NEW DELHI: With India’s government all but paralysed by scandal, the Supreme Court has taken command of some of the nation’s thorniest issues in what activists hail as an overdue flexing of judicial muscle but critics call an unconstitutional power grab.
In the past month, the court has frozen mining in the corrupt southern iron belt, disbanded an eastern counter-insurgency force, reversed the seizure of northern farmlands for development and begun searching for billions in illicit cash stashed abroad.
To many Indians, the judges are simply filling the vacuum left by politicians who have failed to protect the poor or battle corruption that has grown rampant across the nation.
“Because these guys aren't doing anything, the court is the only saviour right now,” said Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of the Association for Democratic Reforms.
Parliament collapsed in pandemonium over the winter and reopened last week to similar chaos as lawmakers traded barbs and accused one another of graft and financial mismanagement.Three governing party lawmakers facing corruption charges are in jail, with one further embarrassing the government by suing for the right to commute between the assembly and his cell.
The hosting of last year's Commonwealth Games turned into a nightmare of construction delays, corruption allegations and nearly $4 billion in cost overruns. The mismanaged sale of valuable cell-phone spectrum cost the government as much as $36 billion.Protests over inflation are growing, even as a popular government critic threatens to stage a hunger strike to force lawmakers to create a government ombudsman.
The deluge of scandals and criticism has left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government nearly impotent at a crucial time in India's transformation from a poverty-stricken nation into a regional and global power.
But critics accuse the Supreme Court judges of a frightening overreach, elbowing their way into scandals and ideological debates that are traditionally beyond their mandate.
“In no judiciary in the world do you find this kind of activism,” said T.R. Andhyarujina, who as solicitor general in the 1990s was the government's top trial lawyer. “Some of the judges seem to be not aware of their constitutional limits at times.”
India's Supreme Court — unlike its U.S. counterpart that rules as a single body — has a team of 28 judges that usually hear cases in panels of two or three. It has taken activist stances before, most notably in the 1980s when it opened the door to public interest litigation, and more recently forcing New Delhi's public transportation to switch to compressed natural gas to curb air pollution.
But it has never before rattled off a string of decisions so close to setting government policy.
Since last year it ordered the government to give food grain rotting in warehouses to the poor, took control of the federal probe into the cell-phone license scandal, and quashed the appointment of a man accused of corruption to be India's anti-corruption czar.
Over the last month, the court took a central role in a growing national dispute over land rights and voided the seizure of farmland for development outside of Delhi.
After an audit found massive corruption in the mining industry of southern Karnataka state, the court temporarily froze all iron mining in the state's Bellary district.
The justices have verged on poetic in their rulings, saying India needs to “Follow the money” — quoting from the Watergate movie “All The President's Men” — as it ordered the creation of an investigative team to search for billions in untaxed cash reportedly hidden in foreign banks.
They quoted from Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” — “The horror, the horror” — in a controversial ruling that implicitly linked India's decades-long battle against Maoist rebels in the eastern jungles to last century's violent pillage of the Congo. The judges ordered the disbanding of the citizen militias that have been a key part of India's counterinsurgent strategy, saying the fighters were poorly trained, underpaid and trampled on locals' rights.
The judges appeared to have grown frustrated with the government's refusal to follow earlier court orders to compensate the victims of the violence, said Delhi University sociology professor Nandini Sundar, who filed the case four years ago with little hope she could actually win.“(The decision) was in response to the complete failure of the government to do anything despite being given numerous chances,” she said. “It got to the heart of what the problem is in a way that I hadn't expected.”
Opposition leader Arun Jaitley criticized the ruling and accused the judges of pursuing ideological ambitions at all costs.
“Effectively, the judgment disregards the basic constitutional features of the separation of powers,” he wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper.
The court appeared to simply swat away its critics in another recent ruling in a bigamy case: “The limits of (the) Supreme Court, when it chases injustice, are the sky itself.”—AP