Friday, July 22, 2005


The Madras High Court is one of the oldest in India, but today it has other dubious distinctions to its credit. One of them is that it has the highest number of pending cases. Every year nearly one lakh cases are filed but bizarrely there are not enough judges to settle disputes!

(Ever noticed how the burgeoning population of the country never seems to spill into government vacancies!)

But getting back to the Madras High Court... it has a sanctioned strength of 49 judges but the system groans, stumbles and totters along at half strength with only 24 judges.

Now, you must be wondering - is it that difficult to find somebody to play judge?! No, its not very difficult. Its not very difficult to find someone qualified and erudite to arbitrate. But what is difficult is to find men and women who will not be partisan, who will be fair and who will uphold the loftiest ideals in the Indian constitution.

It would be stating the obvious to say that the independence of the judiciary is a myth. But what is less trite is the disturbing extent to which political parties are now able to extend their sphere of influence. That is why it has taken so long to fill these vacancies. Most lawyers in the Madras High Court will tell you that the public is suffering while the political parties play ping-pong.

This is how it works - any lawyer with a practice of 10 years behind him/her is eligible to become a judge. A collegium of three high court judges draws up a list of nominees. That list is then sent to the Law Ministry. The Intelligence Bureau gets into the act and does a background check on these men and women. If a stench has not started to emanate, the list is forwarded to a collegium of five supreme Court judges. They finalise the list and then it goes back to the law ministry and lastly onto the president after which the judges are finally appointed.
Political parties can throw a spanner into the works at any time during this process. Right now, both the DMK and the AIADMK are unhappy with some of the names on that list. Both sides want names of people on that list, who will toe their line. So they've been stalling it by raising objections.

Meanwhile, the system of justice delivery is slowing down drastically. It is groaning under the heavy burden of cases that are filed everyday. It is proving redundant. Jail sentences finish before bail applications are taken up for hearing. People move out of their homes before a property dispute can be settled with the landlord. More crimes are committed before a conviction can be given for the first one.

K R Tamizhmani, President of the Madras Bar Association, acknowledges that an already weak system has been made weaker. He says of the present crisis, "The system functions on the faith a common man has in it...that faith is now may be ruined shortly."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was recently awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Law by the Oxford University. In his acceptance speech, he spoke in glowing terms about the legacies of the Raj and the blossoming Indo-British partnership.

Here is an excerpt.

Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, if you leave out cricket! Of course, people here may not recognise the language we speak, but let me assure you that it is English. In indigenising English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen's English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree however, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity as well and we have given you R K Narayan and Salaman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.

We have given the world R K Narayan and Salman Rushdie, as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out. But what do we do with our Venkiah Naidu and the BJP? We would love to give them to someone... anyone. When it comes to slaying with the jaw bone Venkiah Naidu has no equal. A few reporters caught him at the airport for a sound bite on the issues the BJP plans to raise in the next Parliament session. I was cuing the tape in the office but not really paying attention till he said that one of the issues would be the the PM's speech at Oxford. He said, "What does the Prime Minister mean by praising the British? We want an explanation on this!"

This gripe came out in exactly the sort of english the Prime Minister was referring to - an english entirely our own. In fact, now so much our own, that Venkiah Naidu has forgotten why and how he came to be speaking it in the first place. The BJP flounders again.

Friday, July 08, 2005


On the 6 month anniversary of the tsunami, a friend and me found ourselves in Cuddalore. He bought a packet of sweets and started handing them out to kids we saw along our stroll through one of the temporary shelter colonies. The kids were happy at the sudden appearance of this gift.

But the elders were a slightly different kettle of fish. One old lady scoffed at the little toffee and asked what it was expected to do for her empty stomach. She took it nonetheless. A couple of men sitting around in the sun raised their hands asking for some. Old ladies were directing kids to approach us and demand their share of the goodies.

Something about all this asking, for a small, insignificant toffee was vulgar and despicable. And not one thank you…just a lot of grabbing because it was free.

As we were leaving one woman raised a child up to the car window so that we would bestow our largesse on him as well. But by then we were too disgusted to display any.

I have read reports glorifying the fishing community as one that is resilient and proud. Resilient yes, proud… definitely not. The community in this village struck me as an idle bunch of freeloaders. Its probably what their kids might learn too.

Is dignity and pride a preserve of those who have enough? I really dont know.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


When they played the national anthem at the end of the inaugural ceremony of the Sethusamudram project, i felt cynical... unlike most other times, when i have to liquidate that lump in my throat. Union Minister T R Baalu and his friends, have set the wheels in motion for a project that could be environmentally disastrous and economically unviable. Yet, they (the politicians) all stood on that stage, indifferent, ignorant and silent.

The Sethusamudram Ship canal project envisages the dredging of a 167 kilometre long, 12 metre deep, 300 metres wide channel in the sea. This channel will connect the shallow waters between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Straits. The Gulf of Mannar is a bio-reserve with some very rare species of marine life and corals. With the churning of the ocean bed, biologists fear the marine park will die. But the environment was never on any political partys agenda so its hardly surprising that the MoEF has given the project the green signal.

So forget the environment, lets talk money. Maritime specialists warn that this project could be one big white elephant. Ships are getting bigger and 60 to 70% of the traffic coming to the region is still likely to go around Sri Lanka because the channel is too small to accomodate them.
But, sources say, T R Baalu is not in the mood to listen. Within the system, orders have been sent down the line for everyone to shut up. If you're wondering why, the answer is not far to seek -- Votes. Elections. Politics. Environmental activist, T Mohan says, "Such a huge project means contracts and kickbacks....politicians just get to expand their sphere of influence."

Through a sucessful media campaign political parties over the years have established the Sethusamudram project in peoples minds as something of a goose that lays golden eggs. They have been told it will provide jobs, industrialise southern TN and galvanise the economy. And since the turnaround time on the project is so vast, even if it flops miserably, the people who were in power and had once made tall promises will not be around to provide any answers.

Wonder what the politicians on stage were thinking of when the national anthem played.