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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Judicial Activism and Investigative Journalism: Editors as PIL Litigants

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Prabhakar Kulkarni

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) can be filed in any High Court or directly in the Supreme Court. It is not necessary that the petitioner has suffered some injury of his own or has had personal grievance to litigate. The PIL is a right given to the socially conscious member or a public spirited NGO to espouse a public cause by seeking judicial means for redressal of public injury. Such injury may arise from breach of public duty or due to a violation of some provision of the Constitution.

The PIL is the device by which public participation in judicial review of administrative action is assured. It has the effect of making the judicial process little more democratic. However, the Bombay High Court, an apex Court in one of the Indian States, Maharashtra, has created almost a history by initiating a PIL case suo moto on the basis of a series of newsletters exposing corruption in the Maharashtra Government’s Transport Department.

In almost in all Indian States, lethargy, inefficiency and corruption in government departments have been a nuisance which large numbers of people in this country are facing and no State Government has so far been able to eradicate them from the corridors of their administrative offices. Corruption in Regional Transport Offices in various States in India is known to be a routine phenomenon. State governments have not been able to curb this despite periodic complaints and disclosures in the print media.

But besides routine corruption for licences and other vehicular regulations, about eighteen Regional Transport Officers (RTOs) in Maharashtra are allegedly involved in another type of corruption. A regional language daily Lokmat published a series of newsletters, exposing the import of parts of two wheelers from foreign countries avoiding taxes of crores of rupees and after assembling them in India they are sold at high prices with the connivance of the RTOs.

An international gang is suspected to be involved in the deal the details of which are also disclosed in the news-stories. The Maharashtra State Government has not taken any initiative or action against the concerned officers. But the Bombay High Court has taken cognisance of the whole exposure and on the basis of the series, a suo moto Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been recorded by making the editor of the newspaper as a PIL litigant with provision of an advocate to fight the case on his behalf.

The newspaper’s exposure disclosed the ‘modus operandi’ of the whole episode in five newsletters. It is pointed out that foreign-made spare parts are brought from Singapore and other countries without paying any import duty and they are then assembled without any legal brand or manufacturing licence and then sold in open market at exorbitant prices. For this process, bogus names and addresses are used to legalise the vehicles for sales in an inter-state sales network.

The gang involved in the deal is estimated to have sold over 600 two-wheelers worth Rs 70 crores. Taxes and duty of abut Rs 50 crores has been estimated to have been avoided by depriving the state government which did not receive any revenue. The Union Government’s Director of Revenue Intelligence (DIR) received the clue and collected the details and a simultaneous inquiry is being conducted. The DIR has names of the RTOs who have received money from a middleman.

After the exposure, the concerned Minister, Swarupsing Naik, had clarified that action will be taken against the concerned RTOs who will be transferred. It was also decided to hand over the whole case to the CBI as the sale transactions are spread over in various States in the country. But despite the clarification nothing actually materialised and the exposure received no corrective response from the State Government.

However, Justice B.H. Marlapalle of the Bombay High Court submitted the case to Chief Justice Swatantra Kumar and Justice Ajay Khanvilkar after getting the whole matter translated into English and then the concerned RTO office was made the defendant and the newspaper’s (Lokmat’s) editor as the petitioner. After the first hearing of the case notices were issued to the concerned department’s officials. The State Government then suspended ten officials and eight have been transferred from their posts.

This is a very valuable precedent because investigative journalism has received a new momentum as the judiciary is taking cognisance of the objectionable deals and corruption in the government departments’ activities which are safely carried out at the cost of both the government and the people who rely on them for routine transactions. High Courts and the Supreme Court have so far recorded cases on the basis of a letter or a news item in newspapers. But this is perhaps the first case of its kind wherein the Court has relied on newsletters and made a PIL case recording editor as a litigant.

This is indicative of the fact that though the State governments or higher authorities of the government departments are not so sensitive to the print media’s exposures even though they are expected to take prompt action, the Courts are coming forward to respond to the exposures. Most of the newspapers and periodicals in the country are periodically exposing malpractices and public grievances through investigative stories and it is now high time that Courts should take initiative to record PILs in larger public interest. Editors are also expected and now encouraged to be bold enough to throw light on cases of illegal deals and corruption in public bodies and government departments with new zeal by giving scope to their reporters to be investigative in their approach while covering stories of public interest. This seems to be the only corrective way to curb corruption in India which has of late been described as one of the most corrupt countries in Asia.

It is commendable that the High Court has brought on record a PIL on the basis of newspaper reports. But under the Indian Constitution the PIL is to be heard at the level of High Courts or the Supreme Court and not the District Courts. A constitutional amendment is necessary so that even District Courts are allowed to conduct cases under the PIL. This is because most of the national newspapers have spread over regions and districts with their editions and more public grievances are reported by way of news and investigative newsletters. Even some exposures having nationwide significance go to the credit of such regional editions and if District and Sessions Courts are given the power to proceed with suo moto cases against the erring and corrupt administration, justice under the PIL will be available to the aggrieved people in small cities and adjacent rural areas of a vast country like India.

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