Thursday, May 28, 2009
Justice slow - Supreme Court has 50,000 plus pending cases
There is a universal phrase that 'justice delayed is justice denied'. But the fact remains that in India, the pace of the judicial system is extremely slow; typical cases can take more than a decade to move through the judicial system and this is just for the first judgment. With the appeal system allowing many cases to approach the Supreme Court, the multi-layered appeal courts can mean cases can go beyond the lifetime of many of the litigants of cases.
There are numerous cases (and many of them highly significant) where the process of the cases show the slow speed - the case involving the corruption of Sukh Ram, the Mumbai Bomb blasts case (of 1993), the case involving the person who was blown up by a grenade in a love triangle case, the Jessica Lal case, and numerous other cases. Even in cases where a quick judgment is need, such as when the case involves actions by speakers or governors in constitutional cases, the judgments have come long after the need for the case has evaporated, setting a precedent, but not helping the particular case.
An example that shows starkly the increasing load on the judiciary is the number of cases piled up at the Supreme Court (link to article):
In a blow to the concept of "speedy justice", the Supreme Court has for the first time in a decade run up a backlog of more than 50,000 cases. The unholy mark was crossed by the end of March 2009 when the number of pending cases stood at 50,163. The pendency has steadily crept northwards since 2006, when it stood at 34,649. In January 2007, it had become 39,780 with the pendency jumping up by more than 5,000 cases. Justice K G Balakrishnan took over as the Chief Justice of India at this time and tried to put in place mechanisms to arrest the trend of spiralling pendency.
A similar trend was seen at the level of high courts and trial courts. The 21 high courts, working with a strength of 635 judges as against a sanctioned strength of 886, reported a pendency of 38.7 lakh cases as of January 1, 2009, against 37.4 lakh cases on January 1, 2008. Trial courts, having a judge strength of 13,556 against a sanctioned strength of 16,685, were burdened with an additional pendency of nearly 10 lakh cases by January 2009, when the pendency figure was 2.64 crore. It stood at 2.54 crore cases in January 2008.
This huge backlog of cases has lead to a situation where people get locked up for long times, where a person would spend only a bit of time in jail after sentencing (since they have been in jail for long periods as an undertrial), people prefer to settle cases their own way rather than depending on a judgment, make compromises rather than spend the 10 years or more, and so on.
There are no easy solutions, with a backlog of vacancies only increasing the problem. We applaud when there are special fast track courts, or when somebody sets up evening courts, but those are just patches, not a solution.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Drinking and driving: how to check the problem
Drinking and driving is a universal problem, with different countries having different ways of checking / controlling this habit. A sizable percentage of accidents are known to happen after drinking and driving, and countries have different levels of enforcement about this habit. So, for example, if you take the case of countries such as Singapore or the US, drinking and driving is not cool. You can get into severe problems if detected. It is not unknown to have to spend a night in the slammer and have points deducted from the driving license if caught drinking and driving.
The same rules apply in India, and in the recent past, the Mumbai Police has been enforcing some of these rules to a stronger degree; they have actually got magistrates to jail some of the offenders and got licenses suspended for a period of time. However, this is just Mumbai. Other parts of the country have very little policing of drunk driving (or other road related laws), and there does not seem to be much effort ongoing in that direction either. In a lot of cases, people go outside to bars or restaurants to drink, and then drive home from there even if they have had too much to drink. There is very little custom of arranging for a non-drinking person to drive one home, or to take a taxi to go home.
Now, a High Court has jumped into the gap and made suggestions regarding setting up of safe drinking and driving options (link to article):
The Delhi High Court wants strict checking of drunk customers heading home, just outside the bar/pubs in the capital, in order to prevent instances of drunken driving, leading to mishaps. After going through a report by excise department and traffic police that said almost 90% of customers frequenting bars drive home themselves, Justice J R Midha on Monday asked the Delhi Police to get cracking on drunk drivers.
"When your own report gives such a figure, it is the duty of police to enforce checks and it is in larger public interest to introduce a condition in pubs/bars serving alcohol shall have replacement drivers and shall serve liquor to a customer (self driven) only after the guest pays to book a replacement driver,'' it observed, asking the police to get cracking. On its part the police protested, arguing that both the concepts replacement drivers and checking at pubs could not be implemented instantly as these are policy decisions. Appearing for the police, counsel Mukta Gupta said, "Unless backed by a judicial order, cops can't be posted at each and every pub or bar. We are prosecuting drunk drivers and the accident rate has therefore come down."
Drunk driving cannot be cured only through enforcement (although enforcement would play a big part); the way to move ahead is to accept that people will go out and drink. A campaign that encourages the safety measures along with providing alternatives such as taxis and safe drivers would go a long way in ensuring that the deaths and injuries due to drunk driving reduce.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Use SMS to file complaints in the Pimpri-Chinchwad area
Municipal authorities have always been accused of being slow to adapt to modern technology, but now it seems that they are catching up to modern technology and adoption of the same so that their consumers find it easier to file complaints and interact with the municipal authorities. Consider this case of the municipal corporation of Pimpri-Chinchwad that has launched a SMS complaint service on a trial basis and started receiving complaints on this service (link to article):
Residents of Pimpri-Chinchwad can now register a complaint against civic problems by simply sending an SMS. The Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) launched the SMS complaint service on a trial basis on March 20. Since then, around 70 grievenaces have been received, of which only seven are pending.
The civic authorities will classify the compliants as either simple or complex. "Simple complaints would be those which can be solved in a few days, like potholes, choked drainages, and so on. The complex ones are those that require a longer time for redressal," Sharma stated. The SMSes can be sent to the mobile phone number 9922501450. Citizens should include their name and address in their text message. Grievances can also be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is good to see that the municipal authorities are taking action that is helpful to citizens, and one hopes that other municipal corporations also adopt such practices, and that the Pimpri-Chinchwad continues down this path.
Congress the grand victor of the 2009 Indian elections
So, the bitterly contested election results of the Indian Lok Sabha (Parliamentary elections) are out, and it is the incumbent party, the Congress Party that is the decisive winner. During the course of the campaign and even during the month long multi-stage voting process, it seemed that there was a tight fight between the Congress and the BJP led camps. It was also projected that there would be an incredible fight for support from the smaller parties all over the country. This prospect saw these parties salivating over the prospect, and over the demands they would make from the major parties for this support.
So there was a constant tussle about whether existing partners are viable or not, and some parties made gambles. The Biju Janta Dal gambled that it would come back to power without the support of the BJP, the Congress gambled that it would need to build long-term in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (and in Bihar, it did not have much of a choice, since Lalu gave the party only 3 seats). The Congress gambled about going with the DMK even though Jayalalitha seemed to be the one riding the victory wagon. However, as the election result day came closer, nervousness gripped the Congress and it talked about changing partners, soliciting the support of the Left, looking to Nitish and Jayalalitha for support, and even trying to get closer to the Samajwadi Party.
The exit polls that started getting published once the stay on them was removed after the 13th (the last phase of election) were again off the mark, since they all projected that the Congress will have a narrow lead over the BJP and would need support from many parties. The BJP of course refused to believe such polls and stood fast in projecting that they will be the victors.
And then came the election results - and they were shocking to everyone. The Congress led poll, the UPA, is almost at the point of having half the seats, while the BJP led alliance, the NDA, is way behind. The Congress gained seats all over the country, with the party looking to reach 200 seats on its own (its best result since it started declining in the 1989 polls); it trounced the BJP in many states that the BJP should count as core constituencies such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttranchal, and made gains even in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Gujrat. The Congress made real good in states such as Andhra Pradesh, with the partners, the DMK, in Tamil Nadu.
However, the major surprises in this election happened in multiple states; in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress needs to get back its core constituency and it seems that the gamble it took seems to have paid off (it has got 20 seats on its own), in Maharashtra, the MNS seems to have bitten into the seats of the Shiv Sena and the BJP and led the Congress to victory. The biggest surprise has been the Left strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal. Kerala frequently changes between the Congress and the Communist, and in this election, the fight between the different factions of the Communist party propelled the Congress to victory. The biggest surprise seems to have been in West Bengal where the Congress combination with Mamta Banerjee blew away the Communist party in the state where the Communists have held sway since 1977.
What are some of the conclusions from this election:
- Manmohan Singh re-emerges as the Congress Prime Minister with a much stronger support and with less interference from supporting parties
- The BJP leader LK Advani will slowly fade away - he is already 81 years old and unlikely to be the leader in the next election
- Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are the unquestioned leaders of the country now - even people such as me who do not believe in dynastic based leadership have to acknowledge that they have led their party to a genuine victory
- Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik are new emblems of victory, with strong shows of performance and low individual corruption levels
- The Left, having been used to a much stronger influence in the last Parliament will be a pale self with questions about the leadership becoming much stronger
- Mayawati has faced a severe setback in her quest for national leadership; the same goes for former influential leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav (who suffered after inducting Kalyan Singh), Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan
- Economic policies and world related policies should remain the same and in fact become more clear and without the holding back due to the Left
Friday, May 15, 2009
HDFC Bank fined for 'extra charges'
Normally, dealing with banks is a hot and cold affair. When you have dealings with ATM's and with over the counter in branches, things are fine normally fine. But when there is something that is out of the ordinary, that is when people have more complaints. This could be when there are some delays in credit card payments, or a person is on the edge when qualifying for a loan, or when there is some problem in making the loan repayments. In such cases, it is hard for bank customers to understand all the charges that a bank levies as penalties or extra charges, and this could lead to banks sometimes levying charges that are more than normal.
Consider the following example when a person had bought a motorcycle on loan from HDFC Bank, and was unable to pay some of the installments on time; he was unable to understand some of the charges levied by the bank and filed a case in the consumer forum against these charges (link to article):
Sending a clear message against unfair trade practices, UT consumer forum directed HDFC Bank to pay Rs 25,000 as compensation and Rs 5,000 as litigation cost to Panchkula-resident Sohan Lal. The bank was also asked to issue a no-dues certificate (NDC) and overhaul its client’s account. Consumer forum’s decision came in the wake of allegations laid by Lal stating that the bank had asked him to pay exorbitant bouncing charges.
Holding that the bank adopted an unfair trade practice of charging exorbitant bouncing fees, the forum held, “The bank did not place any document to suggest if it was entitled to charge Rs 400 as bouncing charges.” The forum stated it was not clear that under what provision of law or agreement the bank was fleecing the complainant. “It is very unfortunate that banks are fleecing those who take petty loans for their basic needs,” it stated.
The problem described in this article is something that a number of people have faced when dealing with banks; some fight it out with complaints and a determined quest to ensure that they are not cheated, others don't fight it out and accept whatever the bank ordains for them - in either case, it is still incumbent on consumers to not take any extra charges lying down.
Supreme Court awards Rs. 1 crore damages for medical negligence
Medical negligence is something that is penalized the world over. When a patient goes in for a medical procedure, the person is entrusting their lives to the doctor (s) attending on them. It used to be said earlier that a Doctor is a very respected person, and that it would be unfair to penalize a doctor for some problem that occurs during a medical procedure; this is now countered by the argument that modern hospitals and the medical industry charges market rates for their procedures, and hence are not doing any favors to patients. Further, how do you compensate a patient for a case when the hospital has goofed up or indulged in medical malpractise ? Consider this case where a bright IT person was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after a medical procedure (link to article):
In the highest compensation ordered by an Indian court in a medical negligence case, a techie who found himself paralyzed waist down after a surgeon damaged his spinal chord during an operation to remove a tumour in the chest, was awarded Rs 1 crore in damages by the Supreme Court on Thursday. The victim, Prashant S Dhananka, 39, who spiritedly argued his case from a wheelchair he has been confined to since the operation 19 years ago, had sought a compensation of Rs 7 crore.
Dhananka, a senior manager with Infosys earning Rs 1.5 lakh a month and residing in Bangalore, gave vivid details of the gross negligence he suffered at Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS), Hyderabad, and demonstrated the inadequacy of the compensation awarded by the high court. NIMS, a semi-government set up, is rated as one of the premier hospitals in the country. While increasing the compensation to Rs 1 crore, the bench comprising Justices B N Agrawal, H S Bedi and G S Singhvi showed both its disgust at blatant attempts by NIMS to wriggle out of its responsibility for the victim's condition and acknowledged the need to provide for the huge medical expenses that Dhananka has had to incur every month since 1990.
It was only some years ago that the Supreme Court had almost refused to penalize the medical fraternity for mistakes made; even now the Court expresses worry at the increasing tendency of bringing medical cases into the legal system, yet there is a necessity to do this, as the Court itself acknowledges - when the institution makes blatant mistakes and then tries to cover up, there is no other option than to order the required punishment.
RTI: Rules for NRI applicants
The RTI Act has had a major effect on the availability of information, it turned around the concept that information was something that would not be easily available and could be used by the bureaucracy as a way of wielding power. Under the RTI Act, any citizen could ask for information, and they would need to be provided this information (except for a exclusions dealing with security, commercial secrets, and some privacy issues - of course, there is an ongoing dispute where both the President and the courts believe that RTI is not something that applies to their actions and are still pushing back). The process was as simple as filling a form, depositing a fee of Rs. 10, and filing this with the required department.
However, as with any Act, there are ways to make the process more complicated, and this is especially true in the case of Indian citizens living abroad. The actual process of payment of the Rs. 10 fee was always a big problem, with no clear definition of whom to make the actual payment to. So, even though the process was such that one could file the fee in the local currency, there were different rules for different states - as an example, in Uttar Pradesh, the process was to apply and paste treasury stamp for getting copy of State Information Commission's order. Now the nodal agency for RTI, the Central Information Commission has proposed modifying the rules to make it easier for NRI's to use the RTI Act (link to article):
In order to ease RTI application process from abroad, the Central Information Commission has framed new rules enabling NRIs to pay application fees and information costs at the Indian embassies and missions abroad. NRIs will also be able to avail audio-video conference facilities in case of first and second appeals. There will be an easy-to-follow procedure for paying fee against the information in Indian Embassies and audio-video conferencing facility in case of first and second appeals," Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said.
As per the new procedure envisaged, Habibullah said "Embassies may accept only the fee and information cost and provide e-receipts to applicants who can then directly file their RTIs to public authorities in India by email along with proof of payment."
The CIC said, "I will soon meet concerned officials at the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Personnel and Training other stake holders for this."
If these rules are properly implemented, it will make it much easier for NRI's to be able to use the RTI Act without too much effort; currently the effort involved, especially when dealing with local state governments and courts in non-metros makes it much more difficult to properly utilize the power provided by the RTI Act.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Climate change and impact on coral reefs and fishing
Climate change, and the efforts needed to counter it, are among some of the hottest topics in the last 1-2 decades; it is also easy to see that the effort to discuss the needs for combating climate change is more than actual work being done to reduce emissions (climate change needs quick action and some aggressive goals of reducing emissions, and they are nowhere near happening). Nations get into political arguments when discussions start; the main major polluter (the United States) refuses to take action because of the feared effect on its economy, Europe looks to somebody for taking the lead on this, and the fast developing nations such as China, India, Brazil, etc who are still current low contributors but will have a much higher impact on emissions going forward want to get funding from the rich before taking action.
And in the middle of all this, the world keeps getting hotter, and the changes that are being made due to the global warming phenomenon keeps on working to its own cycle. Global warming is supposed to affect poor nations much more than it will affect the richer nations (and it will affect nations that are more sea based much more than nations that are bigger land masses) since some of the changes being caused due to global warming are higher sea levels and changes in weather patterns that affect crop cycles. Another way in which global warming directly affects the world food economy is due to the impact on fishing, and a study points out that the rich fishing waters near Southeast Asia will get severely impacted (link to article):
Experts have warned that the richly diverse coral reefs of the Coral Triangle around southeast Asia will disappear by the end of the century if action is not taken against climate change. As well as the loss of one of the world's most diverse underwater ecosystems, the knock on effect would be the collapse of coastal economies that supports around 100 million people, according to the WWF- commissioned study outlined at the World Ocean Conference this week.
The Coral Triangle includes 30 percent of the world's reefs, 76 percent of global reef building coral species and more than 35 percent of coral reef fish. "In this world, people see the biological treasures of the Coral Triangle destroyed over the course of the century by rapid increases in ocean temperature, acidity and sea level, while the resilience of coastal environments also deteriorates under faltering coastal management. Poverty increases, food security plummets, economies suffer, and coastal people migrate increasingly to urban areas."
The report concludes that unless we take action to rollback some of the effects of global warming, the direct impact on fishing will cause huge problems to the global fishing economy and impact people who are dependent on fishing as both livelihood and for their food needs, and yet, if one evaluates where we are with trying to roll back emission levels, it is still talk and no action. The Obama administration, for all its talk about making changes in the Bush administration policy of action on global warming, has not taken any concrete action.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Varun Gandhi and the National Security Act
The case of Varun Gandhi and his detention by the Mayawati Government is reaching a critical point. As a lot of people may be aware, Varun Gandhi, in a speech made some time back, sought to inflame people by speaking against the Muslim community. It is difficult to justify what he is stated to have said, since his speech was supposed to have been very provocative (and I am sure that people will point out that other people have made equally provocative or more provocative speeches and got off lightly, but that is a separate matter). He was condemned by wide sections of the press and political parties, and the Election Commission took note of what he had said (but did not have powers to do much about a speech).
However, what happened next was the troubling part. An FIR was lodged against him, and he was taken in custody. Next, the Mayawati Government stated that it would lodge a case under the National Security Act (meant to be used against terrorists or habitual dangerous criminals) against Varun. And soon enough, the UP Government filed a case against him, using the violence that happened when Varun was being lodged in the jail after surrender.
The NSA is an Act with strict provisions, such as "Under the provisions of the NSA, a person cannot get bail atleast for six months"; if this had happened, Varun would have had to remain in jail till elections are over. However, there is a right to appeal in the Supreme Court, and also the state advisory panel takes a decision on the persons against whom the NSA has been filed. In both cases, the Mayawati Government has not been able to justify the harsh measure used for what is basically a 'hate speech' (not to reduce the significance of what Varun had said, but there are criminals and terrorists against whom the NSA has not been applied). Here is an excerpt of what the state advisory panel stated:
The Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh did not apply its mind and violated cannons of natural justice in invoking National Security Act on BJP leader Varun Gandhi raising a question of bias, says the state advisory board which struck down the NSA against him. The Board said "there was non-application of mind and breach of rules of natural justice" by the authorities which raises a question of "bias" and "legal malafides" for invoking NSA against the 29-year-old BJP leader who was not supplied with the copy of the order and material, including the CD of the alleged hate speeches which were the basis for taking stringent action.
The board further points out that the District Magistrate, the competent authority to pass the NSA order, based these orders on 2 FIR's that were not filed by anybody else but the DM (to re-state, the DM filed 2 FIR's, and then used these 2 FIR's to show as evidence to pass the NSA orders).
Most people have no doubt that the reason that the DM passed the NSA order was so that the Mayawati Government, in order to shore up its secular credentials, could show that it was aggressive in protecting the interests of minorities. While I cannot condone the speech by Varun, it is equally hard to agree when somebody twists laws and justice for furthering their own agenda and scoring political points.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Congress and its alliance partners
National parties have always had problems with the concept of partners in different states, since the concept of having a partner who is strong in a state is that the national party has to play second fiddle in the specific state. The BJP faces this to some extent in Punjab (where the Akali Dal believes that it is the stronger party), in Bihar (where the JD(U) is the stronger party), in Maharashtra (where the playing second fiddle to the Shiv Sena is something that the party does not really like), in Orissa (where the senior member, Naveen Patnaik's BJD moved away suddenly); however, the BJP has less scope for such problems in the southern states where it needs to expand since it does not have much of a base in Andhra, Tamil Nadu, or Kerala. Similarly, states such as West Bengal are out of its reach for some time.
However, the Congress is running into far more problems with respect to its alliance, especially as it publicly (and in full media awareness) pitches for more allies post-results. For 5 years, the Congress lived with alliance partners without much problems except for the Left (whose morals always caused them to have problems with the policies of the Left). However, as it approached the election, it started shedding allies, until it is primarily right now left with just a few - Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal, the DMK in Tamil Nadu and IUML in Kerala.
In other states, the basic problem is with having to search for allies who are either in competition with the Congress, or are in competition with the current allies of the Congress. So, for example when Rahul Gandhi suggested that the Congress is open to new allies, he was scouting for support from the left, from Nitish Kumar's JD(U), from the AIADMK, from Naveen Patnaik's BJD, he immediately ran into trouble. The Congress is allied with Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal, and in both Kerala and Bengal, the Congress is pitted in a battle with the Communist Parties. Mamta did not appreciate the comments by Rahul inviting support from the Left, and neither will the DMK about any potential support from Jayalalitha. Similarly, Lalu Prasad Yadav will certainly not be happy about any overtures to Nitish Kumar.
In states such as Orissa, the Congress is in bitter competition with the BJD, and similarly with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh. It will difficult for it to accept support from these parties, since the state units of the Congress will find it difficult to support these changed circumstances, but they will not have an option if the Congress needs support for the Central Government. And a number of such parties will provide support since they will also get their pound of flesh from the Government formation. The next few weeks will be interesting to watch, people will truly understand the meaning of the phrase, 'nothing is impossible'.