Six months of diplomacy by India surely succeeded in giving Justice Dalveer Bhandari, 70, a nine-year term at the International Court of Justice. But it is quite probable that the thanksgiving prayers of thousands of urban homeless sleeping in the night shelters in northern cities also contributed to it. Before leaving for The Hague in 2012, he ordered, as a Supreme Court judge, the setting up of night shelters in the national capital and some other cities. When the Delhi authorities demolished some of them, his bench shot off a grave warning and ordered them to rebuild it.
This was just one of the human rights issues he had taken up through public interest litigations (PIL). Towards the end of his term in the Supreme Court, corruption in the public distribution system was a major issue. Reports poured in from different parts of the country that grains were rotting in the silos of the Food Corporation of India (and how rats purloined an unfair share) while some states were experiencing famine. Six starvation deaths in Chhattisgarh confirmed the distress and the state government rushed to mollify the court, pleading that a deputy collector has been asked to look into the matter and report to the court.
Many people will remember how the then Planning Commission famously told the Bhandari bench that Rs 32 was enough to survive in an Indian city and Rs 26 in the rural areas. His bench, however, asserted that there was no justification for the Planning Commission to put a cap on the determination of Below the Poverty Line at such a low threshold. Whatever remedial steps followed over the years owe much to the momentum built by the Supreme Court in the case moved by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
Several of his other judgments also dealt with the state of the social sector. After the Constitution amendment made free primary education to children between 6 and 14 years compulsory, the judge pressured the governments to implement it in spirit. Thousands of teachers’ posts had been vacant for a long time in Delhi and several other states, and his bench gave a time line to fill them up.
In a petition by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the Bhandari bench took up the case of child abuse and trafficking. The first issue was the plight of children in circus industry where they are separated from their families, made to do strenuous work at odd hours and accommodated in cramped tents in all weathers. The series of orders to the government asked it to raid the circus sites, rescue children and rehabilitate them. The orders killed the thriving Indian circus but few noticed it because of the invasion of electronic entertainment.
While writing judgments, Bhandari inserts long comments on the judicial system. In one case, Rameswari Devi was compelled to defend herself in a suit for over 40 years. He described how she was harassed by legal technicalities at each stage, wasting judicial time from the lowest rung of the judicial hierarchy. The opposite party, Nirmala Devi, was asked to pay Rs 3 lakh as compensation. He did not leave the issue there. He discussed the stratagems lawyers adopt to prolong cases, like getting a temporary injunction in the client’s favour and disappearing altogether for long periods. The judge, in all his sincerity, made ten suggestions to curb delays in civil litigation. Those well-intentioned ideas will remain in the law journals unless some serendipitous jurist discovers them at a later time.
The ingenuity of industries to evade court judgments surprised him in an environment case in which a village in Udaipur district was destroyed by the untreated effluents of the agro-industry. The court had ordered its closure long ago, but 14 years later, it came up in the court of Justice Bhandari. Before imposing costs of Rs 20 lakh on the industry by applying the principle of ‘polluter pays’, he wrote: “This is a classic example of abuse of process and indeed a serious matter concerning the sanctity and credibility of the judicial system in general and the apex court in particular.” In his usual style, he added what amounts to an academic paper on the administration of justice, finality of judgments and unjust enrichment.
In another long discourse packed in a judgment, he traced the development of public interest litigation over the decades. Originally, PILs were meant only for those who could not approach the court because of poverty, illiteracy or detention in jails. Later, it began tackling environment issues as air and water are essential to healthy life. The latest stage is taking on political corruption. Those who criticise the court for crossing the Lakshman Rekha would do well to read it to learn about the constitutional foundation for PIL.
With his human rights background, the main challenge facing him immediately would be the case of Indian naval commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, who got a temporary lease of life in May from the ICJ. It was an interim order that saved him from execution in Pakistan. When the final hearing starts, Bhandari is bound to have some influence on the outcome. His affable nature might win over the other 14 judges. He is so unassuming that it is reported that he has not removed the name plate in his ancestral home in Jodhpur that reads, “Judge, Supreme Court”.