Do Supreme Court judges live in an alternate universe?

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-02-26

Today, the front page of The Hindu features an article about the Supreme Court allowing the state of Madhya Pradesh to continue with the construction of the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar dam projects, overriding a prior restraining order by the state High Court. About halfway in, the article quotes the Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan:

At one stage the CJI asked Ms. Medha Patkar not to have a cynical approach towards large irrigation projects as the projects will benefit thousands of farmers and agriculturists.

I find it difficult to imagine how a supreme court judge can sound so oblivious to the horrendous track record of large irrigation projects across the country, and the profound social and environmental damage they have caused over the past fifty-odd years, and continue to cause to this day. Where exactly does he see cause for optimism?

Justice Balakrishnan has, in recent times, expressed a few bizarre opinions. Perhaps the most unpopular was his insistence that his office was not subject to the provisions of the RTI act because the CJI is a "constitutional authority" and not a "public servant". This position drew widespread criticism, including gentle but unequivocal disagreement from eminent former SC jurist Mr. V. R. Krishna Iyer; and the Delhi High Court also held otherwise, in a remarkably cogent ruling last month.

(Strangely, today's paper also features a surreal op-ed piece by Mr. Iyer, who dreams of peace between India and Pakistan beginning with a resolution that all Indians and Pakistanis believe in the worship of all versions of god in deep devotion and culminating in the formation of an Indo-Pakistan federation with a joint parliament and supreme court, a common defence force, and a single cricket team! But the man is ninety-four years old, so perhaps he's entitled to a few unsettling dreams. That defence does not, however, apply to Justice Balakrishnan, who is a relatively sprightly sixty-five.)

Last week, the full bench of the Supreme Court unanimously rejected (for the fifth time) the Law Commission's suggestion that four regional benches of the SC be set up in addition to the existing bench in Delhi. This long-standing popular demand in the south would benefit thousands of people who could not otherwise bear the cost of approaching the highest court so far away from their home. The vigilant Mr. Iyer has also written about the importance of judicial accessibility—If democracy is for the people, the Supreme Court should function where the litigants need it most, not where the British for their imperial reasons chose to locate it.

But the CJI had commented last month that we should maintain the integrity of the Supreme Court, and the twenty-six other judges apparently agreed that it would negatively affect the country's unitary character.

Sometimes I wonder if there's an alternate universe in which India was created in order to serve its Supreme Court.