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Civil Code Quickie

Smita MITRA

Monday 29 March 2004, by MITRA*Smita

Litterbugs and wilful encroachers of Delhi beware. Now, a battery of judges are there to dispense instant justice.

Abreed of unlikely urban heroes, these men. They are aged-all of them are retired defence personnel or civil servants; they are underpaid-and often not paid at all; they have no infrastructure; most citizens, even in the city they operate in, haven’t heard of them; and, believe it or not, they get little cooperation from the agency which they are supposed to be working with.

These men are lone warriors bringing justice to the homes of the people of Delhi every day. And you ought to know about them first, then be grateful.

In June 2003, the Indian judiciary got a makeover on Delhi’s streets.

A magistrate clearing encroachments had mineral water bottles and utensils hurled at him.

Twenty one municipal magistrates were appointed to take the law to where the offence was being committed and pull up litterbugs and encroachers on the spot. Street justice for people we love to hate with fines and warnings, where it happens, as it happens. No

interminable paperwork, no going to court, no wasting money and time in the clutches of lumbering judicial processes. Instead, the court comes to the citizen.

Complaints to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) on encroachments on public land, sanitation and congestion are passed on to these magistrates who immediately act upon them. A citizen can also complain directly to a mobile magistrate who considers the matter, hears out the arguments, delivers a judgement, imposes a fine, and moves on. Case over.

"I judge 300 to 400 cases every month and the fines I impose earn the MCD upward of Rs 1 lakh per month," says Col (retd) Arya Vir. Typical cases would involve encroachment, illegal garbage dumps, or committing public nuisance. And this rapid-fire justice works. Ninety-five per cent of the cases are disposed of immediately, with only a few going on to the regular courts. "We have lifted a burden of close to 4,000 cases off regular courts by going to the people," says Vir.

However, for these street-side defenders of civil society and its mores, physical safety is a frighteningly real concern. Magistrate Suresh Chugh, a former IB officer, thunders about the grim reality of laying down the law on

A paltry Rs 7,500 per month is paid to magistrates, who also bear the incidental expenses.

the streets of Delhi with no police protection. He recounts an incident when a local goon, Noor Alam, started hurling utensils and mineral water bottles at him when he came to clear an encroachment. "The police just stood around doing nothing. These hawkers pay hafta to junior police officers and brazenly flout rules after that." After the incident, he went to the deputy commissioner and joint commissioner of police, complaining about the corruption in their ranks. Says Chugh: "My file is still with them and nothing has been done."

Vir recalls an incident when a violent mob of illegal hawkers surrounded him and his staff at the posh INA Market in south Delhi. "You need diplomacy and tact to get out of sticky situations like that. In most cases I rely heavily on the respect a judicial representative commands." But in a society where land-sharks and ruthless middlemen rule the roost, that doesn’t appear to be much of a fallback or consolation.

The illusion of power that these magistrates enjoy is probably attributable to the fact that they have to fight corruption in high places. Chugh has been forced to file a court case against Harish Abrol, the elected municipal councillor of the Sadar-Paharganj area for protecting encroachers with deep pockets and obstructing justice. "What is the use of appointing us when we are given no clear set of powers or jurisdiction and have no way to enforce our judgements?" he asks. His clash with Abrol was a direct result of this predicament. Chugh alleges that Abrol, in return for monetary favours, has been extending his protection to the biggest encroachers in the region. "He threatened me when I asked these builders, who cover up to eight feet of public road with their girders, cement, and construction material, to clean up their act.He thinks I am infringing on his set of powers, which he has been misusing for quite some time." He remarks there is no point challaning small-time hawkers and paanwalas, unless bigger offenders are booked, too.

Ravi Das, chief director of conservation and sanitation engineering department of the MCD, is dismissive about these ground realities. "No system can correct all wrongs. The network of mobile magistrates is working better than we expected and they have generated a lot of revenue for the MCD," he says.

When asked about the lack of infrastructure (for instance, Chugh has to scramble for chairs when he gets visitors), he retorts: "It’s not practically possible to set up anything more fancy for every area in which these magistrates function." He also rubbishes accusations about the police-politician nexus shielding the worst offenders. "There is no such problem. They are mistaken," he says.

However, ever since they were appointed, the mobile magistrates have had to fight the system. Vir, sitting in his sparsely furnished office in an MCD building, smiles ruefully when talking about "teething troubles". He volunteered for the job way back in 2000. Two-and-a-half years of file-pushing followed, before the final list of mobile magistrates was released. They were all promised "suitable honorarium and other infrastructure such as office, transport and staff support". Today, the "suitable honorarium" is a paltry

Rs 7,500 a month, which is paid only after they chase everyone, from clerks to the chief accounts officer, for it. Most of them have not been paid for their services since December last year. On top of this, the magistrates have to also bear incidental costs-like phone bills, typing and photostat charges-that go into arranging each mobile court. Why? Because the MCD is still dithering on whether to set up a reimbursement fund of up to Rs 1,500 per month per magistrate. Yet, these men do not despair. "I think the solution lies in streamlining," says Vir. "If every MCD official is put in charge of a clearly demarcated region, there would be more accountability. Instead, we have several wings of the MCD, each handling its own segregated roster of duties for the entire National Capital Region." And full cooperation of the MCD’s enforcement team would probably result in a better compliance to their judgements.

But for now, the only reason for these dispensers of instant justice to smile is the response they have got from Delhiites. "We get overwhelmingly positive responses and instant commendation when we clean up an area. I fine even pwd officials if they don’t clean up after their work is done," says a proud Vir. Chugh is equally enthusiastic, having fined people who urinate outside Sheila cinema hall after the late night show. "Now people say, ’Don’t pee, the magistrate will catch you’." Vir exhorts people to submit written complaints against offenders in their areas. "All they have to do is write to me at the MCD zonal office, Lajpat Nagar, room number 400, and a mobile magistrate will come to sort out the matter." In our squalid urban universe where the cliche justice delayed is justice denied actually plays itself out, these men are modest messiahs.

P.S.

Outlook India, March 29, 2004.

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