It is reassuring to see that when politicians have forsaken the people, the courts in India, including the Supreme Court, have taken up the cudgels.
When the executive and legislature act in concert against the citizens they are meant to serve, or when they conspire to deny justice to the aam aadmi, the judiciary will stand up and speak for them — this is the intrinsic belief every person has in India’s judicial system. In other words, civil servants can fail, elected governments can fail but the courts in this country will never let the people down — and that’s exactly what was seen on November 25 when the Supreme Court pulled up the Centre and state governments for failing to value the lives of citizens.
The apex court’s two-member bench of Justice Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta was referring to the alarming levels of air and water pollution in various cities and the ongoing blame game between state governments, and between the Centre and states. To Tushar Mehta, the Centre’s solicitor general, Mishra said: “Why are people being forced to live in gas chambers? It is better to kill them all in one go, get explosives in 15 bags at one go. Why should people suffer all this?”. The ‘gas chamber’ reference might appear to be a hyperbole — even politically incorrect — but, if you were in Delhi or any of the north Indian cities in the days and weeks after Diwali (October 27), you’d agree that there is no better way to summarise the air emergency these places faced, and are still facing.
The court has asked all states and union territories to submit a report within six weeks on what measures are taken to tackle waste disposal, air pollution and water pollution — but I’m not holding my breath. This pessimism is because governments have not given due importance to court orders in the past — some have been ignored, while some have been defied.
In 2015 the Karnataka assembly passed a resolution which in effect went against the SC’s decision on the release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. A year before this, in 2014, the Tamil Nadu government conveniently ignored the SC ban on holding the bull-taming event Jallikattu. The way the Kerala government is enforcing the apex court order on the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple also leaves a lot to be desired. The point is, courts have the power to pass an order, but do not have absolute power to enforce it — and there lies the sting.
However, because we are eternally optimistic about life and dream about a better India, there’s also scope to look at the positive aspect in the court’s comment. That it must focus on an issue such as pollution, which no doubt is important, shows that at least some sections of society have now reached a socio-economic status where their primary concerns are beyond the quintessential ‘roti, kapada aur makaan’. Having achieved it, their concerns are focused on issues such as education, health and general wellness, and the courts are taking suo motu cognisance of these issues.
It’s a positive sign that such issues now get to be discussed at the national level. At another level, because it is an inconvenient truth, it is yet to become a political issue for the legislature to address in an honest manner.
Be that as it may, the governments are far from addressing these concerns. On November 21, replying to a query during question hour in Lok Sabha, Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said that the government was not considering making safe water a fundamental right — though, under the Jal Jeevan Mission it had allocated Rs 3.5 lakh-crore to provide piped water to every rural household by 2024. As for air quality, the November 15 parliamentary panel meeting to discuss air pollution had to be cancelled after 25 of the 29 MPs in the panel chose to skip the meet — jalebis were the flavour of the day!
All put, it is reassuring to see that when politicians have forsaken the people, the courts in India, including the Supreme Court, have taken up the cudgels. Perhaps it’s time we all echoed the question asked by the Supreme Court: “….What is the point of all this development? What is the point of being a world power?” There was more than rhetoric to the court's observations — India has consistently ranked below much poorer countries on human development parameters.
Why should India rank below Bangladesh on life expectancy or in child mortality, despite being far richer than its neighbour? Why, in spite of our tom-tomming that we are the fastest-growing large economy on the planet, are our nutrition levels so low that we rank 102 among 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index? True development, after all, is about making life better for the masses.
All is not lost, however. In March 2017 the Kerala government declared access to the Internet a basic human right. This September the Kerala High Court went a step further and declared ‘Right to Internet Access’ a fundamental right. Such a development, which can be compared to the standards set by Nordic countries, takes place in an India where about 22 per cent of its citizens live on below $1.25 per day!For more Opinion pieces, click here.LIVE NOW... Video series on How to Double Your Monthly Income... where Rahul Shah, Ex-Swiss Investment Banker and one of India's leading experts on wealth building, reveals his secret strategies for the first time ever. Register here to watch it for FREE.