Of courts, judges, lawyers and environmentalists

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Just yesterday, I had my first run in with the Karnataka High Court. I was attending a court case involving the construction of a road through the GKVK – UAS campus by the BBMP and its subsequent challenge by ex vice-chancellors of that University (For an understanding of the case at hand, refer to this article written in Citizen Matters). Just being in that court room, seeing lawyers presenting their case, judges going through the evidence presented, petitioners and defendants arguing vehemently, nervous interns, curious onlookers – in short the entire package brought back interesting memories when I was involved in similar work very early in my career.

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The entire game of courts and lawyers has never been a favourite for many people. I remember my first tryst with a Sessions Court in Mumbai where I had to obtain a domicile certificate. I was in the corridor fiddling with my mobile and it suddenly rang. A cop in the vicinity immediately pounced on me and threatened to take my mobile away. After many appeals from my father, the cop let me off with a warning.

My second experience with the Indian judicial system was when I was working with a leading environmental NGO in Mumbai. The organization had filed a number of Public Interest Litigations and I was dealing with one such case – that of preserving mangroves in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, post the Tsunami.

Amongst other things, I along with a colleague, had to overtly carry out surveys of mangrove sites in and around Mumbai and collect evidence to see whether any illegal construction activity was taking place in the vicinity. We then had to haul back all the evidence to the Bombay High Court and inform the judges about these activities. I still vividly recall the time when I used to be a part of these hearings. A bunch of us huddling on the petitioner’s side of the court room, waiting for the evidence to be called upon, waiting for our lawyers to make their statements, a slightest hint of sympathy from the judges which could tilt that day’s proceedings in our favor, hoping for a court order which would put a temporary halt to construction activities in the area where mangroves were growing.

The court room itself a scene of multiple activities – press reporters all over the place, court attendants telling people to put their mobiles on silent mode, nervous house owners who had made a huge down payment on  their dream house only to find out that their house in fact was on CRZ land where nothing could be constructed, different government officials  constantly looking at their watches because they had to be present at other court hearings too, their lawyers who were being constantly chided by the judges because while they promised something, their clients (the government) did the complete opposite and of course all this in the midst of the terrible Bombay heat with fans which were passed down from the colonial masters groaning and moving ever so slowly providing minimal relief. Each hearing was akin to a mini battle – just when we thought that we had won the existing battle, another battle front would open up forcing us back to the drawing board.

Coming back to the GKVK case and the hearing on that particular day, it was quite exasperating to see the lawyers trying to get their point across. At the end, the Judges decided to appoint an expert committee to look into the matter. They however refused to stop the ongoing work – that of the actual road construction which was a bit of a dampener for the petitioners.

In this day and age when it is really difficult for citizens and environmentalist to fight multiple agencies especially with respect to development projects, and when the judicial system offers the last glimpse of hope, it becomes extremely paramount to use this opportunity to the fullest and strategize while approaching the courts for relief.

My former boss in Mumbai, the head of an environmental organization, where I worked has taught me a few important lessons in this regard. He was (and continues to be) an  environmentalist dedicated to the cause beyond any doubt. However he is also a very shrewd tactician -who after many run-ins with government agencies and the Indian judicial system had devised multiple strategies to work his way around. For him, the key lay in anticipating what the next move of the enemy (government agencies) would be and to approach the High Court to prevent any such move which would have cascading effects on the environment. Filing multiple litigations and pinning the government down on different counts made a difference. He also understood that given the fact that the courts are already overburdened with cases, they are not likely to look at multiple litigations by the same litigant very favorably.

Thus a good option was to present alternative plans, plans which would spare the court much needed time and which would help the litigant as a credible party. A third and very well devised strategy was to employ the services of some of the best and well respected lawyers in the business and that too pro-bono. These are lawyers whose folks used to practice since a long time and they have continued that tradition. The biggest advantage of employing lawyers of the highest caliber is that judges don’t just hear them; they listen to them and do so very seriously. At the end of the day, all of these strategies along with a solid case with factual inputs go a long way in ensuring a favorable verdict.

Back to the GKVK case. In their closing statements, the judges were very clear that both the road and the environment were of public value and said that if the GKVK authorities were adamant in refusing to grant land for the road, the Judges would not look upon that very favorably. They instead told all the concerned parties to sit and resolve the matter amicably with the help of an expert committee (which will be identified in the subsequent hearing).

As environmentalists or petitioners, the above words and the subsequent judgment can be painful and difficult to accept. However, it must be understood that using legal recourse comes with its fair share of challenges and one must be patient and shrewd. While I have no doubt that the case presented by the petitioners and environmentalists and their concerns will be addressed by the courts, they probably need to use innovative strategies in order to drive home the point and convince the courts. Let’s hope for Bangalore’s cause that they succeed.