Much is happening in West Bengal : Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, while hearing a plea seeking a CBI probe into the alleged killings of BJP workers in West Bengal, on Tuesday said “much is happening in West Bengal”.

The top court’s observation came after petitioner Gaurav Bhatia, a lawyer, told a bench of justices A K Sikri, S A Nazeer and M R Shah that three workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were killed in West Bengal last year and the police had filed a closure report in one of the cases, stating that it was a suicide.

“Much is happening in West Bengal also”, the bench observed.

Appearing for the West Bengal government, senior advocate Kapil Sibal replied, “Much is happening in the CBI also…. And all of this (Bhatia’s petition) is indeed politics.”

He said the apex court should not go into the facts of the case, which was the job of the trial court.

The court asked Bhatia, also a BJP leader, whether the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could probe cases in West Bengal, considering that the state government had withdrawn consent to the central probe agency’s jurisdiction within its territory like the Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh governments.

Sibal, however, said the top court should not decide the case on facts.

The court posted the matter for further hearing on February 21.

Referring to the “brutal killings” — the body of one of the BJP workers was found hanging from a high-tension electric pole — the petition said it was an example of the violence meted out by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal to its political rivals.

Bhatia alleged that the state police was pressured by the state government, adding that in one of the cases, there was an inordinate delay in lodging the FIR, which was registered 18 days after the incident.

The petition alleged that family members of the victims were being threatened and FIRs were also lodged in this regard.

It demanded a CBI probe into the killings and alleged that the family members of the three slain BJP workers — Shaktipada Sarkar, Trilochan Mahato and Dulal Kumar — were being threatened.

Bhatia also demanded a Rs 50-lakh compensation and security cover for the family members of the victims.

Earlier, the apex court had refused to grant an urgent hearing on the plea seeking a CBI probe into the killings of BJP workers in Purulia and South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal after last year’s panchayat polls.

Shaktipada Sarkar, a BJP block president in the Mandirbazar-Dhanurhat area, was hacked to death when he was returning home in South 24 Parganas district on July 28 last year.

The body of 32-year-old Dulal Kumar, a BJP worker, was found hanging from an electric pole in Purulia district’s Balarampur on June 2 last year.

On May 30 last year, the body of 18-year-old Trilochan Mahato, also a BJP worker from Balarampur, was found hanging from a tree with a poster written in Bengali struck on his back, saying he was killed for canvassing for the saffron party during the rural polls.

Process to appoint CIC should be same as chief election commissioner: Supreme Court

 The Supreme Court on Friday passed a slew of directions on filling up vacancies in the Central Information Commission (CIC) and state information commissions (SICs) and said the process of appointments must start one to two months before a post falls vacant.

A bench comprising Justices A K Sikri and S A Nazeer said the post of a chief information commissioner is on a higher pedestal and the appointment process for a CIC should be on the “same terms” as in the process of a chief election commissioner.

The apex court also took note of the existing vacancies in CIC and SICs and directed authorities to fill them up within six months.

Taking note of the provisions in the RTI Act, it said besides bureaucrats, eminent citizens from other walks of life should also be considered for the post of information commissioners in the CIC.

Earlier, the apex court had asked the Centre as to why only retired or sitting bureaucrats were being shortlisted by the search committee for appointment as information commissioners.

The top court was told by the government that chief information commissioner and four information commissioners have already been appointed while the process for appointing other information commissioners was underway.

The apex court was hearing a plea filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) and Amrita Johri who have claimed that over 23,500 appeals and complaints are pending with the CIC as posts of information commissioners are lying vacant.

The apex court had earlier asked the Centre and states to maintain transparency in appointments of chief information commissioner and information commissioners and upload details of search committees and applicants on the website.

In July last year, the top court had expressed concern over vacancies at the chief information commission and state information commissions and had directed the Centre and seven states to file an affidavit giving a time schedule for filling up the posts.

The court had asked seven states — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Kerala, Odisha and Karnataka — to apprise it about the time frame for filling up the posts.

The petitioners have said that several information commissions like in Gujarat and Maharashtra were functioning without the chief information commissioner, even though the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for this post on which the administration and superintendence of commission is vested.

The plea has claimed that the Centre and state governments have “attempted to stifle” the functioning of the RTI Act by failing to do their statutory duty of ensuring appointments in a timely manner.

Judging is ‘under stress’ in digital era, says Justice A K Sikri

Judging is “under stress” in the digital era, a Supreme Court judge said Sunday, lamenting that even before a case is taken up by the court, people start discussing on social media what the outcome “should be” which has an influence on the judges.

Talking on “Freedom of press in the digital age” at the first Law Association For Asia and the Pacific (LAWASIA) conference here, Justice A K Sikri said the freedom of press is changing the paradigm of civil and human rights and the current pattern of media trials is an example of it.

“Media trials were there earlier also. But today what is happening is that when an issue is raised, a petition is filed, (and) even before it is taken up by the court, people start discussing what should be the outcome. Not what ‘is’ the outcome, (but) what ‘should be’ the outcome. And let me tell you from my experience here that it has an influence on how a judge decides a case.

“It is not so much in the Supreme Court because by the time they come to the apex court they are quite matured and they know how the case is to be decided on the basis of law irrespective of what is happening in the media. Today judging is under stress,” Justice Sikri said.

He said the power of contempt of court is not being used that much.

“Few years ago, it has always been an opinion that once a judgment was rendered by the court, be it the Supreme Court, high courts or any trial court, you have every right to criticize the judgement. Now there is slander or defamatory speeches even against judges who gave that judgment. And still not much is said on this,” Justice Sikri said.

Additional Solicitor General Madhavi Goradia Divan, one of the speakers at the conference, also expressed her concurring views and said that on social media, there is a huge blur between news and fake news, news and opinion, citizens and journalists.

Divan said one of the challenges was that with the growth of Twitter, lawyers have become activists too. And in that quest for activism and stardom, she added, one should not eclipse one’s professional duties as the casualty would be independence of the judiciary and matters would be decided for the “wrong” reasons.

“It is all right to an activist be now and then. But when one has appeared on those cases, argued in those cases, tweeting immediately after (hearing) can conflict with your professional duties,” she said.

Divan said though the requirement is that one needs to be an accredited journalist to be able to report from the Supreme Court, “for the rest, there is Twitter”.

“It is true that you (a lawyer) have a much better understanding of the law and the justice delivery system than a journalist, but at the same time there is a certain shallowness to Twitter which may distort the public understanding of how the justice delivery system works.

“I think it can put the judge under pressure because the judges as much as they are trained to decide shorn of media reportage, we know they are as human as anybody else and we should not distract them from deciding independently shorn of all media pressures. The casualty would be independence of judiciary and matters would be decided for the wrong reasons.

Justice Sikri said the media has undergone a complete transformation in the digital age and now “we are in the era of paid and fake news”.

“It is becoming very alarming but we are in the era of paid and fake news because of the digital era. Stories are created…and somebody puts it on any digital mode and these, in few hours time, become viral. The reach is a billion people,” he said.

He said though social media has become a watchdog, there was a challenge to human rights also as there is a real threat of surveillance by both private and public players.

“How data is mined, how players like Facebook, WhatsApp etc collate data, how they can see what their consumers’ choices and preferences are. If it affects the freedom of people, privacy of people, then it becomes a very dangerous instrument. And issues of dignity comes in,” he said.

Divan also emphasised on how people’s dependence on social media for information have led tech titans and corporates to gather individual data and feed-curated information.

“The more people depend on social media for news and information, we know that tech titans have allowed themselves to plant customised or curated news based on the social profiling of individuals,” she said.

She talked about how most journalists today gather information from social media platforms, rather than being on field.

“This is definitely impacting the capacity of independent news gathering. It’s not only the easy way out, I would say it is a great dereliction of duty on the part of the mainstream media because it is denying public access to credible, truthful information. There is absolutely no substitute to credible, accountable media. I think more than ever before we need that media now to be able to sift the truth from untruth and the grain from chaff,” Divan said.

Supreme Court turns down sacked IPS officer Sanjiv Bhat’s plea seeking security for his family

The Supreme Court on Friday refused to entertain sacked Gujarat cadre IPS officer Sanjiv Bhat’s plea seeking security for his family.

A bench of Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer asked Bhat to approach the Gujarat High Court with his plea.

On October 4 last year, the apex court dismissed his wife Shweta Bhat’s plea, challenging the police probe and his judicial custody in a 22-year-old case of alleged planting of drugs to arrest an advocate, and said he could approach an “appropriate forum” for relief.

The apex court had held it was not appropriate for it to interfere in the ongoing investigation.

Bhat was suspended in 2011 on charges of remaining absent from duty without permission and misuse of official vehicles and later sacked in August 2015.

His wife Shweta had unsuccessfully contested assembly election as a Congress party candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Maninagar constituency in Ahmedabad in 2012.

Sanjiv Bhatt and seven others, including some former policemen attached with the Banaskantha Police, were initially detained for questioning in the case. Bhat was Banaskantha district superintendent of police in 1996.

According to the police, Banaskantha Police under Bhatt arrested an advocate called Sumersingh Rajpurohit in 1996 on charges of possessing around 1 kg of drugs.

At the time, Banaskantha Police claimed that drugs were found in a hotel room occupied by Rajpurohit in the district’s Palanpur town.

However, a probe by Rajasthan Police concluded that Rajpurohit was allegedly falsely implicated by Banaskantha Police to compel him to transfer a disputed property at Pali in Rajasthan.

It also claimed to have found that Rajpurohit was allegedly abducted by Banaskantha Police from his residence at Pali.

Following the Rajasthan Police investigation, former inspector of Banaskantha I B Vyas moved the Gujarat High Court in 1999 demanding a thorough inquiry into the matter.

In June this year, the high court handed over the probe in the case to the CID while hearing the petition and asked it to complete the probe in three months.

Why only ‘babus’ shortlisted for appointment as information commissioners : Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Tuesday asked the Centre as to why only retired or sitting bureaucrats were being shortlisted by the search committee for appointment as information commissioners.

A bench of Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer was told by the government that chief information commissioner and four information commissioners have already been appointed while the process for appointing other information commissioners was underway.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Pinky Anand, appearing for the Centre, said that search committee has recommended 14 names for consideration to the selection committee for appointing information commissioners.

“In these 14 names, apart from bureaucrats (retired or sitting) is there anybody else?,” the bench asked.

To this, the ASG said one of the 14 persons is a retired judge while rest are bureaucrats.

“Their (petitioners) objection is that only civil servants are there. Ultimately, you do not find even a single person other than bureaucrats,” the bench told the ASG.

The bench also observed that the search committee comprises of civil servants only.

The apex court is hearing a plea filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) and Amrita Johri who have claimed that over 23,500 appeals and complaints are pending with the CIC as posts of information commissioners are lying vacant.

During the hearing, the ASG told the court that process of appointing information commissioners was an ongoing exercise and government is following the selection criteria prescribed under the RTI Act.

Advocate Pranav Sachdeva, appearing for the petitioners, said that cases in State Information Commissions (SICs) are kept pending for years due to non-availability of information commissioners and in West Bengal, cases filed in 2008 is being decided now.

He said that as per apex court’s December 13 last year order, the Centre should have put on the website the names of members of search committee, candidates who have been shortlisted and criteria which was followed for selection but it was done only after appointment of four information commissioners.

“This information should have been made public during the process of appointment and not after the appointment was already being done,” Sachdeva said, adding, “transparency in the entire process is required”.

He said that the government was appointing only retired or sitting civil servants as information commissioners but names of persons like activists, scientists, journalists, lawyers and others should also be considered for appointment.

The ASG told the court that government has complied with the requirements during the process of appointing chief information commissioner and information commissioners and the details were uploaded on the website.

She said 280 applicants had applied in the process and while some vacancies have been filed up, the process for others was going on.

The counsel appearing for West Bengal told the bench that they already have one state chief information commissioner and three state information commissioner and they would review the situation within six months and see whether they needed more state information commissioners.

Similarly, counsel appearing for Andhra Pradesh said they have three state information commissioners and process to fill up the vacancy was already underway.

The petitioners counsel informed the bench that 10 state information commissioners have recently retired in Uttar Pradesh and he has filed a separate application in the court in this regard.

The bench asked the states to file affidavits within two-three days giving details of the steps taken by them in filing up the existing vacancies.

The apex court had earlier asked the Centre and states to maintain transparency in appointments of chief information commissioner and information commissioners and upload details of search committees and applicants on the website.

In July last year, the top court had expressed concern over vacancies at the chief information commission and state information commissions and had directed the Centre and seven states to file an affidavit giving a time schedule for filling up the posts.

The court had asked seven states — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Kerala, Odisha and Karnataka — to apprise it about the time frame for filling up the posts.

The petitioners have said that several information commissions like in Gujarat and Maharashtra were functioning without the chief information commissioner, even though the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for this post on which the administration and superintendence of commission is vested.

The plea has claimed that the Centre and state governments have “attempted to stifle” the functioning of the RTI Act by failing to do their statutory duty of ensuring the appointments in a timely manner.

Justice A K Sikri recuses himself from hearing plea on interim CBI Director M Nageswara Rao

Supreme Court judge Justice A K Sikri on Thursday recused himself from hearing a plea challenging the Centre’s decision to appoint M Nageswara Rao as interim CBI director.

A bench headed by Justice Sikri listed the matter for Friday for hearing before a different bench.

As soon as the matter came up for hearing, Justice Sikri told senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for petitioner NGO Common Cause, that he would not like to hear the matter and was recusing himself.

“You understand my position. I can’t hear this matter,” Justice Sikri said.

Justice Sikri was part of the high powered panel which had removed CBI Director Alok Verma.

Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, Sanjiv Khanna sworn-in as SC judges

Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna were sworn-in as Supreme Court judges on Friday.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi administered the oath of office to justices Maheshwari and Khanna during the swearing-in ceremony held in court number 1 of the apex court.

The sanctioned strength of judges in the Supreme Court is 31. With the swearing-in of justices Maheshwari and Khanna, the strength has now gone up to 28.

While Justice Maheshwari was the chief justice of the Karnataka High Court, Justice Khanna was a judge in the Delhi High Court.

The government had on Wednesday notified the appointment of justices Maheshwari and Khanna as judges of the apex court.

The five-member Supreme Court Collegium, comprising CJI Gogoi and justices A K Sikri, S A Bobde, N V Ramana and Arun Mishra, had on January 10 recommended the names of justices Maheshwari and Khanna for elevation as apex court judges.

The names of the chief justices of the Rajasthan and Delhi high courts, justices Pradeep Nandrajog and Rajendra Menon respectively, were considered by the collegium on December 12, 2018 for elevation, but the deliberation remained inconclusive and one of the members of the collegium, Justice M B Lokur, retired on December 30, 2018.

His place in the collegium was taken by Justice Arun Mishra.

The new collegium had, on January 10, ignored the prospect of elevation of justices Nandrajog and Menon as apex court judges.

The Bar Council of India (BCI) had, on Wednesday, protested the Supreme Court Collegium’s recommendation to elevate Justice Khanna by superseding several other judges and termed the decision as “whimsical and arbitrary”.

Before the BCI made a statement protesting the collegium’s decision, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Supreme Court also wrote a note to the CJI and other members of the collegium for ignoring the seniority of justices Nandrajog and Menon.

Sources said Justice Kaul was of the view that a wrong signal would go out if the two chief justices, who were above Justice Khanna in the seniority list, were not elevated as apex court judges.

SC to check whether there should be total ban on firecrackers

New Delhi: The Supreme Court today said it would examine whether there should be a total ban on use of firecrackers as it noted that air pollution reached hazardous proportions during Diwali.

It said around 20-25 per cent of children in the city suffer from respiratory problems due to abnormally high levels of pollution during the festival.

“Are we supposed to take a holistic approach and ban everything that contributes to pollution or take an ad-hoc approach and simply ban firecrackers?” a bench of Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan asked.

The court also noted that air pollution posed a major threat to infants and the toxicity of the air increased exponentially after burning of crackers.
Senior advocate C A Sundaram, appearing for a firecracker manufacturer, argued that according to studies, the effect of ban on crackers on air pollution has been meagre and that there should be a scientific study on the issue.

The matter was listed for hearing on August 8.
The top court had last year banned the sale of firecrackers for a limited period while hearing a plea filed by three minors through their guardian.
The court had refused to relax its October 9 order banning the sale of firecrackers while dismissing a plea by traders who had sought its permission to sell crackers for at least a day or two before Diwali on October 19, 2017.
It had said that its ban order during Diwali that year was an experiment to examine its effect on the pollution level in the region.

1000 standard-floor cluster buses will be fitted with hydraulic lifts, says Delhi govt to SC

New Delhi: The Delhi government today told the Supreme Court that it will install hydraulic lifts in 1,000 standard-floor buses to be procured under the cluster scheme on its own cost to make them accessible for differently-abled persons, especially those on wheel chair.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government and the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) has challenged an order of the Delhi High Court by which it had barred them from procuring 2,000 standard-floor buses.
The top court, had yesterday asked the government to explain by today, whether it intends to make these cluster buses friendly to differently-abled persons by fitting them with hydraulic lifts.
A bench of justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan was told that a meeting was held by Delhi’s Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot on the issue of wheelchair friendly/accessible buses on June 19, after the High Court had on June 1 restrained it from going ahead with the tendering process for purchasing buses.

“Pursuant to the said meeting, the government of NCT of Delhi is agreeable to have these mechanical lifts fitted on all the buses proposed to be acquired under the Cluster scheme by the L1 bidders,” the Delhi government said through an affidavit.
It further said, “The mechanical lifts will be installed by the Vehicle Manufacturers as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM). The fitment of hydraulic lifts is also envisaged under the harmonised guidelines issued by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India.”
The government said in the meeting it was decided that the cost of this additional fitment (hydraulic lifts), which was not mentioned in the original tender specification, has been agreed to be borne by the government of Delhi in principle.

Justifying the move, the AAP government said this decision has been taken by it considering the dire need to augment the existing bus fleet, particularly on the rural routes identified for the purpose and the urgency of doing so in larger public interest and also specifically the need for disabled friendly public transport.

“The decision will address the issue of accessible public buses to passengers with locomotor disability,” it said, adding that the decision was also taken to avoid any further delay in the acquisition of buses for public transport as a fresh tender may delay the entire process by more than a year.

The bench took the affidavit on record and posted the matter for further hearing next week.
The apex court had yesterday asked probing questions to the AAP government and the DTC over their intention to purchase 2,000 standard-floor cluster buses, which are not friendly to differently-abled persons.
The government had later during the hearing had informed the court that a tender floated on March 16 by the DTC for procurement of 1,000 standard-floor buses is most likely to be scrapped as only one bidder has come forward.

It had said that fitting of hydraulic lifts to make the buses friendly for differently-abled persons, would entail a total cost of around Rs 80-90 crores.
The government counsel had said that after talking to Gahlot, he was informed that a decision has been taken to procure additional 500 low-floor buses, which will be friendly to differently abled persons.
He had said that this decision of procuring additional 500 buses will be soon placed before the cabinet, as the government intends to increase the fleet of public transport buses.

The high court had on June 1, pulled up the AAP government for “not taking a single step for ensuring accessible transport” for disabled persons in the national capital and restrained it from procuring standard-floor buses as it impedes their mobility.
It had said that the government is bent upon “treating the disabled as non-existent, or, in any case not having any rights”.

SC slams govt over non-compliance of verdict on making public institutions disabled-friendly

New Delhi: The Supreme Court today slammed the Centre over non-compliance of its last year verdict of making public institutions disabled-friendly and said the government had to follow the law and order.
The top court also expressed annoyance over the states not complying with its order and warned that respective chief secretaries will be called to explain the delay.
A bench of Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan asked the Centre to file a fresh affidavit within four weeks giving details of the steps taken so far and the timeline for completing the work as given in its December 15, 2017 verdict.
“We have not said anything new in our verdict of December 15, 2017. It was your (Centre) law and we just asked you to comply with it. We are not running the government. It’s you who has to follow the law and the order,” the bench said.

Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand said she will file an affidavit in this regard in four weeks, adding that a lot of work has been done in pursuance to the court’s direction.
The bench, however, said that the Centre should file a detailed affidavit.
The apex court, in a fresh petition seeking to make judiciary disabled-friendly, especially for visually impaired people, issued notices to the registrar generals of all high courts and the secretary general of the Supreme Court.
The top court had on December 15, 2017 passed 11 directions which include making public institutions, transport and educational institutions disabled-friendly.
It said it was imperative to provide proper and safe access to roads, transport, buildings and public places to differently-abled people so that they could enjoy a meaningful life and contribute to the progress of the nation.
The top court said the right to dignity, which is ensured in the constitutional set up for every citizen, applies with much more vigour in cases of persons suffering from disability and it was duty of the State and public authorities to lay down proper norms in this regard.

The top court passed a slew of directions, including that all government buildings providing any services to the public be made fully accessible to differently-abled persons by June 2019 as per provision of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.