By Prashant Bhushan
07 December, 2006, Countercurrents.org
At a time when the dominant class in India is obsessed with power and when India appears to be at the threshold of becoming an “economic and military superpower”, it is interesting that Tehelka has organized this seminar called, “The summit of the powerless”. Though one hardly sees any powerless people here, or even many who represent them, it is still important that a meeting on this theme has been organized by Tehelka.
It is this obsession with power which is the driving force behind the vision of India of the ruling elite of this country. That is why we see the frequent “power summits” being organized by major media organizations which are dominated by talk of India as an “emerging superpower”, with a booming sensex and a GDP growth poised to reach 8, 9 and even 10%. And it is this power crazed libido of the elite which have made them the cheerleaders of the government which is straining to become the Asian right hand of the United States. This single minded pursuit of a strategic relationship with the US has made us lose our moral bearings as we vote against our old friends like Iran and keep quiet on unimaginable atrocities being committed by the US in Iraq and by Israel in Palestine.
What kind of society is this “power driven” vision of India producing. While the elite celebrate the booming sensex, the consumer boom among the middle classes which the spectacular GDP growth appear to be giving them, the poor are pushed to greater and greater destitution, as the agricultural economy collapses and they are sought to be deprived of whatever little they have in terms of land and other natural resources. After all, when agriculture is not contributing to the GDP growth, why not take away the land, water and other resources from agriculture and give them to the sectors which are leading the growth-the SEZs and the IT industry for example. That (and the opportunity for a real estate killing) explains the stampede for setting up SEZs and IT parks, which will be high growth privileged enclaves, helped no doubt by the cheap compulsory acquisition of land, the absence of taxes, labour and environmental laws. They are envisioned almost as private and self governing States with their own police and courts. It makes no difference to those who hope to occupy these enclaves that India is almost at the bottom of the heap in terms of the Human Development Index, in terms of the percentage of people in the country who have access to housing, food, water, sanitation, education and healthcare.
So as the rural economy is destroyed (partly by agricultural imports) and the poor are deprived of their land, their forests, their water and indeed all their resources, to make way for mining leases, dams, SEZs and IT parks, all of which augur faster GDP growth, the poor get pushed to suicide or to urban slums. Here they struggle for existence in subhuman conditions with no sanitation, water, electricity, and always at the mercy of the weather, corrupt policemen and municipal officials. These slums often exist side by side with luxurious enclaves of the ultra rich who pass by them with barely a scornful glance and regard them as a nuisance who should be put away beyond their gaze. And if the government cannot accomplish that, there are always the courts to lend a helping hand. In the past two years about 2 lakh slum dwellers from the Yamuna Pushta and other Jhuggi colonies of Delhi have been removed on the orders of the court and thrown to the streets or dumped in the boondocks of Bawana (40 Kms from Delhi) and without any sanitation, water, electricity or even drainage. It would be surprising if many of them do not become criminals or join the ranks of naxalites who have come to control greater and greater parts of the country.
What kind of society are we creating? A society which is not only deeply divided in economic classes with a vast chasm dividing them, but also one where the preoccupations of the dominant classes are becoming increasingly crassly materialistic, narcissistic and base. If one were to examine the content of the mainstream electronic media-even news channels, particularly private channels which are the main source of information and entertainment for the middle class elite, one would find that it is characterized by an increasingly vacuous intellectual content and pandering more and more to the baser instincts of sex, violence and a morbid fascination for gossip particularly about the private lives of Bollywood stars. Stories about real people and serious public interest issues have been reduced to mere sound bytes of a few seconds. The interest of the middle classes in and their attention span for serious issues of public interest have been reduced to a vanishing point, as the culture of consumerism and self indulgence has taken over contemporary society. Even as scientific evidence piles up about how the world is headed towards environmental catastrophe due to global warming, not many among our well to do elite have even bothered to understand the issue, let alone bother about tackling the problem. They are oblivious of and unconcerned about the disaster which will certainly affect their children if not themselves during their lifetimes.
A sickness afflicts the soul of the dominant elite of India today. It is a sickness which has led to a total loss of vision and has made us lose our moral bearings. It is this sickness which is allowing us to celebrate our great GDP growth and our emerging superpower status when the majority of our countrymen sink to deeper and deeper depths of destitution and despair. It is this sickness which allows us to rejoice in our becoming the main sidekick of the global bully, while we shut our eyes to the enormous injustice being done to the oppressed people of Iraq, Palestine and other countries at the receiving end of the bully’s muscle. It is this sickness which has produced the vision of the State as the facilitator of this rapaciously exploitative model of development. A vision where the State’s role is seen as an institution which tries to facilitate the maximization of GDP growth. Which naturally requires the State to withdraw from its welfare obligations and facilitate a privatized society run on laissez faire economics. After all, private enterprise, run on the profit motive is the best bet for maximizing GDP growth. It is this model which snatches land from the farmer for the SEZs, the IT parks and the mines. That vision is producing a society which is intoxicated with a kind of development and feeling of “power” which are sowing the seeds of its own destruction in not too far a future. We have become a society of many Neros who are fiddling while the country is on fire.
It is not surprising then that the “powerless” regard the State as predator rather than protector. Even more unfortunately, the recent role of the judiciary which was mandated by the constitution to protect the rights of the people is making it appear as if it has become the cutting edge of a predator State.
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 wo
rds, 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 suic
ides, but some are taking to violence. That explains the growing cadres of the Maoists who now control many districts and even States like Chhatisgarh. The government and the ruling establishment thinks that they can deal with this menace by stongarm military methods. That explains why the government relies more and more on the advice of former cops like Gill and Narayanan and why there is talk of using the Army and Air Force against the Maoists. Tribals in Chhattisgarh are being forced to join a mercenary army funded by the State by the name of Salva Judum to fight the Maoists. But all this will breed more Maoists. No insurrection bred out of desperation can be quelled by strongarm tactics. The very tactics breed more misery and desperation and will push more people to the Maoists.
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 in 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.
Prashant Bhushan is a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court of India. This is the full text of a speech delivered at Tehelka's summit of the powerless.