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Jun 09, 2003
Justice on faster track

It is not surprising that law-suits in India total a monumental number. After all under a constitutional democracy, summary justice --as in totalitarian states-- is not possible nor tribal laws can prevail. So Indians are a litigious lot, clogging a fastidious, multi-tier justice system with millions of cases.

In 2001 when the Central Government awoke to this reality, there were about 3.4 million cases pending in the various states.  It was then that the concept of fast-track courts was conceived. The idea was to create about 1700 such courts with judges hired for two year periods from the ranks of the retired and the bar.

The scheme was allotted Rs.500 crores or about $200 million. This may seem a vast sum but it made economic sense. There were over 1.2 million under-trials in the country and they were costing the state Rs.240 crores a year for even the basic amenities they received.

Of course the idea was mooted for more than economic reasons. The state of delivery of justice had become a scandal even given that India was a democracy. The human rights abuses were mounting. The huge pile up was stoking the forces of corruption as well.

As always in India, everyone had something to say soon as the first fast track courts were announced. In April, 2001 Andhra Pradesh High Court suspended the formation of these courts saying there were legal and constitutional infirmities. The Government challenged it in the Supreme Court and by May 2001 this obstacle was removed. It was soon the turn of the Judiciary and the Executive to commence an icy dialogue: the former said it had not been consulted and the latter said it had. The media then, chewed the cud for weeks. A good time was had by all Indians who wanted to let go some steam—and all seemed to. In the end, in fine Indian tradition, everyone made way for the variously modified courts.

By late 2001, about 450 of the 1700 courts came into being. As of date over a 1000 are functional and of the nearly 2 million cases referred to them, they have disposed off 78,000. In Sep 2002, when the courts were still to gain speed, the Hindu reported that the scheme was beginning to have, “its impact on crime situation as the number of heinous crimes had come down, particularly in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Some impact had also been felt in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.” Now in May,2003 comes the news that the Parliamentary Standing Committee --comprising of members from all parties and headed by an opposition member-- has expressed its satisfaction and urged the Government to do more. So, there are plans afoot to introduce video-conferencing between the jail and the courts to shorten the currently elaborate procedure of producing the accused in court. Apart from savings in time and money, this would also thwart those who would ‘silence’ witnesses and approvers.

So India moves along—its direction right but speed rather wanting. It may not be quite the majesty of law that colonial powers were won’t to brag about, but quite a passable march for a developing, open society full of bright, contesting minds, thank you.

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