JUSTICE V GOPALA GOWDA who retired last week from the Supreme Court, was popularly known as the “People’s Judge” because of his concern for the disadvantaged. That showed in the many pro-poor judgments he delivered, the most memorable being the Singur land acquisition case in which the Supreme Court quashed the acquisition of 1,000 acres given by West Bengal’s Left Front government in 2006 for Tata’s Nano project. Justice Gowda delivered similar judgments involving labor laws and compensation to employees dismissed unfairly. In an exclusive interview to India Legal, this former chief justice of the Orissa High Court spoke at length about the highlights of his judicial career, on the judiciary and his future plans. Excerpts of the interview with ABHILASHA PATHAK:
You have presided over a number of landmark cases. Which one was most important for you and gave you personal satisfaction?
I think the Kunal Saha case was an important one as it dealt with medical negligence. It involved an American citizen who was originally from West Bengal. She had a skin problem and went to a corporate hospital for treatment and died of medical negligence. Her husband, Kunal Saha, filed a complaint in the National (Consumer Disputes) Commission and ultimately, it landed in the Supreme Court. It came up before our bench. We finally asked the hospital concerned to pay a huge compensation to the family.
The next important case was to do with the Good Samaritan concept, where, in cases of road accidents, people are scared to take the injured person to hospital due to the fear of being harassed by the police.
We directed the center to give wide publicity to the guidelines which clearly stipulated that people who help victims of road accidents or other calamities are not harassed in any way.
Why is there pendency of cases? Has access to justice increased?
Our court proceedings are elaborate; it is a system which is more than 100 years old. Determining the rights of people is not a one-day affair. People have tremendous confidence in the courts. On account of legal awareness, a large number of people come to courts as they consider them the last resort to getting justice. But infrastructure is inadequate; there are not enough judges. Procedures are meant to be followed as per the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The judgment must be fair, reasonable and to the satisfaction of the litigants.
Yes, there is delay in cases but it cannot be attributed exclusively to lawyers or the court. Delay has to be addressed by providing necessary infrastructure. Through methods like court management, case management, mediation, conciliation and settlement, we have witnessed a gradual reduction in the time taken to decide a case. In fact, there have been instances where the cases have been speedily disposed off, like a rape case from Rajasthan which was conducted in 15 days.
Pendency of cases, however, is partly due to our elaborate procedure, as long arguments are addressed, evidence is recorded and parties are cross-examined. Unlike western countries, judge-litigant ratio is not the same in our country. After computerization, the work load has reduced. Earlier, to get a certified copy, it took months. Today, when the Supreme Court renders a judgment, it is available online soon. Hearing and deciding cases takes time because of the system. And judges in legal aid work over the weekend too.
How difficult is it to find the right balance in judgments? Many high-profile cases are subjects of media trial where it may be difficult to get at the truth.
A senior judge should have no difficulty at all in finding the right balance. If it is a sensitive case, a media trial may be going on, but the judge must be firm and base his judgment purely on the material evidence at hand. We must confine ourselves only to the evidence and the law.
What needs to be done to ensure that media reporting is fair and accurate?
The media has been playing an important role although there have been several cases of misinformation. It all depends on the reporter’s knowledge of the law. We must also look at the role of investigative journalism. On account of it, many scams have come to light and corrupt people exposed.
You have been on the side of the weak and the underdog, the Singur case being a prime example….
The Singur case involved a wide range of opinions. The land was identified and allotted to the Tatas for establishing an automobile plant by the then government. We said that 999 acres, which is agriculturally potential land, cannot be taken away and given for industrial development and that public purpose should be in favor of the public. Public purpose is different from public interest. It was one of the most interesting cases.
What are the rights of poor people? In your farewell speech, you said the Supreme Court is not meant just for the “haves”, but also the “have nots”.
People are entitled to equal distribution of material resources, be it land, forest wealth, mineral wealth and public employment. The constitution provides for equality and equal opportunities and so, development in the country should not be just for the “haves”. Seeking justice in courts should be available to all.
There is much talk about a uniform civil code for India. Is this the right time to be considering this?
No, it has to be debated because India is a multi-religious country and all religions are protected. There are many religious groups and it will affect the personal law of Hindus, the personal law of Christians, the personal law of Sikhs…. They are all different but Article 44 in the Directive Principles contemplates that there must be a civil code. It involves many issues to do with marriage and divorce and maintenance involving wives, married children, parents and succession laws. Each religious group has different interpretations.
Will a uniform civil code ensure gender equality?
Yes, that is a very important issue. Fifty percent of the population are women and though the constitution provides equality, society is dominated by males and they are not prepared to accept gender equality. Women are equal to us and they must be given all the rights provided under the constitution. If this is done, it will help in overall development of the nation.
You are seen as a “pro-people” judge. How has the journey been so far?
The constitution is a political document which envisages social, economic and political justice to the people of India. Seventy-four percent of people live in rural India and poverty prevails. But people who are in need must be rendered justice.
The poorer sections have a right to residence and rehabilitation under the constitution and must get their rights. Farmers who depend on agricultural produce are frequently battling drought and should get legal aid.
I had an excellent time as a judge. Whether it was high-stake cases or sensitive ones, I have handled all with ease. I had no difficulty at all in case management or court management. I never delayed any case. I used to dictate in court and deliver the judgment in a maximum of eight weeks, not more. I always worked hard. For 19 years, three months and 12 days, my tenure was a pleasure as it benefitted millions from the working class.
What was your experience with other judges on the same bench?
The beauty of our judicial system is that we respect each other, and that should be the mindset of a judge. There will be differences in views—one judge’s view may not be acceptable to another companion judge but that does not mean he is wrong.
What are your post-retirement plans?
I want to work for the nation. We have a large number of youth. I can train them and tell them how they can assist the court. We can help the common man through Lok Adalats and family courts. Youth participation to defend democracy is important. In rural India, youth are being lured by drugs in border states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. We have to tell them that they are the hope of the country.
What message do you have for youngsters?
My message to young members of the bar is to work hard, be honest and industrious and help the poor get speedy justice. Above all, they must be people-friendly.
Lead picture: (L-R) Uzma Naheed, Member, All India Muslim Personal Law Board addressing at a seminar on uniform civil code in Kozhikode. Photo: UNI; Justice V Gopala Gowda.