Thursday, February 28, 2013

PIL Challenging High Court of Punjab and Haryana Right to Information Rules

A Public Interest Litigation Petition (PIL) challenging provisions of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana (Right to Information) Rules, 2007, ("Rules") as well as identically framed rules for the subordinate judiciary of the Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh was filed by me on 14th February  A copy of the petition along with all annexures is accessible here. These rules are framed under Section 28 of the Act, which in the case of High Courts is the Chief Justice.

The main grounds for challenging the Rules was that they contravened the express provisions of the Right to Information Act, and also went against the letter and spirit of the Act. Some examples of such illegal and arbitrary Rules could be:
  • The Public Authority, in cases where the information requested was not in its jurisdiction, instead of forwarding the RTI application to the concerned authority, as is mandated as per the RTI Act, not just returns the application, but also forfeits the application fee.
  • A separate fee (Rs. 20 per page) is provided for information that concerns the life and liberty of a person. Such differential fee system was never envisaged in the RTI Act.
  • A fee of Rs. 100 is charged for filing appeals to the First Appellate Bodies (even though no such fee is prescribed in the RTI Act, or for appeals to the Central Information Commission under the Rules).
  • In case an applicant asks for information concerning a business contract/proposal/tender document etc, a minimum fee of Rs. 500 is prescribed.

All the above Rules (and many more) are not only against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act, but also are nothing but a means of disincentivizing a common person from accessing information thus infringe an Indian citizen's right to ask for accountability and transparency. A legislation as progressive as the RTI Act is being shackled by anti-transparency rules.

In fact, all over India, the rules framed by Competent Authorities have been under challenge because, unlike the rules framed by the Central and State Governments, these authorities have not really faced the same scrutiny maybe because these authorities are not accountable directly to the public per se.

A bench of Hon'ble Mr Justice AK Sikri and Mr Justice RK Jain presided over the matter and verbally expressed their desire to change the HC RTI rules, to bring them in consonance with the Central RTI Rules. Justice Sikri, in fact, had pushed for amendments to the Delhi High Court RTI Rules during his tenure as the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, and similarly promised to take action on the RTI rules of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, as a result of my petition. Thus, the petition was ordered to be treated as a representation before the Rules Committee of the High Court. A copy of the order can be found here.

 I also filed a supplementary representation before the Rules Committee, in addition to my petition (which was ordered to be treated as a representation). This supplementary representation inter alia contains proposed/suggested amendments to the present Rules, a report by CHRI on Delhi High Court's RTI Rules, and the latest order of the Hon'ble Supreme Court, where the Allahabad High Court has agreed to amend its RTI Rules, after they were challenged by the NGO Common Cause. A copy of the supplementary representation is available here.

It is hoped that prompt and effective action would be taken in this regard in the days to come. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Open Letter to the Punjab Haryana High Court Bar Association Regarding Cessation of Festivities due to the Gang Rape Incident

Dear Members of the Punjab and Bar High Court Association,

You all must have received, just as I did, a SMS informing us all that "To express solidarity in mass protest against Delhi gang rape victim-Damini, the HCBA has decided not to celebrate Lohri this year". It set me thinking about how this could be great opportunity to raise some pertinent but forgotten issues. 

I think that while we all are collectively dealing with and deliberating about issues of sexual crimes against women, gender discrimination and the inequality between men and women, maybe we should examine our own body, i.e. the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association (PHHCBA). I thought it might be good idea to think about the position of women lawyers vis-a-vis men lawyers practicing in the PHHC, and the way women seem to be treated generally. 

  • The Lecherous Lawyer Syndrome- Our High Court, like many other male dominated work places, have many suffering from the 'Lecherous Lawyer Syndrome', with advocates working in the High Court making no pretensions of having that vague notion of decency while piercing with their lecherous eyes the bodies of women-- fellow women lawyers or any female bodies in general. Talk to any women lawyer or law interns from law schools all over, who would tell you all about the brazenness of the unabashed manner in which men in black coats "check out" women like prey. Its easy to skirt this one and say that this is a man's thing to do, but its not, and we can really fix this at an individual and institutional level. Maybe a gender sensitisation programme for our bar association is in order. 
  • We don't Follow Vishaka Guidelines - This situation is worsened by the fact that we at the PHHC, followed their legal brethren (usually brethren) and have refused to implement  the Vishakha guidelines by forming Committees for complaining about sexual harassment  in the Courts and law offices. Now this issue of non implementation has reached the SC but we still are blissfully ignorant about the gravity of the situation. Should we not be taking the lead and implementing these guidelines as quickly as possible? Shouldn't we as officers of the Court be more concerned about this? The chalta hai attitude is no longer chalta hai anymore because sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence. 
  • Lack of Gender Represenation in Electoral Office - Last sixty years have produced many many (100s) of Presidents, Vice Presidents, Treasurers and Secretaries of the PHHCBA, however, only 1 of them has been woman [Mrs. (Justice) Daya Chaudhary, President, 1999-2000]. Women lawyers have started getting the token position as Joint Secretaries only recently.  The current PHHCBA Executive Committee has 4 women advocates as members in a committee of 28 members, thus constituting only about one-seventh (14%) of the positions. While we dream and clamour for passing a women's reservations Bill, after granting the same to women in Panchayati Raj Institutions, we don't take any steps so that women are adequately represented in our Bar's decision making body. Maybe its time we get atleast some adequate reservation of seats for women in the PHHCBA executive body (apart from one token "Lady Member" seat) because till it is done we will remain a body which will not represent and push for women concerns. This means that, inter alia, there is no creche, though the demand for it have been on since ages, especially by women advocates (though raising up kids not only a women issue). This is despite the fact that many other High Courts provide creche facilities within court premises.
  • Breaking the Advocates All Boys Club: Law offices and law courts, remain largely an all Boys club, despite a number of women practicing in the PHHC. Sexist comments and jokes which are supposed to pass off as 'friendly banter' is a big affront to the dignity of every women advocate. But since they have careers to build and reputations at stake, it seems most choose to tolerate this indignity, in line with their experiences elsewhere. This too is an issue which cannot really be regulated, and is more about personal values, however, at least the seniors' in the profession and the PHHCBA can take a stand against any sexist conduct in their offices and in Bar itself.        
  • Encouraging Young Women Lawyers: Law school statistics show that women constitute an equal and sometimes a greater percentage of law students graduating each year. But its sad that most women law students on graduation don't end up continuing in the legal profession as litigating lawyers. There are of course many systemic barriers to entry, but as one of the biggest bar associations in this region, we seem to fail in our duty as members of the bar if we fail to create a programme to encourage and support women lawyers just joining the profession. As the numbers of women lawyers increase, we should hopefully see a lot of change happening in the direction of greater gender parity. We must stop treating women lawyers as lesser beings, and looking them with our gender prejudiced minds. We, the men, must remember what was said about a century back: "Men have accused the woman lawyer of being a failure ... because she has not grown rich in the practice of law, and that in the short space of twenty years. The man's standards again -- the acquisition of wealth and power. I would say to these accusers the aim of the woman lawyer is not so much the acquisition of money as to make an impression in the laws of this country as will benefit the whole race.... -- Attorney Mary Lilly, shortly before World War I"

The above views are of a lawyer who happens to be a man, hence I may not know other issues relevant to this situation. Thus, I call upon the more senior members of the Bar, especially the women members to deliberate and take forward this issue.

Maybe this Lohri will bring the required warmth and empathy we need to engage with issues of women lawyers.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Women and Political Power in India: Shocking Statistics

I created this infographic using shocking statistics relating to Women and Political Decision Making in India. It shows the gross under-representation of women at the helm of affairs. Do check it out and feel free to use it!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The People who make Chandigarh Beautiful

What connects cities as diverse as Managua (Nicaragua), Nanjing (China) and Chandigarh (India)? In all these cities, garbage collectors have tried to fight against the corporatization of garbage collection process which takes away their livelihood.  In fact, from the last few days a protest by hundreds of garbage collectors and their families has been going on at the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation Office. They are protesting collectively under the banner of the ‘Door to Door Garbage Collection Society’ against the proposed system of the Municipal Corporation, Chandigarh, (“MC”) under which a private agency/contractor will be will be given a monopoly over garbage collection, the contravention of which will be punishable by a fine. This would mean that hundreds of garbage collectors and thousands of members of their families who depend on them, will be at the mercy of the private contractor who can choose to employ them or not. Some of them will be employed to work as a contractual employees with the private contractor, and will get a salary almost half of what they currently make working independently.
The print media, especially the English media has been very lukewarm in its enthusiasm to report the matter. Most news reports play down the unemployment that this scheme of the MC will cause. Rather they focus that on the inconvenience caused by the garbage collector’s protest to the city’s residents. None of the mainstream newspapers have really reported things as they are.
The pilot run of the private contractor led scheme in one of Chandigarh’s Sectors, wherein about 45 persons were getting employment previously, showed that the contractor gave employment to merely 6 employees. Rest of the 39 employees and their families were deprived of their livelihood as well as dignity. A group of garbage collectors I talked to at the protest told me that many of them had their children in schools and elderly parents needing medical attention and the meager income the private contractor will be giving them will put them in a drastic situation. Not just this, they said that since they will be working as contract employees, their future livelihood will be subject to the whims and fancies of their employer/contractor and they will have no security of tenure/   livelihood.
Their justified anger was palpable by what many others said. While one said that they had started the work of garbage collection through their own volition and had worked hard over twenty years to make it a source of sustained livelihood for themselves and their families. He also said that what is the guarantee that the private contractor will do the job as efficiently and effectively as they’ve been doing over decades. In any case the new system cannot match the present one in terms of convenience and flexibility. Another person said that once the garbage collectors have been thrown out of their work, nothing stops the contractor from getting automatic machines and leaving almost everyone jobless! But one statement goes to the heart of the matter- a protesting garbage collector said that they are the ones who have kept the houses and business establishments of the city’s rich, middle class and lower middle class residents clean and they are the ones because of whom Chandigarh is famously called City Beautiful This is so true and I believe that the people of Chandigarh (and of India in general) have no clue about the dangerous games the State is playing on their behalf. In fact, the MC’s scheme seems more of a “scheme to remove poor, than to remove the poverty”, in the words of another garbage collector. The situation seems so dire that one told me that he would rather lose a son than lose his livelihood.
It was amazing to see the sarcasm with which the protestors made fun of the unconcerned public and the irresponsible MC. One said that MC’s record of keeping the city clean is nothing to speak about and it should first set its own house in order.   Another took a dig saying that will those who stay in huge mansions and houses be ready to go out and hand over their garbage to the MC’s private contractor (as the proposed system envisages). Another said that these people go to America and then want the same systems (of garbage collection etc) here without realizing that the India’s realities need different kind of solutions.
The fact of the matter is that the two components of the MC’s scheme of segregating garbage as organic waste and any other waste and transporting it to the Garbage Processing Plant is something that the garbage collectors can do (as per their own admission) with some help from the administration and the MC. However, the MC’s willingness to do so seems suspect.
This seems to be a small, but oft repeated example of another blitzkrieg of neo-liberal agenda’s foot soldiers, crushing the lives and taking over the livelihoods of thousands. This must be stopped, as this goes against the fundamental right to practice a business, trade and profession under Article 19 of the Constitution. How can a complete ban on something as essential as garbage collection be considered a ‘reasonable’ restriction to carry out a trade and profession? We all need to ask ourselves that where will we be without the people who really make Chandigarh, or any city for that matter, beautiful and liveable? May be its high time you came out of your cocoon and talked to your local Municipal Councilor. Better still, go join the protestors!         

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Indian Prisons: Hard on Minorities and Disadvantaged Castes

You know there is something really wrong with a country's justice, policing and political system, when out of the people in jail (undertrials, convicts and detenues), minorities and SC/STs comprise a disproportionately high number, as compared to their general population. This shows the bias in administration of criminal justice system and a huge access to justice issue. Click here for the source of the figures. It was quite shocking to read these figures. 

The reasons for this is the institutional bias against people from minority communities, especially Muslims in India and against those belonging to the Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It is also an issue of access to justice wherein people who need free and competent legal aid most are most forcefully deprived of it. 

This seems to be like the issue of African-Americans prisoners in the US jails. The Equal Justice Initiative, under Bryan Stevenson, is doing a great job about the issue of excessive sentencing of under privileged communities in the USA. One must watch this TED video here:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Media Manipulation in India- The Structural Compulsion to Lie

Yesterday I saw a very interesting talk given by P Sainath, titled "A Structural Compulsion to Lie" which was given to an audience consisting  primarily of journalists.


 Anyone who has some time to spare must watch this witty and really hard hitting talk (in ten parts) which seeks to expose the myths surrounding mainstream media in India. Thus, I presume that Noam Chomsky's propaganda model which was discussed in his book Manufacturing Consent is not just true about western liberal democracies but also about the Indian media, at least the mainstream media which is highly corporatized and in the words of P Sainath, not just an instrument for big business but big business itself.

I myself looked through the websites of several of the mainstream media corporations in India, like NDTV, Living Media, Network18, and realised that they are owned (and therefore quite obviously controlled) by large business interests, apart from owning interests in several sectors themselves! For example NDTV's website, due to guidelines issued by Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) have put their shareholding patterns online here. On going through these patters, I found out that a large chunk of NDTV's shares (20% or more) have been held by huge corporations, investment banks like Goldman Sachs, Reliance Capital and other mutual funds. The latest shareholding patterns also mention the huge investments "foreign institutional investors" have made to NDTV.

I believe that such large investments by multiple corporations and the advertising model on which mainstream media is based, necessitates that the media's independence is seriously compromised and is in fact a myth. Furthermore, the focus of the mainstream media on the top 5% of the Indian population has largely blocked any reportage from the rest of India, apart from events of mass distress and death.

It is sad that policy makers and opinion makers in this country often make policies and decisions on the basis of the fictionalised/mytholigized versions of reality that the mass media touts as the truth. Its worse that we, the so called informed and educated citizenry of this country continue to accept whatever the media feeds us as the eternal truth. Its time to wake up and stop being Nero's Guests.

We are Nero's Guests

This documentary (Nero's Guests) is a must watch by every single Indian, especially those who have been brainwashed into believing that the corporatization happening all around us is beneficial to India.

Hundreds of millions are suffering at this very moment. If we don't act now, we won't be any different from Nero's Guests.