26 APRIL 2016
A desperate situation
The pendency of cases in India’s overburdened and understaffed judiciary is well documented. The emotional appeal made by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur on Sunday in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has added a sense of poignancy and urgency to the issue. The numbers are startling: against a perceived requirement of about 50,000 judges, the country has a judicial strength of a mere 18,000, while more than three crore cases are pending in various courts. In the Supreme Court, the current pendency is 60,260 for a Bench consisting of 31 judges. As many as 434 posts of High Court judges are vacant, while a docket burden of 38.68 lakh cases is stretching available infrastructure and resources. The problem, however, is not new, and the current crisis has been bearing down on the judiciary for some years now. Occasional observations made by the superior judiciary on the alarming state of affairs, be it as part of court proceedings or at formal functions where Law Ministers and judges congregate, elicit some sympathetic noises or ad hoc responses. But substantive and concrete measures to resolve the twin problems of mounting arrears and chronic shortage of judicial resources are not forthcoming. Thus, the sense of frustration palpable in the appeal by the Chief Justice is entirely understandable.
The litigation over the National Judicial Appointments Commission, which ended with the Supreme Court striking down both a constitutional amendment and legislation to establish the body, may have delayed some appointments. But with no change envisaged in the memorandum of procedure for fresh appointments to the superior courts, neither the government nor the Collegium should be bogged down anymore by differences, if any, over individual recommendations. However, the Chief Justice was not merely drawing attention to delays on the part of the executive in clearing appointments to the higher judiciary; he was also hinting at the absence of any significant initiative to increase the strength of the subordinate judiciary and the lack of empathy for poor litigants and undertrial prisoners, who suffer the most because of judicial delay. The situation demands an ambitious infusion of manpower and financial resources, for which even State governments will have to contribute immensely. It is said that a modern society would ideally need 50 judges per million population. However, the Law Commission, in its 245th report two years ago, had pointed to the impracticability of using the number of judges per million population (the official figure for India in 2013 was 16.8) as a criterion to assess the required judicial strength. Instead, it had suggested a ‘rate of disposal’ method by which the number of judges required at each level to dispose of a particular number of cases could be computed based on analysis. The Centre and the judiciary should collaborate on finding practical solutions: appointing more judges, including retired judges as ad hoc judicial officers, based on periodic needs assessments, increasing their retirement age, and deploying judicial resources efficiently.
Of umbrage and exception
Counselling caution is not easy in public life. Be too subtle, and you risk falling below the radar. Sharpen your observations to get the point home, and you risk upsetting sensitivities, genuine as well as contrived. Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan’s remark seeking to put India’s economic performance in perspective has drawn predictable criticism. Using a familiar Hindi metaphor, “andhon mein kana raja”, or “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, he had warned against exulting about India’s seven-odd per cent GDP growth amid a global slowdown. In the course of an interview on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund’s spring meeting, he said our growth figures must not make us believe that all is on track, and went on to count the green shoots of recovery India needs to nurture. It has long been Dr. Rajan’s theme song that economic management needs leadership to be on top of every possible anxiety. In 2005, it led him to wade against the feel-good current of the heady pre-2008 era, and warn a gathering of leading economists in Wyoming, U.S., that crafty instruments such as credit default swaps were endangering the financial system. They didn’t listen. And post-2008, Dr. Rajan instantly acquired an oracular aura. And in his current job as Governor of the central bank, he has continued to heed every collective anxiety and recommend that India redouble its efforts to grow faster.
That was perhaps the background for the “one-eyed king” metaphor. But Dr. Rajan has had to wheel back, and apologise for any hurt he may have caused the blind or visually impaired. Clearly, in the post-Greenspan age, a central banker does not have the defences available to the brainy professor to blink his way out of misconstrued, if not misconstructed, sentences. In fact, no one within coughing distance of a political stage does. Ask Gloria Steinem, who worried that young American women were missing the feminist logic of supporting Hillary Clinton in her quest for the Democratic nomination, as the “boys” were with rival Bernie Sanders. Or ask Shashi Tharoor. He’s had to explain himself hoarse to retrieve context for his comparison of Kanhaiya Kumar to Bhagat Singh. In a media culture of too much information, often it is the juiciest and potentially most controversial that spins the news and social media cycle. Words are easily taken out of context and their repetition frays even reasonably thick skins, and in the end we are all a collection of raw nerves. Public figures have the option of waging their argument regardless, and pausing only for the politically correct, and humane, apology — as Dr. Rajan did. Or of heeding the advice that his predecessor as Chief Economic Adviser, Kaushik Basu, got when he moved out of academia into a Raisina Hill office: “I should make sure not only that no sentence of mine conveyed some unwarranted message but also that no consecutive set of words within the sentence conveyed a wrongful message since in reporting my comments the media, in their eagerness to make news, could drop words at the start and end of my sentences.”