A Moveable Feast

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Sometimes by default, often by design—especially when the editors have enough advance time to plan ahead (which they rarely have the luxury of doing while bringing out editions of magazines every other week on the net and in print)—we are able to put to bed an issue with thematic synchronicity. The stories may be different but are yet held together by a delicate weave between the cover pages of the magazine. The current issue of India Legal, I believe, bears this stamp. Almost every story it contains has a solid developmental, environmental or social change value affecting the lives of women, ordinary people and consumers caught in the intricacies of socio-economic system which can wreak havoc with human existence unless challenged by the law or unraveled by a simple act of good governance.

Take our cover story, for instance. It touches on an extremely sensitive issue—the religious customs and social mores of the Muslim community, India’s largest minority. The subject is talaq (divorce) or, rather, “triple talaq” in which by the sheer utterance of this word thrice in a row a man can instantaneously divorce his wife and cast her into penury.

This is simplifying the matter, and you must read the entire story to come to grips with the larger picture on this canvas. But suffice it to say that one of the largest socio-religious upheavals India experienced after attaining independence centered on this problem. In the mid 1980s, the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano decision granting alimony to a divorced woman so alienated a huge section of the Muslim community which considered it an infringement on personal law that it successfully agitated with the ruling Congress party to bring in legislation to negate the apex court’s ruling. This triggered a chain of political events and the much-publicized “Hindu backlash”, leading to the emergence of a rejuvenated Bharatiya Janata Party.

Says Managing Editor Ramesh Menon: “There has been incessant churning among Muslim women since then, and the cover story on Shayara Bano whose petition challenging instantaneous triple talaq has been accepted by the Supreme Court, is one example of increasing numbers of Indian Muslim women finding the courage to fight for their legal rights in matters related to marriage and divorce. No more, they say, shall they suffer in silence.”

Thou shalt not suffer in silence when the law is on thy side, also seems to be the message from the Supreme Court in the case of disabled and physically challenged persons who are treated mercilessly by airlines. Passengers are de-planed, almost thrown out, barred from entry, humiliated. Actually, this is one of the most appalling stories brought to my attention through this issue of the magazine by Nayantara Roy. Read the first para of this story and weep: “In a shocking incident on February 19, 2012, Jeeja Ghosh, a passenger on Spicejet flight SG 803 from Kolkata to Goa, was summarily de-boarded as the pilot of the flight deemed her a risk to the safety of other passengers. Why? She had cerebral palsy.”fea

The redeeming feature of this is that she fought back and the Court ordered the airline to pay her Rs. 10 lakh as compensation. The judgment cited several instances of other differently abled people—including the visually impaired—who were maltreated by airlines.

And what about the pain and suffering of sick patients? Can the law offer them any legal succor? It can. And it has acted. Deputy Managing Editor Shobha John chronicles stories of patients in agonizing pain with end-stage cancer or other debilitating conditions whose horrible torment has been eased somewhat by the administration of opiates like morphine and other pain killers. Even though opioids make life more bearable for those suffering from pain, stringent jail terms and fear of addiction means that few doctors prescribe them even during the process of palliative care. A leading doctor tells her that most doctors “have not even seen a tablet of morphine”.

But there is a welcome amendment to the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act which adopts a new category of “essential narcotic drugs” in Section 2 (viiia) which notifies these drugs as applicable uniformly in the country. This welcome step negates the cumbersome necessity for obtaining multiple state clearances.

Patients’ rights is a subject of a new book Dissenting Diagnosis reviewed and analyzed by Executive Editor Ajith Pillai. It deals with the abysmal state of private medical practice—or rather malpractice—in India. It reveals, he writes, “a shocking story of medical malpractice, gross negligence and financial exploitation of patients at those hospitals which are run purely for commercial considerations”.  There is some light at the end of this very dark tunnel—the Clinical Establishment Act of 2010 which regulates private practice. But even today, the Act is not operational because standards have not been finalized. While huge legal gaps need to be filled, action may be looming on the horizon, thanks to the power of the book penned by doctors Arun Gadre and Abhay Shukla.

Other stories in the issue which point to change and transition on social and environmental issues include a reversal by the government of an ill-conceived policy which would blindly gift reserve forest land to private developers; a long overdue report from the Consumer Education and Research Center, Ahmedabad, on clearing the logjam of cases which clog the judiciary; the Delhi High Court’s admonition to criminal courts to stop harassing witnesses through needless postponements; the Supreme Court’s solid pro-health diktat directing tobacco companies to display bigger health warnings on their products; and last but not least, a good-news story about how Pakistan’s judiciary  and Lawyer’s Movement, 2007-2009, which played a seminal role in transforming  the Supreme Court’s role from junior partner to the military and bureaucracy in times of crisis to a relatively autonomous body exercising power.

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