He upheld human rights and dismissed PILs

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Tuesday 20 September 2011

Justice Markandey Katju who retired today did not approve of protecting the environment at the expense of industrialisation

In 2009, a blogger lashed at what he called Justice Markandey Katju's foot-in-mouth disease. Incensed at Katju's dismissal of yet another public interest petition, the netizen charged, “The man can't seem to keep his mouth shut. The man needs lessons in discretion, judicial-appropriate conduct and above all self-restraint.” Official surveillance of the Internet—or at least scrutiny of blogs—was some months away, and it's unlikely that anyone in the judiciary saw the post. In any case there were no cries of contempt of court.

It's also unlikely that Justice Markandey Katju would have cared. Katju who retired today was a rare judge not sanctimonious about courts and judges, and did not share many of his peers' enthusiasm for the recent spurt in public interest litigation (PIL). He was part of the bench that quashed a Chhattisgarh trial court's infamous conviction of activist Binayak Sen, delivered the historic verdict allowing passive mercy killing of a patient in a permanent vegetative state, and earned a justifiable reputation as an upholder of human rights. His name featured in quite a few stories in this magazine. But it's unlikely that Justice Katju would have cared much for the issues we write about. Environmentalists were veritable gadflies. “What we are witnessing of late in our country, however, is the emphasis on protecting the environment at the expense of industrialisation. In the name of protecting the environment, hundreds and thousands of industries have been closed down in and around Delhi, Agra and other places, by administrative decisions or court orders,” he wrote at one place. If industries were polluting, they had to be phased out and not shut down at one go.

As the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Katju dismissed a PIL by a citizens' group on the relocation of tanneries from Erode to Perundarai. The petitioner's plea that the relocated industries would damage water and drinking water was met with the refrain that the court has no expertise on such matters and that the matter is best left to the pollution control board.

In 2008, when Common Cause, a Delhi-based NGO sought the apex court's intervention on road safety issues, he and fellow judge H K Sema pronounced, “Most petitions are a blackmail. A public interest litigation, created as a useful judicial tool to help the weaker sections of society who could not afford to come to courts, has developed into a Frankenstein and a nuisance that is threatening to choke the dockets of the superior courts obstructing hearing of genuine and regular cases which have been waiting to be taken up for years together.” He shot off, “A fine of Rs 1 lakh should be imposed on frivolous PILs.”

But behind the seemingly maverick ways lay well-grounded convictions that led Katju to preface every dismissal of a PIL with angry sermons on clear distinction between the roles of the judiciary and the legislature. Katju was not averse to responding to PILs when it matched his perceptions of public good. A few months after he had dismissed the Common Cause petition, Katju was part of a bench that heard a petition by M K Balakrishnan and Others against the Union of India and others related to the conservation of wetlands for protecting the environment and maintaining the ecology. The bench agreed with the petitioner, but then in a twist, “directed the government to find technical solutions to all water-related problems on a war footing”.

Perhaps Katju's inclination for techno-industrial solutions had something to do with the verdict. There were times though when Katju did give the impression that he did care for some of the stuff we write in the magazine—or least some of the people we write about. Early this year, along with Justice Gyan Sudha Verma, he asked state governments “to prepare schemes for eviction of illegal occupants of village community land and restore them back for the purpose it was originally meant for.” The language of the verdict had rare kinship with what we write. The court noted the importance of village community land. “Our ancestors were not fools. They knew that in certain years there may be droughts or water shortages for some or other reason and water was also required for cattle to drink and bathe. Hence they built a pond in every village, a tank near every temple etc. There were traditional rain water harvesting methods, which served them for thousands of years,” the order said.

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