wage growth it tends to skew the mean), the average was even lower (1.1% in 2017 against 1.8% in 2016). Across a majority of geographies and economic groupings, wage expansions were noticeably tepid last year. In the advanced G20 countries the pace eased to 0.4%, with the U.S. posting an unchanged 0.7% growth and Europe (excluding Eastern Europe) stalling at about zero. The emerging and developing economies in the G20 were not spared a deceleration, with the growth in wages slowing to 4.3%, from 4.9% in 2016. In the Asia and Pacific nations, where workers had enjoyed the biggest real wage growth worldwide between 2006 and 2017, it slid to 3.5% from the previous year’s 4.8%. The obvious impact of this low pace has been on global economic growth with consumption demand hurt by restrained spending by wage-earners. Slow wage growth prompted U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to observe in June that “in a world where we’re hearing lots and lots about labour shortages — everywhere we go now, we hear about labour shortages — but where is the wage reaction? So it’s a bit of a puzzle.”
The ILO report observes that the acceleration of economic growth in high-income countries in 2017 was led mainly by higher investment spending rather than by private consumption. Extending the time horizon, it reveals that real wages almost tripled in the developing and emerging countries of the G20 between 1999 and 2017, while in the advanced economies the increase over the same period aggregated to a far lower 9%. And yet, in many low- and middle-income economies the average wage, in absolute terms, was so low it was still inadequate to cover the bare needs of workers. The intensification of competition in the wake of globalisation, accompanied by a worldwide decline in the bargaining power of workers has resulted in a decoupling between wages and labour productivity. The fallout has been the weakening share of labour compensation in GDP across many countries that the ILO notes “remain substantially below those of the early 1990s”. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute uses the U.S. example to buttress the argument that widening inequality is slowing demand and growth by shifting larger shares of income “to rich households that save rather than spend”. For India’s policymakers, the message is clear: to reap the demographic dividend we need not only jobs, but wage expansion that is robust and equitable.