Saturday, September 27, 2014

Talveen Singh: SC order on cancellation Coal Block Licenses en-bloc.

Tavleen Singh

Fifth column: With due respect


Every time I write about the justice system, I do so nervously because the only time this column has ever been stopped in 30 years was when I, unbeknownst to me, crossed a line. I am especially nervous this time as this piece is being written on a British Airways flight from London to New York where I hope to write a longer piece on the Prime Minister’s visit. So if I cross a line again, there is little chance or time for rectification because of the time difference. And, jet lag! But I have, for some time, been disturbed at the manner in which our honourable judges interfere in politics and governance. And the number of times they fail to clean up their own house.
There are many examples of this, but I am going to concentrate on two or three big ones because they have had direct consequences on the economy. The most recent of these was when the Supreme Court announced last week that all licences given to private companies to mine coal would be cancelled, with the order going back 20 years. Would it not have been better, honourable judges, to simply cancel licences that had been misused? Speaking of which, although generosity has been shown to four public sector companies, why has it not been taken into account that nobody has misused our natural resources more than government companies have?
Could the honourable judges not have paid attention to the inextinguishable fires that burn underground — the best coal in the world —in the coalfields of Jharia? These fires burn because public sector companies do not have access to the technology that could put them out underground. It is because of the criminal ineffectiveness of the public sector that privatisation became necessary in the first place.
If this were not true, then there would have been some noise at least when the Supreme Court some years ago banned the mining of iron ore in Karnataka on environmental grounds. The then Chief Justice declared that he was more concerned about damage to the environment than he was for the private companies who were ‘raping’ the land. What he did not appear to have noticed was that, with one blow of his hammer, he ended the employment of more than 1 lakh people who survive by finding work in the mining industry. These are the people who really suffered, while illegal mining continued to thrive with even bigger profits.
The cancellation of all 122 licences given to mobile phone companies on account of the 2G scam is another example of when, in my humble opinion, the Supreme Court interfered wrongly in policy and politics. This did enormous damage to a thriving industry. But all this meddling in politics and governance would have been welcome if, at the same time, we had seen some improvement in the justice system. This has not happened.
Important cases continue to take decades to be resolved. The backlog in our lower courts delays justice to the point that it becomes injustice. Our courthouses continue to be so shambolic that the ‘majesty of justice’ seems like a satirical comment when used in their context and functioning. One of the grandest courthouses in the world is the Esplanade court in Mumbai, but when you enter, you dodge stray dogs, cats and sundry other animals, and you walk through corridors that reek of rotting garbage. Inside the court there is even less ‘majesty’ on display because in every corner lie dusty files and broken furniture. So when a court official ordered me once to ‘uncross my legs’ as this offended the ‘majesty’ of the court, I thought he must be joking.
We now have a Prime Minister who notices the squalor of Indian public buildings and notices that there is no reason for them not to be clean. And yet, in our courts, nothing changes. In the words of a celebrated lawyer, “You should come one day to the Supreme Court and see the condition of the toilets that we are expected to use. And then go and take a look at the canteen and the kitchens.” I write this piece, dear judges, with the humble hope that your own house will be urgently put in order. (IE- September 28, 2014)

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