Most Indians love holidays. A public holiday offers special satisfaction because it is declared by the government, thus legitimizing the Indian’s illimitable capacity to enjoy leisure. The Bombay High Court, however, reportedly pronounced that a public holiday is not a fundamental right but government policy. Thus it made a distinction of overwhelming importance. No one can expect to have a public holiday as a matter of right, as many are wont to do. The high court’s remarks came in the context of its rejection of a petition by a resident of Daman and Diu that August 2 be declared a public holiday to celebrate its liberation from the Portuguese in 1954. It was equated with India’s Independence Day. But the court made clear that it was up to a government to decide on mandatory public holidays, optional ones, or no holiday at all. The situation is not simple. Given India’s vast variety in region, religion and culture, different state governments have to decide on public holidays within their states over and above the Central list of mandatory holidays. These decisions, as the Bombay High Court pointed out, are part of the function of governing.
It is hardly surprising that the high court also remarked that there were too many public holidays as it was; it was necessary to reduce them rather than add to their number. The Centre lists 17 gazetted holidays in 2021, as does Japan; this appears to be reasonable enough against, say, Iran’s 27 — the highest in the world — or Sri Lanka’s 25 or Cambodia’s 21. But the states are another story. West Bengal, for example, has 26 holidays in 2021 including national holidays, Bihar has 37, Tamil Nadu trails with a bashful 22, while Punjab has 28. These examples suggest that India is perhaps the leading expert in public holidays in the world; the state lists indicate that its governments’ policies take special care to tread gently on religious and caste sensibilities. Productivity comes second. The person-hours lost through these holidays not only reduce production, but repeated breaks in the midst of a working week also reduce professionalism and the sense of responsibility. The Bombay High Court’s suggestion that public holidays be cut down is a message for the Centre and for state governments. It should not be ignored.