The Gram Nyayalaya Act was passed in 2008 to make the judicial process participatory, inexpensive and accessible to rural India. But rural courts are still few and far between
Where are rural courts?
When a mobile court visited Luhari village in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur district a year ago, it was a blessing for people like Birsan Singh. A tea vendor, Birsan would lose his daily income whenever he had to attend court. He has been going to a court 20 km away for the last 10 years in a case against his family members and neighbours over a minor dispute. For millions of people in rural India, attending court is a nightmare. Birsan, too, was about to stop pursuing the case, but the mobile court has solved his problem. “Now we have our court in the village,” he says.
The Gram Nyayalya Act, which was enacted by Parliament in 2008 and came into effect in October 2009, mandates setting up of village courts. The Act aims at making justice easily accessible to the rural population and dealing with the backlog of cases. Till December 2010, 280 million cases were pending in courts across India. A substantial number of these pertain to community areas, water and other common resources such as pastoral land.
The Act also makes the judicial process participatory and decentralised because it allows appointment of local social activists and lawyers as mediators/reconciliators. To make the judiciary responsive to local socio-economic situation, it prescribes represen-tation from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is also a provision of setting up mobile courts at the panchayat level. As per the Act, gram nyayalayas can hear both criminal and civil cases and appeals in civil cases will have to be disposed of in six months.
But as the law enters into its fifth year of existence, a lot remains to be done as far as implementation is concerned. The panchayat in Boria village, some 7 km away from Birsan Singh’s village, has not seen a village court in session for the past six months. “I don’t know why our panchayat does not have a regular court like Luhari,” says Manoj Singh Thakur, secretary to the panchayat. Madhya Pradesh, one of the first few states to implement the law, has mandated two court sessions a week. However, courts are held only once or twice a month. In some areas, the frequency is even worse.
Implementation of the Act, which has been left to the states, has been dismal across the country. The Act mandated setting up of 5,000 village courts till 2012. But only 172 have been set up. Of these, 152 are functional. Only nine states have notified gram nyayalayas and of these nine states, only four have functional courts (see ‘Lukewarm response’).
Establishing courts at each one of the 260,000 gram panchayats would involve huge expenditure by state governments. Therefore, it was decided that gram nyayalayas would have jurisdiction over more than one panchayat. For example, there could be three gram nyayalayas in one block, with different numbers of panchayats under each nyayalaya. That is how the Centre decided to set up 5,000 gram nyayalayas. Still finance is the main stumbling block because no state wants to burden its exchequer, says Atul Kumar Gulati, joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Law. Gulati has been looking into the implementation of the law.
“It is true that funds are not adequate to constitute a gram nyayalaya but subordinate judiciary is a state subject. The Centre has been assisting states by bearing the non-recurring cost. States should also come forward to support the scheme,” Gulati adds. Anticipating financial difficulties, the Centre had decided to provide Rs 18 lakh per court to meet non-recurring infrastructural expen-diture. It had also estimated that the states would have to bear a recurring cost of Rs 6.4 lakh per court every year. The Centre would fund half of the recurring cost for the first three years. This expenditure involves appointment and salaries of nyayadhikaris (judicial magistrate of the first class), pleaders, clerks and stenographers.
But these calculations are wide of the mark, according to the estimates of parliamentary standing committee which discussed the Bill in 2007. As per the committee, setting up court infrastructure requires Rs 1 crore and the recurring cost is not less than Rs 10 lakh per court a year. The committee report also states that there is a need for a separate cadre for this level of judiciary. As per its estimates, every gram nyayalaya would require a staff of at least 21 people. With the Centre aiming to establish 5,000 gram nyayalayas, the overall expenditure would be huge. According to the Act, nyayadhikaris will hold mobile courts and conduct proceedings. This would mean that they will have to be provided with vans and drivers, apart from local accommodation facilities, says E M Natchippan, who chaired the parliamentary standing committee on the Bill in 2007. Lack of political will is another factor behind poor implementation of the Act. “A provision in the Act allows states to ask for extra grants for running gram nyayalayas. They should make use of it, but they lack political will to take initiative, ” says Natchippan.
Where states stand
In a conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts held in Delhi on April 7 last year, the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, said the implementation of the Act was financially untenable and talked about how 183 courts have been set up at the block level in Gujarat to make justice accessible to rural litigants. However, these courts cannot serve the purpose of gram nyayalayas because they do not function at the village level, says V P Patel, secretary, Gujarat Legal Department.
Apart from finance and political will, lack of coordination between high courts and state governments has also delayed setting up of gram nyayalaya.
“Sometimes a state government wants to implement the Act, but the concerned high court is reluctant due to lack of manpower. There have also been cases when high courts wanted to create gram nyayalayas, but the states did not provide infrastructural and administration support,” says Gulati.
Because of such problems, not a single gram nyayalaya has been constituted in Uttar Pradesh. “The high court has put a precondition. The state government should first ensure basic infrastructure—building, electricity, water supply and road connectivity—before gram nyayalayas can be set up. The state government has assured annual budget for this but has not made allocations yet,” says Shamsher Bahadur Singh, principal secretary, Legislation and Parliamentary Affair, Department of Justice, Uttar Pradesh. Gram nyayalayas come under district judiciary whose funding is under non-plan expenditure.
Natchippan says high courts have already expressed reservation over the functioning of mobile courts. “High courts are against the idea of mobile courts, the key feature of this Act. They believe the idea of mobility can erode the sanctity of formal justice system, and sitting at one place is the only authoritative way of imparting justice,” says Natchippan.
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