Scaring away tech start-ups

Scaring away tech start-ups

By THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN | 25 March, 2017

The arrest of a website founder by the Tamil Nadu police on a complaint by an advertising agency is yet another example of the ease with which citizens get deprived of their liberty in India, a country that has the “distinction” of retaining almost the entirety of colonial-era laws and practices. Indeed, since 1947, almost every year (barring a few intervals such as 1992-96) the powers of the official machinery vis-à-vis the citizen have grown. It was expected during the period when India was a colony of Britain that the rights and freedoms of its people would get disregarded. Seven decades after independence from Whitehall, it is clear that much needs to change before Indians can enjoy the same degree of freedom that, for example, is enjoyed by citizens of the United Kingdom. The advertising agency in question claims that it has been defrauded of about Rs 2 crore by the tech start-up entrepreneur. As a consequence, it has activated Sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), Section 506 (criminal intimidation) and of course Section 420 (cheating) in order to persuade the Chennai police to deprive the tech entrepreneur of his liberty, a situation in which he continues to this day, jail being the norm in any colonial system of administration, where the rights and freedoms of citizens are considered to be bagatelles deserving only to be ignored by the official machinery. How non-payment of dues constitutes “criminal intimidation” is a matter clear only to the police, who arrested the start-up founder and who have kept him incarcerated for close to two weeks already. The episode has been reported across the world, and has acted as a disincentive for those eager to launch tech companies in India. Already too many bright minds have relocated to Singapore, San Jose and other locations from India, after they decided that it was not possible to nurture a start-up through the thicket of regulations and the forest of venal officials that attach themselves to any venture in this country. According to the lawyer for the arrested individual, there was no written contract for the services, that it has been claimed by the complainant, were not yet paid for. The lawyer has also claimed that adequate proof has yet to be submitted of the claim by the agency that a substantial number of hoardings were placed by it in strategic locations across the country. Does the agency have any written authorisation from the start-up to go ahead with such work? Is there any written commitment that moneys of a specified amount will be paid in a pre-determined time? Has proof been submitted of the claims made by the agency? In case the police did not examine all such evidence before using the vast powers available to them in what is still all too much a colonial governance mechanism, clearly, there is need to question the need for depriving yet another citizen of his or her liberty. Taking away such a fundamental right in a democracy ought not to be as simple and as frequent as is the case in India, and a way of ensuring change would be to take penal action against those who overstep the boundaries of natural justice in their operations. This newspaper does not take any view on the correctness or otherwise of the charges brought against the start-up company and its founders by the Tamil Nadu police, except to warn that the freedom of the citizen is too precious to be extinguished without clear and sufficient cause. Unless a climate favourable to start-ups becomes activated in this country, it will not be possible to ensure that 13 million extra jobs get created each year to eliminate youth unemployment. Should such joblessness grow, the impact on social cohesion and national resilience in the years ahead will be dire. Tamil Nadu is seeking to be a welcoming environment for start-ups. Such an image does not square with the propensity of its police force to rush to action and march a citizen to jail on the basis of a complaint that needed to be comprehensively investigated before such dramatic and drastic action was taken. The judiciary is the custodian of the rights and privileges of the ordinary citizen in a democracy, and it is expected that the judicial system in Tamil Nadu will take steps to ensure that the right to liberty of a citizen be protected under the law and not summarily dispensed with. Surely, the dispute between the two sides can get adjudicated without the bludgeon of prison being employed by one of the parties against the other. All too often, jail has become the first, rather than the last resort of the police across the country, leading to the suspicion that they are too much under the influence of individuals with a vested interest in such an outcome. Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi’s dynamic vision of Start-up India needs to be free of the fear of loss of liberty, save under exceptional circumstances. The case involving the jailed entrepreneur may not necessarily meet that standard. Entrepreneurs make mistakes and lose money. Unless they are guilty of deliberate fraud, they should be assisted to get back on their financial feet and start up again, not locked away for indeterminate periods of time on the basis of complaints that appear in many cases to get acted upon with alacrity, even in the absence of an investigation into their veracity and relevance.

 

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