The Justice Lokur I Know

The Justice Lokur I Know

Judging the Judge is always a challenge. The verdict has to be based on reason and supported by facts.  A fine balance has to be maintained so that any expression of admiration does not slip into the murky waters of sycophancy. A caveat that the knowledge claimed is entirely based on the appearances before the Judge in the Air Pollution case is also required, as the author has met him outside the Court on only two occasions, at a wedding and at a funeral. So here it goes, mindful, but undaunted by these pitfalls because the story of Justice Madan Bhimarao Lokur needs to be told for posterity.

While Justice Lokur and social justice are synonymous, what is often overlooked is, the meticulous mind which translated the commitment into action. Those familiar with his working style know that he always worked with a plan. At the very first hearing of the Air Pollution case in January, 2017, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) was directed to draw a Comprehensive Action Plan for the National Capital Region, in consultation with all the stakeholders. What emerged was a consensual plan which identified all the sources of pollution, the actions required, the authorities responsible for those actions and the timeline for implementation. For the first time, the NCR had a road map to tackle air pollution.

To say that Justice Lokur is methodical is an understatement. Applications pending since 1996 were categorized and duly listed in the Court. The infructuous applications were formally disposed, while others were listed for hearing. EPCA reports were numbered and the entire record was digitized. Thanks to Justice Lokur, we got to know the exact number of reports that EPCA had filed in all these years. It did not end there. Before retirement, he listed all the accumulated infructuous Applications yet again and disposed them formally!

He set a gruelling pace for himself and those assisting him. In the last two years, the case was listed on 160 occasions and EPCA submitted 22 reports. (To provide context, from 1996 to 2016, EPCA had submitted 70 reports) Each issue would be listed separately which meant that we were in his court at least twice a week. On this score, I fared better than Mr. A.D.N. Rao whose forest case used to be listed almost everyday without fail. Affidavits were sought on every issue and not a single order was passed without providing numerous opportunities to the authorities concerned.

Justice Lokur was not an easy Judge to convince. His standards were exacting and his trust had to be earned. Each argument was weighed carefully before acceptance. However, once convinced of a course of action, he was formidable and there were no half measures. The cases of Goa and Odisha mining, Kant Enclave and Bihar Shelter Home are classic examples of this approach. In the Air Pollution case, he shook the system out of its stupor, so much so that today the Central Pollution Control Board feels emboldened enough to initiate prosecution against the errant government officials.

When a Judge strives to make a difference, those working with him naturally go the extra mile to help achieve the objective. It was with this spirit that the Additional Solicitor General Mr. A.S. Nadkarni, Ms. Sunita Narain and I would try to arrive at maximum possible consensus before appearing in his Court.

What followed was a slew of orders dealing with all the identified sources of pollution.[1] However, Justice Lokur’s brand of activism did not traverse beyond the statutory framework, instead it used the conventional tools to interpret and implement the existing laws. To illustrate, in the case of ban on sale of BS III vehicles, the Motor Vehicles Rules were interpreted in a purposive manner in consonance with the citizen’s right to health under Article 21. Similarly, the ban on pet coke was the statutory mandate under Section 19 of the Air Act. Comprehensive Action Plan was a requirement under Section 3 of the Environment Protection Act. Illustrations can be multiplied.

Even at the last hearing of the case before retirement, he was keenly outlining the future actions which needed attention. It was left to me to point out that the rigorous monitoring by the Court had reversed the pollution trend in the NCR for the first time, despite the far from satisfactory state of implementation on the ground. Even under adverse weather conditions, the pollution level is managing to hold on to very poor category, before slipping into severe. However, Justice Lokur never claimed credit for this achievement which seemed an impossibility a year back. Delhi owes a lot to this self-effacing Judge.

I often describe Mr. Salve as someone who practices Article 14 in his chambers. A point validly made is always heard attentively, irrespective of seniority, gender or genealogy. That’s exactly how I felt about Justice Lokur’s Court. When I had to take Mr. Salve’s place as the Amicus Curiae in the case, my biggest worry was that “Would a Judge ever accept me as a replacement for Salve?” As it turned out, not only did Justice Lokur never treat me like David, he gave me the confidence of Goliath as the case progressed. And I was not alone, many a Davids were shaped into Goliaths in his Court.

What made Justice Lokur special was that he never lost his capacity to feel outrage when confronted with injustice, despite being familiar with the injustices perpetrated by the system. His sense of despair, when any attempt to bring about a change was thwarted by the very system, was palpable. His statements of outrage made in this backdrop were often sensationalized. What remained unreported were the number of adjournments granted to the authorities concerned and their non-existent or indifferent replies.

From Shelter Homes to Prison Reforms, Road safety to Encroachments, Forests to Wildlife, Illegal Mining to Waste Management, Restoration of Taj to  Encounter Killings, his list was endless. Day in and day out, he monitored the cases with the same intensity, alternating between hope and despair. Those assisting him in these matters would have some compelling stories to share.

His was a Court where cynicism gave way to idealism. It was inspiring to appear before a Judge who believed in a cause, stood firm and pursued it relentlessly. In one such case, I was part of a committee which had suggested a common working plan on destitute widows. To rule out coercion in the sale of a widow’s property, it was recommended that the sale should be endorsed by the Sub Divisional Officer. I recently read that the States of Bihar and Goa have implemented this recommendation. The widows in the far-flung hamlets might never know the reason behind the change in their circumstances, but posterity should know that interventions of a certain Judge impacted the lives of the most vulnerable.

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[1] Real time online monitoring of PUC certification of vehicles; Ban on use of the dirtiest fuel i.e. pet coke in NCR States (Sulphur content in pet coke is 75000 ppm compared to 50 ppm in BS IV diesel); Ban on import of pet coke (India was the highest importer of pet coke); Notification of emission standards for 34 industries which did not have prescribed Sox and Nox standards till now; Installation of RFID at 13 entry points of Delhi to remove manual intervention and ensure entry of only Delhi bound commercial vehicles; Issuance of colour coded stickers to remove the most polluting vehicles from the road on severe category pollution days;  A central scheme to tackle crop burning by providing 50 to 75 percent subsidy on equipment to farmers;  Constant monitoring of construction of Eastern and Western Peripheral Expressway;  Ban on sale of BS III vehicles from 1.4.2017;  Ban on sale of BS IV vehicles from 1.4.2020; Filing of Complaints to CPCB directly on social media; Compliance schedule for each power plant in the country; Testing of  a next generation Hydrogen and CNG fuel, HCNG for Buses (Incidentally, this particular suggestion came from Justice Deepak Gupta).

Author is a practicing Lawyer at Supreme Court of India