30 Nov 2019

The Supreme Court of India has begun taking a bolder-than-ever stance on many important and contentious issues facing the country

A little over a month ago, the UN Human Rights Commission released a statement expressing serious concern for the well-being of Jammu and Kashmir people in view of the prevailing conditions there since the abrogation of Article 370.

Noting that the Indian government had yet to restore a wide range of basic human rights that were being denied to people in the Valley, the statement said that the Supreme Court of India had been “slow to deal with petitions” concerning such issues there.

As it called for independent and impartial investigation into allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in detention in the state-turned-union territory, some political observers  seconded its implication that the nation’s apex court was acting – or not taking enough action – under the pressure of the Narendra Modi government.

However, that notion has not gained much currency thanks to what has transpired since then.

It was first evident in the middle of last month when Justice Rohinton Nariman of the Supreme Court, just a day after a dissenting judgement on review of the Sabarimala temple issue, told the Centre there is a persisting notion that its government officers are not complying with court orders.

"Ask your government and its officials to carefully read our judgement in Sabarimala. Tell them our judgements are not be played with. Kindly instruct your officers to read what the court has said about Article 141 … Our orders must be complied with. We won't allow any violation,” the judge said.

Four days later, the Supreme Court also defended its approach to the ongoing Kashmir issue.

It did so in response to the submissions made by senior advocate Dushyant Dave, which contended that months had passed since the petitions against the government’s move in Kashmir were filed in August but the people in the region were still suffering.

Noting that the submissions seemed to imply, the bench headed by Justice N.V. Ramana, asked Dave: “Do you blame the court for the delay? Do you want to criticize the court for this?”

As the senior advocate sought to clarify that it was not a complaint against the court but “about the government", he was advised to be more careful while making such submissions lest they send out a “wrong message”.

Pointing out that the court was also hearing many other matters, Justice Ramana asserted that the apex court understood the importance of the Kashmir issue, was trying its best and cannot be blamed for any delay in adjudicating restrictions imposed in the Valley.

During the hearing, the Supreme Court also expressed its anguish at the absence of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and other top law officers of the Centre.

"Where is SG? Are there no Additional Solicitor Generals to appear for the government?" it asked.

Towards the end of last month, after hearing another set of pleas challenging the restrictions imposed on the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Supreme Court reserved its judgment – but it called on the Centre to maintain a balance between national security and people’s rights to liberty and freedom of speech while imposing restrictions in the Valley.

For the first time, many political analysts reckoned, the Supreme Court seemed to make it crystal clear to the ruling regime about its stand on the Jammu and Kashmir issue and how it wanted the Centre to deal with it.

But there was another major national issue where the Supreme Court took a far stronger stance: pollution in New Delhi.

On November 25, the Supreme Court bench – comprised of Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Deepak Gupta – slammed the Central and state governments for not doing enough to improve the quality of air in the national capital. The apex court swiftly brushed aside all explanations provided, saying partisan politics and a culture of blame game were to blame for the delay in finding solutions of such a major problem.

Stating that Delhi has become worse than hell, what with its deteriorating air quality, mounting garbage and unpotable drinking water, the Supreme Court held that governments should be held accountable to compensate people.

Justice Arun Mishra said: "You are politicising the issue of pollution... why governments are not sitting together, instead of blaming each other... everything cannot be done under the noose of this court."

Taking an unprecedented step that day, the apex court issued notice to states and Union Territories (UTs), seeking response in six weeks, on why they should not pay compensation to public for not providing clean air, safe drinking water and handling garbage.

At a three-hour hearing, the bench expanded the ambit of the Delhi-NCR air pollution to a pan-India issue. Pollution would impede India from becoming a global power in the era of globalisation, the court observed.

"The Air Quality Index (AQI) is extremely poor in many cities and towns...we also need to know how they are managing garbage. It appears these issues have lost priorities for the authorities," Justice Mishra said.

Observing that the life span of millions of citizens in and around Delhi has already been shortened due to air pollution, the apex court asked the Centre to come out with a decision on installation of smog towers (large vertical structures that work as air purifiers) and anti-smog gun (a device that sprays atomised water droplets in the air) across the National Capital Region within 10 days to combat the growing menace in one of the most polluted cities of the world.

Many political observers have expressed optimism that this new bolder-than-ever stance of the Supreme Court will go a long way in ensuring that India functions the right way as a vibrant democracy irrespective of the many complications and challenges that come along the way.

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