This expose is by Justice Markandey Katju, who was chief justice of Madras high court before becoming a Supreme Court judge. He is now chairman of the Press Council of India.
There was an additional judge of the Madras high court against whom there were several allegations of corruption. He had been directly appointed as a district judge in Tamil Nadu, and during his career as district judge there were as many as eight adverse entries against him recorded by various portfolio judges of the Madras high court. But one acting chief justice of Madras high court by a single stroke of his pen deleted all those adverse entries, and consequently he became an additional judge of the high court, and he was in that post when I came as chief justice of Madras high court in November 2004.
That judge had the solid support of a very important political leader of Tamil Nadu. I was told that this was because while a district judge he had granted bail to that political leader.
Since I was getting many reports about his corruption, I requested the Chief Justice of India, Justice RC Lahoti, to get a secret IB inquiry made about him. A few weeks thereafter, while I was in Chennai, I received a call from the secretary of the CJI saying that Justice Lahoti wanted to talk to me. The CJI then came on the line and said that what I had complained about had been found true. Evidently the IB had found enough material about the judge’s corruption.
Since the two-year term as additional judge of that person was coming to an end, I assumed he would be discontinued as a judge of the high court in view of the IB report. However, what actually happened was that he got another one year’s appointment as an additional judge, though six other additional judges who had been appointed with him were confirmed and made permanent judges of the high court.
I later learned how this happened. The Supreme Court collegium consists of five most senior judges for recommending names for appointment as a Supreme Court judge, and three most senior judges for dealing with high courts.
The three most senior judges in the Supreme Court at that time were the Chief Justice of India, Justice Lahoti, Justice YK Sabharwal, and Justice Ruma Pal. This Supreme Court collegium recommended that in view of the adverse IB report the judge should be discontinued as a high court judge after his two-year term was over, and this recommendation was sent to the central government.
The UPA government was at the Centre at that time. Congress was no doubt the largest party in this alliance, but it did not have a majority in Lok Sabha, and was dependent on the support of its allies. One such ally was the party in Tamil Nadu which was backing this corrupt judge. On coming to know of the recommendation of the three-judge Supreme Court collegium they strongly objected to it.
The information I got was that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was at that time leaving for New York to attend the UN general assembly session. At the Delhi airport, he was told by ministers of the Tamil Nadu party that by the time he returned from New York his government would have fallen as their party would withdraw support to the UPA (for not continuing that additional judge).
On hearing this, Singh panicked, but he was told by a senior Congress minister not to worry, and that he would manage everything. That minister then went to Justice Lahoti and told him there would be a crisis if that additional judge was discontinued. On hearing this, Justice Lahoti sent a letter to the government of India to give another term of one year as additional judge to that corrupt judge, (I wonder whether he consulted his two Supreme Court collegium members ), and it was in these circumstances this corrupt judge was given another one-year term as additional judge (while his six batch mates as additional judges were confirmed as permanent Judges).
The additional judge was later given another term as additional judge by the new CJI Justice Sabharwal, and then confirmed as a permanent judge by the next CJI Justice KG Balakrishnan, but transferred to another high court.
I have related all this to show how the system actually works, whatever it is in theory. In fact, in view of the adverse IB report the judge should not even have been allowed to continue as additional judge.
A Punjab and Haryana High Court decision to halt the framing of charges in the graft case against its former judge Justice Nirmal Yadav raises disturbing questions about judicial accountability
When Anupam Gupta, special public prosecutor for the CBI in the “cash at the doorstep” corruption case against former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court Nirmal Yadav, burst out in anger against the High Court’s recent decision to halt the framing of charges against her, it cast a shadow of disquiet on possibly the most watched prosecution of a judge in the higher judiciary in recent times.
In a written statement he said, “I am deeply distressed by the High Court’s order passed today. It betrays an insensitivity to judicial corruption that cannot be viewed with equanimity. The High Court cannot have a dual approach or standard — one for judges and another for all other accused. Would the High Court have passed this order if the principal accused had not been a former High Court Judge?”
His statement, duly reported by newspapers, was greeted by pin drop silence in the legal universe. That Mr. Gupta is a well known activist on judicial accountability is one reason why his outburst was not immediately dismissed as a mere reaction to a legal setback in court. The other is, because each time in the last couple of years it appeared that the case against Justice Yadav would be dropped, the lawyers of the Punjab and Haryana High Court rose as one to ensure its continuation.
Justice Nirmal Yadav is being tried for allegedly receiving illegal gratification of Rs.15 lakh in August 2008. The money was wrongly delivered at the residence of another lady judge of the High Court, who reported the matter to the Chandigarh police. In March 2011, the President granted sanction to prosecute her under Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act and she became the first serving high court judge in the country to be charge sheeted in a corruption case.
In July this year the CBI court in Chandigarh finally ordered charges to be framed against her, but Justice Yadav filed a revision petition before the High Court against the order, saying that it was “illegal, erroneous and untenable in the eyes of the law.” Hearing the petition, Justice N.K. Sanghi summoned the entire record of the CBI court and directed that her petition be heard within three months. This in effect means that until the High Court decides on her petition, the trial will remain frozen before the trial court.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Gupta says: “Justice Sanghi failed to observe the elementary precaution and propriety of issuing notice to the CBI and hearing it before passing the September 13 order. By requisitioning the trial court’s record, the Judge has, for all practical intents and purposes, disabled the Special Judge, CBI, from proceeding any further with Justice Nirmal Yadav’s trial for a virtually indefinite period of time. Given the practice in the High Court and the volume of litigation before it, the prospect of Justice Yadav’s petition being finally decided by the High Court within three months is far too remote to be believed. A cynic would not be wrong in assuming that, despite its gravity, the case has been put in the cold storage.”
Strong words these and his statement was eagerly circulated in the approving bar.
When asked by The Hindu for his response to Mr. Gupta’s allegations, Justice Sanghi declined comment but did say that if at all he does respond, it will be through his orders.
The ruckus now is because in July the CBI judge Vimal Kumar had given a 61-page order in which he rejected the defence taken by Justice Yadav and the co-accused, ruling that “there was overwhelming evidence” against all of them. He had pointed out contradictions between the statements of Justice Yadav and the other accused. While she had denied all the happenings of August 2008 and claimed that she is being framed, the others accused in the case have admitted the same to some extent.
Cash for verdicts
Earlier during investigations, the CBI had uncovered shocking details of several much bigger cash transactions allegedly received by Ms Yadav in exchange for giving favourable verdicts. In one she even quashed an FIR under Sec 482 of CrPC in a murder case in 2006, for which she allegedly received Rs.50 lakh. These details — that emerged from custodial interrogation of a co-accused, who had arranged for the Rs.15 lakh to be delivered to Justice Yadav’s residence — are in the report of the Superintendent of Police and was brought to the notice of the court. The contents of the SP’s report, kept under wraps till a couple of months ago, (reported in The Hindu on August 4) were also forwarded to Justice S.H. Kapadia, the then Chief Justice of India (CJI) who had in July 2010 given sanction to prosecute the judge. These findings however were not included in the charge sheet.
But stranger things have happened in this case. In December 2009, the CBI taking a plea that it has not received sanction from the CJI to prosecute the judge, filed a closure report. The plea was based on a letter from the Law ministry stating that the then CJI, Justice Balakrishnan, had observed “that no action was required for the present” in the matter. The High Court Bar Association slammed the action of the CJI and intervened in the case to oppose the closure.
Justice Balakrishnan clarified through a statement issued by his office that he had not received any request to prosecute the judge and that the CBI had not even shown him its final report in this regard. In March 2010 the trial court rejected the closure report and ordered further investigation. In the eventuality, the proposal to sanction the prosecution of Justice Yadav was moved before the CJI three months later following which the President who is the competent authority to grant sanction to prosecute the judge, did so in March 2011.
Justice Yadav has retired but is believed to wield considerable influence through her brother, a cabinet minister in Haryana. Mr. Gupta on the other hand has announced that he is collecting material and will be writing to the CJI soon. With the trial stalled amid these serious allegations that raise questions about the impartiality of the judiciary towards one of its own, there is nothing to indicate as of now, if the air will be cleared anytime soon.
Comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai recently set the political arena ablaze by saying that he was appalled by the brazenness of government decisions. He did not elaborate which were those decisions, when were they taken and their effect on the people, country and its economy. Before and during the Emergency, government decisions were inscrutable. They were taken as inviolable diktat because of the rasping repercussions it entailed to those bravehearts who opposed them publicly. This mindset allowed the political class to be brazen about decisions.Post-Emergency, public scrutiny of government decisions gained currency but brazenness seldom exited the power corridors.
A rag-tag political coalition in Janata Party came to power in 1977 mainly because its leaders served jail terms for raising their voice against excesses on people, But, could it prove anything against those who brazenly perpetrated the excesses on people?
A prime minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. What followed was brazen and brutal mass murder of Sikhs on the streets of the national capital and other parts of the country. Thousands were slaughtered in cold blood leaving permanent scars on the entire community. After nearly three decades, the question remains: Who got punished for that brazen mayhem?
Bofors scam was a political game-changer. On the plank of honesty and transparency, certain politicians toppled the ruling party but failed to prove anything for the next two decades about the brazenness in which bribes were paid in procuring one of the finest field guns for Indian Army. The CBI in its charge sheet gave details of what was going on then at 7, Race Course Road but could prove nothing during the trial, inviting judicial wrath. In 1993, those at the helm of a minority government brazenly bribed MPs to secure their votes on the floor of the House during a trust vote. The long arm of the law cast a shadow close to the then prime minister, but in the end did not touch him. The other conspirators also escaped.
In the 21st century, the MPs fell back on an old method – taking money for asking questions on the floor of the House. The disqualification of a MP in the 1950s was no deterrent. As many as 11 MPs faced disqualification for their brazen “cash-for-query” professionalism, throwing parliamentary decorum and their responsibilities and duties as representatives of people to the wind.If these were political brazenness coupled with complicity from the bureaucracy and investigating agencies, there were instances of brazenness in other spheres of governance.The law allowed the government to acquire land for public purposes to build infrastructure, institutions and industries. But the ‘public purpose” clause has been brazenly invoked by authorities to acquire precious fertile agricultural land only to be re-categorized and transferred to realtors for personal gain, turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor farmers and also to its ill-effects on food grain production.
Poverty and backwardness continues to haunt a large section of Indian society even 65 years after independence from colonial rule. Instead of laying out a proper strategy to alleviate poverty, the Planning Commission brazenly mocked at the poor by fixing the poverty line at Rs 32 per day. If you earn Rs 33 a day, then you are not poor! If one wants an example of brazenness in spending public funds to achieve zero result, then one need not look further than the Yamuna river. More than 18 years ago, the Supreme Court took over monitoring of steps taken by governments to make the river water potable. After three governments – Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana -spent more than Rs 5,000 crore in the last two decades, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) gave its verdict: Yamuna is a drain with not a single drop of fresh water as long as it flows in its 22 km stretch in Delhi.
These are only a few of the appallingly brazen decisions and actions of the governments in the last couple of decades. This could be the reason why people in recent times have started leveling allegations brazenly against the political class.
They have waited in vain for decades hoping against hope that the political class would fulfill the basic promise “we the people” made to ourselves – “Justice, social, economic and political”. Why has the political class or the governments failed to ensure justice to people despite they empowering their representatives with every power under the Constitution?
Probably, the political class has failed to strike a balance between power that is conferred on them and the intent to do justice. The situation reminds one of the famous saying of French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who had said, “Justice without power is inefficient; power without justice is tyranny… Justice and power must therefore be brought together so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”
In this Idea Exchange, the new Minister of Law and Justice, Ashwani Kumar, speaks about judicial activism, and the right to privacy vis-a-vis the right to information. This session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Maneesh Chhibber
Maneesh Chhibber: There is a feeling that the Indian higher judiciary is going into areas that don’t concern judges. How do you intend to check that?
It is absolutely true that over the last couple of years, there is a widely-held perception that there is a treading into other domains by organs of the state whose remit is not that particular sector. It is equally true that what the judges do or say, they believe they say or do so by the command of the Constitution. Now who will determine the outer parameters and the constitutional laxman rekhas? The Constitution confers that right on the judiciary, yet I believe that recent judgments of the Supreme Court, including the one in the 2G spectrum case, have clearly spelt out the Supreme Court’s perspective with regard to interference in policy decisions. The highest court of the land has categorically reaffirmed the proposition that judiciary cannot concern itself with policy making nor can it go into the questions relating to the political domain. But the judiciary has said that it can intervene in the implementation or the manner of implementation of the policy. I don’t think the government has any quarrel with that proposition.
Maneesh Chhibber: It is said that judges get swayed and play to the gallery.
Judges are prone to be concerned with the prevailing environment of the day, yet the constitutional and judicial discipline demands that judges decide as objectively as the brief in front of them permits. In a large majority of the cases, judges do decide fairly. There have been cases where the general feeling has been that the judges have said a little more than what justice demanded but that was a more a function of the style of writing a judgment and style varies from judge to judge.
Amitabh Sinha: The Shah Commission has given its report on the proposed privacy law. What are your views on its recommendations and on the proposed privacy law?
I did take the initiative of establishing a high-powered committee of known experts to discuss the various aspects of the privacy law and the privacy rights that the Constitution confers on its citizens. Our privacy rights are derived from Article 21 of the Constitution. They needed to be translated and enforced through specific privacy legislation. The focus of the commission’s deliberations would have been on how to harmonise the imperatives of privacy protection and the right of the people to know. The right of people to know is as much a part of the constitutional imperative so we need a law which would harmoniously blend these two constitutional imperatives.
Amitabh Sinha: Would you say that the right of privacy, when enacted, essentially needs to be applied in inverse proportion to the public office you occupy? The higher you go up, the less the right to privacy becomes?
The right to privacy in India, culled out from Article 21, is a right that the Constitution recognises as an integral part of our human rights which is non-negotiable. A citizen who is also a public figure may be expected of greater transparency in the conduct of his official duties. But that argument, in my personal view, cannot be used to deny the very basic right to privacy of a public servant. The two rights must move in tandem.
D K Singh: How do you explain the fact that not a single judge has been impeached by Parliament so far? Is it because the judiciary is unblemished or is there some lacunae in the impeachment process which needs to be rectified?
I am really happy that the we have not had to use the impeachment proceedings against judges. Having said that, some people may argue that the difficulty in the impeachment procedure makes it impossible for the procedure to be followed. It’s an argument I accept. But it is in the fitness of things that we have inbuilt defences to ensure that the impeachment mechanism is not abused. If you were to make it easier, we would be vulnerable to the argument that Parliament is using the procedure to make inroads into the independence of the judiciary. It is certainly not my case that the judiciary at every level has an unblemished record. We have noticed cases of judicial aberrations. Up to now, we have left it to the inbuilt mechanisms within the judiciary to deal with such cases. But now that we have a Judicial Accountability Bill, we will, hopefully, establish a more effective legislative mechanism for addressing judicial aberrations.
Seema Chishti: Your government took a radical step on the Lokpal two years ago when you had a 10-member committee to draft the Bill. Would you think about such pre-legislative committees for future legislation?
Certainly, we are enriched by pre-legislative discussions with all stakeholders. I think it is a good thing. Laws are meant for the people and therefore, the more participatory the process of law-making is, the better it is for all. But it is an entirely different thing to say that you could leave the drafting of laws to people outside of the legislatures and Parliament. My view is that the drafting of legislation through Parliament and translating people’s views into the letter of the law must remain the preserve of the legislatures and parliamentarians. And I think my views have been validated by the experience of the past.
Harcharan Singh: Twenty- eight years have passed since 3,000 people were killed in Delhi after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Not even five people have been convicted. As the law minister today, what plan do you have to see that justice is delivered faster?
Long unjustifiable delays in dispensation of justice erodes the faith of people in the justice delivery system. Over the last several years, there have been repeated attempts to ensure that affordable and expeditious justice is available to all. There are seven initiatives in the works now to achieve the promise of the Constitution of affordable and expeditious justice. One of my foremost priorities as law minister is to hasten the process of judicial reforms and that would cut the pendency of cases. We have around 3.15 lakh court cases pending in courts. But we are now introducing and reinvigorating the gram nyayalaya justice delivery system and the Lok Adalat system. The criminal justice system is another story all together and I agree with you that it can become very dissatisfying or frustrating or very oppressive. But I want to say something I believe in with all my heart—please do not, in the quest of momentary popularity or appeasing a sentiment, evade the time-tested system of criminal justice which states that presume a man to be innocent until proved guilty. That brings me to another point: trial by media offends the principles of fair trial which is integral to the rule of law. Media trials are unconstitutional. And yet, every day there is a trial by media on every issue. The argument that would be made by the great activists on television every day is that it takes too long to prove a man to be guilty. But is that fair grounds to reject the principle of the rule of law in favour of kangaroo trials?
Harcharan Singh: We had committees and commissions, whether it is the Gujarat riots or the Delhi riots. These commissions take years to gather evidence. What is the use of their findings after so long?
I agree that we need to do a lot more and must bring in amendments and changes in the law. We must adequately staff the legal structures by getting in more judges, more lawyers and courts. It will be my endeavour to try and push through the necessary judicial reforms.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: Where is the government on the proposal for a judicial appointments commission? Your predecessor also wanted to start a conversation with the Supreme Court on moving the two-judge benches to three-judge benches and looking at a permanent five-bench constitutional bench headed by the Chief Justice. Where are you on these issues?
On the second question, I would need to discuss this with the higher judiciary, with the Chief Justice of India. I do recognise that in the last several years, the demand on the judges of the Supreme Court to decide complex issues of constitutional law has increased exponentially and therefore, some kind of structured instrumentality has to be in place to ensure that the best possible judicial decisions are handed down on far-reaching issues without compromising on the judges’ responsibility towards other important litigations pending before them. On the judicial appointments commissions, the consultations with different political parties have taken place. A few details need to be fine-tuned.
Prerna (St Mark’s School, Janakpuri, Delhi): India stands 98 among 175 countries on the corruption index. Judiciary can play a positive role in checking corruption. What are your plans?
I am not sure if any country in the world has been able to completely eliminate corruption but that should not stop us from endeavouring to do so. It would be my endeavour to be a facilitator in the enforcement of anti-corruption laws and ensuring that the enforcement of criminal laws is not oppressive.
Dilip Bobb: What’s your view on Supreme Court judges taking up government-sponsored jobs immediately after retirement?
My personal view, not my view as the minister of law and justice, is that it would be a healthy tradition for judges of the Supreme Court not to accept post-retirement jobs. Having said that, it is equally true that given the complexities of the regulatory regime that we now have to advance our economic and social legislation, there is no substitute for experience. Given also that at the retirement age of 62 years, Supreme Court judges are still active and alert in mind, we need to have some of these wise men on tribunals for a while.
Karishma Kuenzang (EXIMS*): Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition. What steps will you take to ensure that freedom of speech and expression and the law of sedition do not clash?
The charge of sedition can only be brought forward in an almost foolproof case. If every spoken word, sometimes in anger or without full reflection on the spur of the moment, is going to lead to a charge of sedition, then I do not know who will be saved from that charge.
Yogesh Rajput (EXIMS): As a former minister of science and technology, why do you think the government gives less importance when it comes to allocation of funds in R&D and science and technology?
The PM accords the highest importance to science and technology. In the 12th Five Year Plan, we have significantly increased public spending on R&D. It used to be less than 1 per cent of our GDP in the 11th Plan. In the 12th Plan, the R&D expenditure, both in the private and public sector, will be increased to about 2 per cent of the GDP, the single highest growth of expenditure in any department.
N P Singh: Should we see the transfer of Mr Jaipal Reddy to this ministry in the context of the PM giving priority to science and technology?
It may well be. I have the deepest respect for Mr Reddy, both for his scholarship and for his ability to read and grasp complex issues of science and technology.
D K Singh: What are your views on Arvind Kejriwal’s allegations that Mr Ranjan Bhattacharya influenced the government during Mr Vajpayee’s prime ministership?
I don’t want to dignify the comments of Mr Kejriwal by my rebuttal or by my comment. I am also not defending Mr Bhattacharya, but if Mr Kejriwal has said anything about an individual based on his information, who am I to comment?
Shishir Tripathi (EXIMS): When Justice Katju was in office, he raised the issue of nepotism in the judiciary.
It’s true that there has been a perception that this is not a healthy practice. I do not know what to say. Does it mean that if somebody needs to be elevated to the judgeship of the High Court, his nephew, son or daughter have to move out of the court? Or does it mean that he should decline to become a judge just because he does not want to deprive his children of the opportunity to practice in court? You need to have a balance on such issues.
Prashant Dixit (EXIMS): Several decisions of khap panchayats have created a furore. Don’t you think that the judiciary should interfere?
The law of the land is supreme and their decision is to be respected by all, be it a khap panchayat or any other panchayat.
Public Interest Litigation is a good thing when it is used to enforce the rights of the disadvantaged. But it has now been diluted to interfere with the power of the government to take decisions on a range of policy matters
Judicial activism is not an easy concept to define. It means different things to different persons. Critics denounce judicial decisions as activist when they do not agree with them. Activism, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. In India, the opening up of access to courts to the poor, indigent and disadvantaged sections of the nation through Public Interest Litigation, popularly known by its acronym PIL, is unexceptionable judicial activism. From 1979, the judiciary led by the Supreme Court in India became relevant to the nation in a manner not contemplated by the makers of the Constitution and became an active participant in the dispenser of social justice.
It is a matter of concern that over the years this original, beneficial and unexceptionable character of the Court’s activism in PIL has been largely converted into a general supervisory jurisdiction to correct actions and policies of government, public bodies and authorities. This is a type of judicial activism unparalleled in any other judiciary.
For basic rights
PIL jurisdiction began haltingly with little idea of its potential when the Supreme Court, in 1979, entertained complaints by social activists drawing the attention of the Court to the conditions of certain sections of society or institutions which were deprived of their basic rights.
In 1979, Supreme Court advocate Kapila Hingorani drew the Court’s attention to a series of articles in a newspaper exposing the plight of Bihar undertrial prisoners, most of whom had served pretrial detention more than the period they could have been imprisoned if convicted. Sunil Batra, a prisoner, wrote a letter to Justice Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court drawing his attention to torture by prison authorities and the miserable conditions of prisoners in jails. This was taken up as a petition and the Court passed orders for humane conditions in jails. In 1980, two professors of law wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper describing the barbaric conditions of detention in the Agra Protective House for Women which was made the basis of a writ petition in the Supreme Court. The exploitation of workmen at construction sites in violation of labour laws was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court by a letter. The slave-like condition of bonded labourers in quarries was brought to the attention of the Court by a social activist organisation. A journalist moved the court against the evictions of pavement dwellers of Bombay. Several cases of this type followed.
In dealing with such cases, the Court evolved a new regime of rights of citizens and obligations of the State and devised new methods for its accountability. In 1982, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, correctly stated the purpose of PIL as it originated. He emphasised that PIL “a strategic arm of the legal aid movement which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation.”
No longer were the Court’s clientele drawn from landlords, businessmen, corporations and affluent persons. With PIL, the common man, the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society had also easy access to the Court with the help of social activists.
This unique judicial activism was not found in other countries and leading judges abroad such as Lord Harry Woolf of the United Kingdom and Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, applauded it.
The new intervention
However, over the years, the social action dimension of PIL has been diluted and eclipsed by another type of “public cause litigation” in courts. In this type of litigation, the court’s intervention is not sought for enforcing the rights of the disadvantaged or poor sections of the society but simply for correcting the actions or omissions of the executive or public officials or departments of government or public bodies. Examples of this type of intervention by the Court are innumerable. In the interest of preventing pollution, the Supreme Court ordered control over automobile emissions, air and noise and traffic pollution, gave orders for parking charges, wearing of helmets in cities, cleanliness in housing colonies, disposal of garbage, control of traffic in New Delhi, made compulsory the wearing of seat belts, ordered action plans to control and prevent the monkey menace in cities and towns, ordered measures to prevent accidents at unmanned railway level crossings, prevent ragging of college freshmen, for collection and storage in blood banks, and for control of loudspeakers and banning of fire crackers.
In recent orders, the Supreme Court has directed the most complex engineering of interlinking rivers in India. The Court has passed orders banning the pasting of black film on automobile windows. On its own, the Court has taken notice of Baba Ramdev being forcibly evicted from the Ramlila grounds by the Delhi Administration and censured it. The Court has ordered the exclusion of tourists in the core area of tiger reserves. All these managerial exercises by the Court are hung on the dubious jurisdictional peg of enforcing fundamental rights under Article 32 of the Constitution. In reality, no fundamental rights of individuals or any legal issues are at all involved in such cases. The Court is only moved for better governance and administration, which does not involve the exercise of any proper judicial function.
In its most activist and controversial interpretation of the Constitution, the Supreme Court took away the constitutionally conferred power of the President of India to appoint judges after consultation with the Chief Justice, and appropriated this power in the Chief Justice of India and a collegium of four judges. In no Constitution in the world is the power to select and appoint judges conferred on the judges themselves.
The Court is made the monitor of the conduct of investigating and prosecution agencies who are perceived to have failed or neglected to investigate and prosecute ministers and officials of government. Cases of this type are the investigation and prosecution of ministers and officials believed to be involved in the Jain Hawala case, the fodder scam involving the former Chief Minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Taj Corridor case involving the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, and the recent prosecution of the Telecom Minister and officials in the 2G Telecom scam case by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has made an order even in a military operation. In 1993, the Court issued orders on the conduct of military operations in Hazratbal, Kashmir where the military had as a matter of strategy restricted the food supplies to hostages. The Court ordered that the provision of food of 1,200 calorific value should be supplied to hostages. Commenting on this, an Army General wrote: “For the first time in history, a Court of Law was asked to pronounce judgment on the conduct of an ongoing military operation. Its verdict materially affected the course of operation.”
Even proceedings of Legislatures are controlled by the Court. In the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly case, the Supreme Court ordered the Assembly to conduct a Motion of Confidence and ordered the Speaker to conduct proceedings according to a prescribed agenda and not to entertain any other business. Its proceedings were ordered to be recorded for reporting to the Court. These orders were made in spite of Article 212 of the Constitution which states that Courts are not to inquire into any proceedings of the legislature.
Matters of policy of government are subject to the Court’s scrutiny. Distribution of food-grains to persons below poverty line was monitored, which even made the Prime Minister remind the Court that it was interfering with the complex food distribution policies of government. In the 2G Licenses case, the Court held that all public resources and assets are a matter of public trust and they can only be disposed of in a transparent manner by a public auction to the highest bidder. This has led to the President making a Reference to the Court for the Court’s legal advice under Article 143 of the Constitution. In the same case, the Court set aside the expert opinion of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to sell 2G spectrum without auction to create greater teledensity in India.
The Court has for all practical purposes disregarded the separation of powers under the Constitution, and assumed a general supervisory function over other branches of governments. The temptation to rush to the Supreme Court and 21 High Courts for any grievance against a public authority has also deflected the primary responsibility of citizens themselves in a representative self government of making legislators and the executive responsible for their actions. The answer often given by the judiciary to this type of overreach is that it is compelled to take upon this task as the other branches of government have failed in their obligations. On this specious justification, the political branches of government may, by the same logic, take over the functions of the judiciary when it has failed, and there can be no doubt that there are many areas where the judiciary has failed to meet the expectations of the public by its inefficiency and areas of cases.
Justice Jackson of the U.S. has aptly said: “The doctrine of judicial activism which justifies easy and constant readiness to set aside decisions of other branches of Government is wholly incompatible with a faith in democracy and in so far it encourages a belief that judges should be left to correct the result of public indifference it is a vicious teaching.” Unless the parameters of PIL are strictly formulated by the Supreme Court and strictly observed, PIL which is so necessary in India, is in danger of becoming diffuse, unprincipled, encroaching into the functions of other branches of government and ineffective by its indiscriminate use.
(The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and former Solicitor General of India. This article is an abridged version of a lecture he recently delivered at the sesquicentennial of the Bombay High Court.)
CHANDIGARH: The Haryana government will have to pay as much as Rs 64 lakh to two of country’s top legal eagles – Rohinton F Nariman and G E Vahanvati – for “conferences and just nine appearances” in the Supreme Court in a span of three weeks in an important case relating to defection of five Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) MLAs. The government, which has been billed up to a maximum of Rs 1.65 lakh for one appearance by the clerk of one of the top lawyers, has a battery of over 200 law officers, headed by an advocate
The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government in Haryana hired these top lawyers after it was faced with the prospect of being reduced to a minority in the assembly, following a Punjab and Haryana high court verdict in December last year, detaching the five MLAs from the assembly. The MLAs had joined Congress after defecting from HJC, led by Bhajan Lal’s son and Hisar MP Kuldeep Bishnoi. While Rohinton, son of eminent jurist Fali S Nariman, is the solicitor general of India, Vahanvati is the attorney general of India. The bill is likely to rise with other legal eagles, like former solicitor general Gopal Subramanium and senior advocates Rajiv Atma Ram and Mohan Jain, yet to send their details for appearing in the high court.
Information received through the RTI Act by TOI has revealed that the highest billed amount has touched Rs 7 lakh for a single appearance, while the highest amount to be paid to their clerks has touched Rs 1.65 lakh for one appearance along with the lawyers. The lawyers were hired to defend the Haryana Speaker.
Fee of SC advocate Rohinton F Nariman
February 22, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
February 23, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
February 28, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
February 29, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
March 13, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
March 14, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
March 15, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
March 18, 2012 | Rs 5.50 lakh
Service tax | Rs 4.53 lakh
Total | Rs 48.53 lakh
Fee of Nariman’s clerk Narayan Verma
February 23, 2012 | Rs 1.10 lakh
February 29, 2012 | Rs 1.10 lakh
March 15, 2012 | Rs 1.65 lakh
March 18, 2012 | Rs 55,000
Total | Rs 4.40 lakh
Fee of SC advocate G E Vahanvati
January 4, 2012 | Rs 10 lakh (for conference and appearance)
Total | 10 lakh
–– Fee for Vahanvati’s clerk
January 4, 2012 | Rs 1 lakh (for conference and appearance)
Gross total | Rs 64 lakh
Rather than using the Supreme Court’s judgment to improve governance and reduce discretionary powers, the government is making a desperate attempt to restore false prestige by seeking a review of 2G verdict. The United Progressive Alliance government’s petition seeking a review of the Supreme Court judgment cancelling 122 telecom licences makes another desperate bid to protect its discretionary powers in the allocation of scarce natural resources by arguing that auctions cannot be the only method for its allocation.
However, the government’s petition, apart from stubbornly repeating old arguments that have been shot down by the courts several times over, goes on to expose a flawed interpretation of the Supreme Court’s judicial reasoning.While the judgment addresses itself specifically to the massive commercial value attached to “scarce” natural resources, the review petition conveniently refuses to acknowledge either scarcity or commercial value while arguing that restricting the allocation of “natural resources” to auction methodology will lead to arbitrary consequences and hurt public interest. Unsurprisingly, the government is unable to explain how.
Despite the government’s opposition to auctions, its petition fails to explain why auctions were chosen for spectrum in 1995, 2001 and 2010 and, further, recommended by the TRAI in February 2011. Or how a first come, first served (FCFS) system can work in a situation where demand (in terms of equally placed candidates for the scarce resource) far exceeds supply, or even why the government feels obliged to refuse legitimate revenue from applicants who are willing to pay for spectrum based on their business case. In the 2G scam, scarce spectrum allocated cheap through a FCFS method was monetised through “private” auctions, ensuring gains for individual promoters rather than the people of India.
The petition steers clear of the fact that auctions can be designed for a specific outcome by imposing conditions such as price caps for voice calls and SMSs, or a lower rural tariff. For example, when auctioning toll roads to the highest bidder, the government ensures that pedestrians, cyclists and two-wheelers are allowed free passage. While finding fault with auctions, the government is at a loss to demonstrate what the fault is.
For the government to assume that the judgment bans any alternative methodology to auctions is naive. If the government attempts an auction at a certain reserve price, fails, re-auctions at a lower reserve price and fails again, it must use another methodology. However, the Sachidanand Pandey vs the State of West Bengal case cited by the government itself demands that these circumstances be compelling and documented. Ironically, the petition not just fails to document compelling reasons but ignores the fact that the judgment only relates to those natural resources which are scarce and deliver monetisable commercial value in private hands.
It is equally inexplicable why the government is openly uncaring of the fact that except for auctions, practically all other methodologies — and FCFS or beauty parades in particular — violate Article 14 of the Constitution. In addition, auctions support the policy provisions of the National Telecom Policy 1999 seeking transparent allocation of spectrum; the 10th Five Year Plan linking spectrum pricing to scarcity; the Prime Minister’s letter of November 2, 2007 seeking 2G auctions/market-based pricing; Finance Secretary D. Subbarao’s attempts to secure auctions/indexation-based pricing for 2G spectrum, and the Group of Ministers (GoM) decision to auction 3G spectrum in 2010.
Despite this, in a laughable attempt to argue against auctions for “scarce” natural resources, the petition quotes cases of award of contracts without auctions for resin tapping in Kashmir, saal (oil) seeds in Madhya Pradesh and “distilleries” (liquor), which hardly qualify as scarce natural resources.
The government is opposed to judicial scrutiny of “government policy.” Can it hope to establish a Minister’s illegal decision implemented without the Cabinet, the GoM or the full Telecom Commission’s approval after bypassing opposition from the Prime Minister, the Finance Secretary and the Law Minister as government policy?
The government’s own claim in its affidavits in the Supreme Court, multiple press releases, interviews and statements is that the former Telecom Minister, A. Raja’s decision was based on telecom regulator TRAI’s recommendations. Any decision of the government based on TRAI’s recommendations is open to full judicial scrutiny under Section 14 of the TRAI Act. So on what grounds can the government claim insulation from judicial scrutiny?
The Supreme Court judgment rightfully categorises auctions as a “methodology.” Decisions of the Cabinet to liberalise a sector, allow or increase foreign direct investment and invite private capital are matters of policy, but its implementation in terms of timing, procedure and terms and conditions are executive decisions. In the telecom sector, the latter falls strictly in the purview of the TRAI Act. The government’s decision-making in this respect is curtailed by law under Section 11(1)(a)(i) & (ii), read with the second, fourth and fifth provisos of the TRAI Act. In effect, all procedures like FCFS, beauty parades or auctions qualify for judicial review.
Even if one were to accept the government’s fragile claim that FCFS is a policy and not an executive decision, the petition still fails to demonstrate a single public announcement of this so-called policy since the formation of the Unified Access licence regime on October 31, 2003. It is missing in TRAI’s October 27, 2003 recommendations, the Cabinet decision of October 31, 2003, the licence guidelines and amendment of the National Telecom Policy 1999 on November 11, 2003 and even revised licence guidelines announced by the UPA government on December 14, 2005. The government is welcome to demonstrate otherwise. Had the FCFS “policy” not been kept a state secret, applicants would have queued up earlier than they did. The truth is that the FCFS process was deviously announced for the very first time by Mr. Raja at 1.47 p.m., less than two hours before executing the 2G scam on January 10, 2008.
Finally, even though rarely used, the powers of the Supreme Court in entering and adjudicating on the government’s implementation of policy are indisputable, especially when the implementation is secretive, arbitrary, illegal, malicious, discriminatory and violates multiple provisions of law (in this case the TRAI Act) and Article 14, 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution guaranteeing equal opportunity through transparent procedures for all citizens to access a resource/contract allocated by the government.
The government’s tiring correlation of FCFS with public interest in terms of affordability, growth, and teledensity is also unsubstantiated in its petition. How auctions hurt urban or rural teledensity or affordability is not explained. Was the UPA intending to hurt public interest by holding auctions for 3G in 2010? Can it explain how Vodafone continuously cut back tariffs after paying $12 billion to buy out Hutch’s stake in Hutch Essar in 2007? Why does higher revenue for the exchequer, which translates into roads, schools, hospitals and welfare schemes for the poorest of the poor, not count as public interest?
One would expect the government to be peeved about the reality of Mr. Raja’s FCFS performance, which led to windfall gains for new operators who pocketed 30 per cent of scarce spectrum to serve less than 5 per cent of India’s subscriber base. The failure of these firms to roll out telecom networks has forced the government to initiate steps to terminate their licences. Despite this, the government continues to argue that bringing in these companies served public interest, teledensity and affordability.
How does the government hope to justify its obsessive compulsion in ensuring a level-playing field with incumbent operators for seven illegally picked new entrants while totally ignoring the fact that 343 similarly placed applications were denied a fair chance of accessing 2G spectrum? Ludicrously, the government is arguing its right to discriminate in the application of the level-playing field itself.
Unfortunately, the review petition has no substantial counter to offer the Supreme Court on these critical issues despite access to the finest legal brains in the country and within the Cabinet. The Attorney General and other legal luminaries have already argued all these issues and still failed to impress the court.
One would have hoped the government would be mindful, even grateful, for the Supreme Court’s restraint in avoiding any adverse observations in its judgment on issues of collective Cabinet responsibility, the Prime Minister’s failure to check a Minister, or the Finance Ministry’s inability to invoke its powers under the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules to stop a Minister from grievously hurting the exchequer and, by consequence, the common man. Instead of implementing the judgment and restoring its lost dignity, the government is provoking the court, increasing uncertainty and wasting time with its attempt at a review. Perhaps, like the election verdict, it is time for the UPA to accept defeat in the 2G matter, gracefully or otherwise.