And Justice For All

By Tavleen Singh in India Today, October 21, 2000

If cases are decided in weeks instead of decades, few people will dare to be corrupt

It could be because the Gods look more benignly upon India at Dussehra when we celebrate – as we have for thousands of years - the victory of good over evil. Or it could just be a coincidence that we have seen a former prime minister and a former demi goddess chief minister convicted of corruption in this season of propitiating the gods. P.V. Narasimha Rao for buying the votes of MPs and Jayalalitha for selling herself Tamil Nadu government land at much less than it was worth. Despite the convictions it’s hard to see Jayalalitha doing hard labour for the next three years, as part of her sentence, or Rao spending his remaining years in some gloomy cell. Something will surely save them from punishment but the convictions bring a tiny measure of desperately needed hope in a judicial system so inefficient that most Indians have lost faith in it.

Much needs to be done if that faith is to be restored and it is in the hands of the judiciary and the Law Ministry to do it. Yet, whenever the question of reforming our decrepit judicial system comes up we find all the main players take up defensive positions. From the judiciary we hear that the reason why it will take us more than 300 years to clear the backlog of cases in our courts is because we have too few courts too few judges, too deficient a system. In addition, from the Law Ministry we hear that simplifying laws will take a very long time since there are 2,500 Central government laws to be examined and when we get to state laws, we are talking of nearly 30,000. So law ministers have come and gone and nothing has been done despite experts having made any number of excellent suggestions like the calling of a special session of Parliament on litigation. This particular suggestion came from Bibek Debroy who has spent so much time studying the flaws in our legal system that it compelled him to write a book called ‘In the Dock: Absurdities of Indian Law’. Will Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley please read it?

Unless we can get the justice system to start working at least as efficiently as it did in the Rao and Jayalalitha cases we can be sure that corruption will continue to flourish and grow. Evil will continue to triumph over good and we only have to glance around us to see that it already does.

Remember the fire in Delhi’s Uphaar cinema three years ago? Remember that 59 innocent people lost their lives because the cinema’s management was criminally negligent? The men responsible should have already been in jail but they are out and about and will be for a long time because the process of putting the evidence together in the case has not yet been completed. Remember those bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993 that killed more than 200 people? Well, it is pretty much the same story with that case so it requires little imagination to know that in a country where it takes an average of 20 years to bring murderers to justice corrupt officials and politicians can go about their business in peace. And, they do.

It is because of corrupt officials and politicians that our most sacred rivers have become sewers. Crores of rupees have been washed down the Ganga because the action plan to clean it leaked like a sieve. Instead of trying to plug the holes the government announced an action plan to clean the Yamuna and we can be sure that this will go the same way. Corrupt officials are the reason why we may soon have no forests left in India and, if what happened to that poor tigress in the Andhra zoo is an indication; we may soon have poachers hunting animals in our zoos. It is also the reason why we spend thousands of crores of rupees on roads that disappear annually with the first monsoon showers and why we provide other public facilities so substandard that we would do better to stop wasting our money.

Our only hope lies in making the justice system work, as it should. As an ordinary citizen may I make a few simple suggestions? Judges should be given deadlines so that day-to-day hearings become necessary. Television cameras should be allowed in the courtroom so that we know exactly who to blame for delays. A special Doordarshan channel should be dedicated to this purpose. Lawyers who cause needless delays should be debarred. Pre-trial hearings should eliminate flippant cases like the one filed - and admitted in a Delhi court - by a man who claimed to be Priyanka Gandhi’s husband. Finally, government departments - responsible for nearly 70 per cent of our civil cases - should be banned from going to court unless necessary. By taking only these small steps we could have a justice system that could make all the difference.