Judges want to be exempted from the rigours of the Right to Information Act (“RTI”) even for their non-judicial activities. And rightly so because the information that one can dig up on the honourables can be quite embarrassing to them.
CNN-IBN reported that it put in an RTI application which threw up interesting details of how judges extended their holidays, often for personal purposes, at Government expense.
It reported that Balakrishnan, soon after taking over as Chief Justice, was bitten by the travel bug. He made at least seven trips abroad in 2007 traveling First Class with his wife with the air fare alone costing over a whopping Rs 39 lakh.
Apparently, during his 11-day trip to Pretoria, South Africa in August 2007, the Chief Justice took the following route – Delhi, Dubai, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Capetown, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, where the judge finally didn’t go and returned via Dubai to Delhi.
The air fare alone cost Rs 5.70 lakh and did not include the stay, TA, DA or Entertainment Allowance. Entertainment Allowance itself was over Rs 80,000.
Predictably, Union Law Minister HR Bhardwaj reacted in a belligerent fashion “They also need comfort; they also need to go out. Why they should be deprived of it.” He was also sympathetic of the judges’ need to be accompanied by wives though government rules that say judges cannot be accompanied by wives on work tours. “How can you deprive the wife? You are a woman. You should understand,” Bhardwaj is reported as having lashed out at the CNN-IBN correspondent.
The Chief was clearly influenced by his predecessor Former chief justice YK Sabharwal. The latter attended three conferences in 2005 to Edinburgh, Washington and Paris. While the conferences lasted 11 days, Sabharwal was out for 38 days with 21 days converted into a private visit. The travel plan included a detour from Washington to Baltimore, Orlando and Atlanta, before rejoining the conference route in Paris.
Guess who paid the entire First Class air fare? The Central Government!
CNN-IBN reported that the other judges too had traveled abroad costing the exchequer huge sums of money. Supreme Court judges Justices PP Naolekar and AK Mathur could not find a direct flight to Bangkok in November 2007. Both judges and their wives spent Rs 5.5 lakh travelling First Class from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Singapore to Delhi. This did not include 5-Star stay or the Entertainment Allowance of Rs 84,000 paid for a seven-day trip, even though the conference took just three days.
It was also revealed that other judges who spent big on single trips included:
• Justice Ashok Bhan and wife: Rs 13.66 lakh on air fare in 2006.
• Justice Arijit Passayat and wife: Rs 13.01 lakhs in 2006.
• Justice HK Sema and wife: a single trip in 2007 that cost Rs 11.84 lakh
• Justice BN Agarwal and wife took a trip in 2006 that cost Rs 11.77 lakh
• Justice KG Balakrishnan and wife in 2006 as well, who cost the exchequer Rs 13 lakh.
Predictably, other judges and politicians from opposition parties were quick to go for the jugular. It was reported that former Chief Justice G B Pattnaik had called for the Government to take action. “The Government must not pay for judges’ private trips. If they are paying they are spineless,” he said.
Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan jumped into the fray and reportedly stated “Certainly one would expect that those who uphold the law of the land will follow the rules that are laid down in this connection.”
CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury went to the extent of demanding a legislation to bring accountability among judges. “There should be a national judicial commission, which will go into the veracity of these allegations,” he reportedly said.
Justice Hosbet declared that judges were not above the law. “Judges have to be accountable. They are a part of the Constitution,” he said, adding, “RTI should apply to their (judges’) functions other than judgments in courts.”
Hosbet did not share Bharadwaj’s sympathy for the need of the travelling judges to have their spouses around. He insisted on making the judges accountable, both inside and outside of the court room. “Not only inside the court, the judges must be responsible outside of them as well. That’s how they gain respectability. If he behaves opposite to the oath he has taken, he is unfit to be a judge,” he is reported to have thundered.
Legal luminaries did not mince words either. Eminent Jurist Indira Jaising said the revelations made by CNN-IBN story did not surprise her at all. “Judges have below zero accountability if there’s any such thing. It’s not just a question of RTI. It’s about what we are doing to stop judges from misbehaving,” she said, stressing on the importance of having a law that takes corrupt members of judiciary to task.
“Whenever a judge travels abroad, a lawyer does too. Now this information is public but is not talked about. This despite everyone saying they know of such things happening,” she added.
Social activist and crusader for greater transparency in Government Arvind Kejriwal agreed it was proof enough that RTI should apply to Supreme Court judges as well. “This incident underscores the urgency with which the judiciary and judges need to become accountable. The statements by judges, rejecting the application of RTI to them, makes one wonder if this is the reason why they were resisting the idea.”
CNN-IBN also argued that there was an imperative need for judges to declare their assets. It quoted Justice Hosbet as saying that judges had the onus of responsibility. “He is a higher public authority. The higher we go, the greater is public responsibility. The CJI cannot say he is not answerable. It’s a fundamentally wrong concept,” he reportedly said.
Jaising was also stated to be in agreement that there was no argument to support that SC judges be treated differently. She also vouched for a judicial commission to deal with corrupt judges. “The laal batti (VIP) culture is unfortunate. Judges think they are class apart. There’s a strong need for a law to be made by Parliament (to punish the erring ones),” she reportedly said.
“We have to appoint right people at right positions and should be checked during – and not after – the time of their appointment,” she reportedly said, citing the example of judges in Delhi who give out the spacious lawns of their official residences for marriages and other functions.
Arvind Kejriwal reportedly emphasized that a judicial commission was the need of the hour. “People should raise their voice and speak up against how the matter has been hushed up over the past one year. I am sure if we keep demanding, there will be hope.”
Taxpayers may have no control over the way the privileged class in this Country behaves. But surely they have a right to know where their hard-earned tax payments are being squandered!!
The CNN-IBN reports can be found here: