The Judiciary: Cutting Edge of a Predator State

- Prashant Bhushan

Excerpted from a speech at the Panel Discussion on “The Indian State: Protector or Alienator?” at the Tehelka Summit of the Powerless, Delhi, 20-21 November, 2006.

THERE was a time, not so long ago, when the Supreme Court of India waxed eloquent about the Fundamental right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution to include all that it takes to lead a decent and dignified life. They thus held that the right to life includes the right to Food, the right to employment and the right to shelter: in other words, the right to all the basic necessities of life. That was in the roaring 80’s when a new tool of public interest litigation was fashioned where anyone could invoke the jurisdiction of the Courts even by writing a post card on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged who were too weak to approach the courts themselves. It seemed that a new era was dawning and that the courts were emerging as a new liberal instrument within the State which the poor could access to get some respite from the various excesses and assaults of the executive.
Alas, all that seems a distant dream now, given the recent role of the courts in not just failing to protect the rights of the poor that they had themselves declared not long ago, but in fact spearheading the massive assault on the poor since the era of economic liberalization. This is happening in case after case, whether they are of the tribal oustees of the Narmada Dam, or the urban slum dwellers whose homes are being ruthlessly bulldozed without notice and without rehabilitation, on the orders of the court, or the urban hawkers and rickshaw pullers of Delhi and Mumbai who have been ordered to be removed from the streets again on the orders of the court. Public interest litigation has been turned on its head. Instead of being used to protect the rights of the poor, it is now being used by commercial interests and the upper middle classes to launch a massive assault in the poor in the drive to take over urban spaces and even rural land occupied by the poor, for commercial development. While the lands of the rural poor are being compulsorily taken over for commercial real estate development for the wealthy, the urban poor are being evicted from the public land that they have been occupying for decades for commercial development by big builders, for shopping malls and housing for the wealthy. Roadside hawkers are being evicted on the orders of the Courts (which will ensure that people will shop only in these shopping malls). All this is being done, not only in violation of the rights of the poor declared by the Courts, but also in violation of the policies for slum dwellers and hawkers which have been formulated by the governments. Usually these actions of the Court seem to have the tacit and covert approval of the government (and the court is used to do what a democratically accountable government cannot do). Let us examine a few of these cases.
In the Narmada case, the Court recently refused to restrain further construction of the Dam which would submerge thousands of families without rehabilitation even when it was clear that this was not only in violation of the Narmada Tribunal Award, but against their declared fundamental rights. The court’s behaviour in first refusing to hear the matter, then repeatedly adjourning it, then allowing the construction to be completed on the specious ground that they needed the report of the Shunglu Committee, clearly demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity to the oustees and a total subordination of their rights to the commercial interests of those industrialists led by Narendra Modi who are eyeing the Narmada waters for their industries, water parks and golf courses. The gap between the rhetoric and the actions of the Court could not be more yawning.
Meanwhile, as the Narmada oustees were being submerged without rehabilitation, a massive programme of urban displacement of slum dwellers without rehabilitation was being carried out in Delhi and Bombay, also on the orders of the High Courts. Sometimes on the applications of upper middle class colonies, sometimes on their own, the Courts have been issuing a spate of orders for clearing slums by bulldozing the jhuggis on them, on the ground that they are on public land. Some of this is being done with the tacit approval of the government, such as the slums on the banks of the Yamuna which are being cleared for making way for the constructions for the Commonwealth games. And all this, without even issuing notices to the slum dwellers, in violation of the principles of natural justice.
This was not all. The Court’s relentless assaults on the poor continued with the Supreme Court ordering the eviction of hawkers from the streets of Bombay and Delhi. Again, turning their backs on Constitution bench judgements of the Court that hawkers have a fundamental right to hawk on the streets, which could however be regulated, the Court now observed that streets exist primarily for traffic. They thus ordered the Municipality and the police to remove the “unlicenced hawkers” from the streets of Delhi. All this again without any notice or hearing to the hawkers. This effectively meant that almost all the more than 1.5 lakh hawkers would be placed at the mercy of the authorities, since less than 3 percent had been given licences.
More recently, the Delhi High Court has ordered the removal of rickshaws from the Chandni Chowk area, ostensively to pave the way for CNG buses. This order will not only deprive tens of thousands of rickshaw pullers of a harmless and environmentally friendly source of livelihood, it will also cause enormous inconvenience to tens of thousands of commuters who use that mode of transport.
Several recent judgements of the court have grossly diluted the various labour laws which were enacted to protect the rights of workers. The government has been wanting to dilute these laws for bringing about what they call “labour reforms”, in line with the new economic policies, but they have been unable to do so because of political opposition. The courts have thus stepped in to do what the government cannot do politically. They have not only diluted the protection afforded to workmen by various laws but have openly stated that the Court’s interpretation of the Laws must be in line with the government’s new economic policy- a fantastic proposition which means that the executive government can override parliamentary legislation by executive policy. The same proposition was enunciated by the Supreme Court in the Mauritius double taxation case, where the court said that the government can by executive notification give a tax holiday to Mauritius based companies, even though it is well settled that tax exemptions can only be given by the Finance Act which has to be passed by Parliament. Thus we find that the Courts are becoming a convenient instrument for the government to bypass Parliament and implement executive policy which is in violation of even Parliamentary legislation. This congruence of interest between the executive and the courts is most common when it comes to policies which are designed to benefit the wealthy elite.
One important reason why the court can do such things is because it is completely unaccountable. The executive government must seek reelection every 5 years which acts as a restraint on its anti-poor policies. The court has no such restraint. There is no disciplinary authority over judges, with the system of impeachment having been found to be completely impractical. On top of this, the Supreme Court has by a self serving judgement removed judges from accountability from even criminal acts by declaring that no criminal investigation can be conducted against judges without the prior approval of the Chief Justice of India. This has resulted in a situation where no criminal investigation has been conducted against any judge in the last 15 years since this judgement despite common knowledge of widespread corruption in the judiciary. Even serious public criticism and scrutiny of the judiciary has been effectively barred by the threat of contempt of Court. And now, they have effectively declared themselves as exempt from even the right to information Act. Is it surprising then that they suffer from judicial arrogance which enables them to deliver such judgements. 
This has bred and is continuing to breed enormous resentment among the poor and the destitute. Feeling helpless and abandoned, nay violated by every organ of the State, particularly the judiciary, many are committing suicides, but some are taking to violence. Unless urgent steps are taken to correct the course that the elite establishment of this country is embarked upon, we will soon have an insurgency on our hands which will be impossible to control. Then, when the history of the country’s descent towards violence and chaos is written, the judiciary of the country can claim pride of place among those who speeded up this process.

We desperately and urgently need a new vision for the country as well as for the judiciary. We need to rediscover and perhaps reinvent the concept of the State as a welfare State. Our judiciary was created by the British who created it mainly to protect the interests of the empire. That is one of the reasons why it is inaccessible to the common people. We need to reinvent the judiciary in line with a new vision for India. A judiciary which will really be people friendly, which can be accessed without the mediation of professional lawyers and which will consider it its mission to protect the rights of the poor. Unless we can demonstrate the capacity to form that vision and translate in into action, we are headed for serious trouble..