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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

What People Expect in the Next Hundred Days

Saturday 13 June 2009, by Rajindar Sachar

The parliamentary election result of 2009 has hopefully given a permanent burial to the politics of divisiveness, and religious bigotry. It is a warning to all that in India acceptance of politics of social inclusion and total equality of all religious groups, especially the minorities, are a pre-requisite to obtaining political power.

The new government will naturally frame its policies in the light of these and equally important considerations for the people of India that is Bharat. In that context the sudden shooting up of the Sensex is inconsequential—it only results in reducing the book accounting loss of the Mittals, Ambani, Tatas etc., but does not add a trickle of water to one-third of the population who do not get safe drinking water, nor add a yard of space to 25 per cent of the population of this country who have no homes and 77 per cent of our population (that is, more than two-and-a-half times the total population of pre-1947 India who are forced to eke out a living on Rs 20 a day. I hope the immediate concern would be to prevent pilferage of 90 per cent of funds allocated under the NREGS reaching the needy persons instead of being pocketed by dishonest officials and their political associates.

All these important aspects will certainly take time. But there are some fundamental legislations and programmes which need to be effected within the first 100 days.

The first priority should be to pass the Women Reservation’s Bill, which both the NDA Government and the previous UPA Government have been promising for over a decade, but it has remained an empty gesture. The Parliamentary Standing Committee under Dr Nalchinpan had almost finalised its recommendation for double-member constituencies which would ensure one-third members of legislatures to be women under the ‘reserved quota’ and even more if a woman gets the highest vote. It is well established that women representation in Parliament has never exceeded seven or eight per cent—this time too it is just 10 per cent.

At present parliamentary constituencies average between 1.5.million to 2.5 million population, and State Assembly constituencies average two to three lakhs in most of the States. If there is a fifty percent increase in the Membership of Parliament and legislature seats and provision is made for double-member seats in the top half of the constituencies, elections for electing one woman in each of these extra seats can take place immediately (the other seat being already full) so that women’s representation is found in all the legislatures including 15th Lok Sabha. The law of double-member constituencies prevailed upto 1957 for general and reserved constituencies. Similar provision for double-member constituencies for women is only following a precedent. We know that this attempt failed because the constituents of some parties insisted upon a sub-quota for backwards in the women’s quota, even though this is not permissible under the Constitution. The argument of sub-quota amongst women is a red herring projected by male members who are in fact against women occupying positions of power. Fortunately this anti-woman block of legislators has been rejected by electorate.

Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have been in favour of the Bill; so there can be no reason for delaying this legislation.

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There is another old promise to redeem. The Prime Minister had in September 2004 candidly and in all sincerity stated that the “UPA Government would lose no time to enact the Lok Pal Bill and that the need for it is more urgent than ever”. That it could not be passed was because of concerted opposition by a small clique within the UPA and also helped by quite a few in the Opposition by the not-so-clear move to start a controversy by seeking to include judges in the Lok Pal Bill (which constitutionally was impermissible).

Then another futile debate was started about the expediency of whether to include Prime Minister under the Lok Pal Bill, notwithstanding the publicly stated commendable statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that in his view the office of the Prime Minister should be included within the Bill. But many legislators pursuing their own self-interest succeeded in postponing the Bill notwithstanding the vast public demand led by the Gandhian Satyagraha Brigade and other groups that let the Bill be passed even excluding the Prime Minister, so that the electorate will have confidence that the legislators will be under scrutiny by a high-powered body. That promise needs to be redeemed in the interest of purity of the administration.

As far back as 2006, the UPA Government had proposed to legislate a National Judicial Council Bill to enable it to make inquiries into reports against the higher judiciary and to take action short of removal by it. There was also to be a provision for declaration of assets to be made by persons when being appointed judges and subsequently during their tenure as well. This was the right direction because it had been felt in legal and political circles that in disciplinary maters concerning the higher judiciary, the present position, of the Supreme Court alone being the exclusive mechanism, is no longer satisfactory and that there was a need for a Judicial Commission to deal with matters in a more transparent manner.

As a matter of fact the Law Commission, in its 121st report, had suggested that the present closed system of appointing judges can be replaced with a National Judicial Commission (NIC). I am of the view that the public at large has a legitimate stake in the judiciary and a strong justification to insist that such an important function concerning the whole society cannot be the preserve of the small free-masonry of the judiciary. There is also a wide-spread view that this Commission should have at least one lay person, to be selected by the PM in concurrence with leaders of the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament. A retired judge of the Supreme Court could be a full-time member because sitting judges may not have sufficient time.

It is necessary to breach the seal of exclusivity of the robed brethren and provide a whiff of fresh air. Indeed, information about prospective appointees may more easily be gathered by lay members of the NJC, because they are in closer touch with the wider society than sitting judges who need to maintain judicial aloofness.

In Canada, the Judicial Council was established in 1971. In Australia, such a commission was set up in 1987. False fears have been expressed that accusation of misconduct—before they have been established as credible—would affect the independence of the judiciary. Rather, in my view, it will help in making the judiciary stronger and more credible. The bar in India as a whole has supported such a move.

People would be awaiting anxiously for the report card to be presented by the government after 100 days.

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The author, a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, is the Chairperson of the Prime Minister’s high-level Committee on the Status of Muslims and the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing. A former President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) he is a tireless champion of human rights. He can be contacted at e-mail: rsachar1(at)vsnl.net / rsachar23(at)bol.net.in

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