Interview

Volume 3 Issue 6 - March 15, 2005

“Public-spirited persons should file petitions and point out violations”

The pace of reforms may be slow, but there is a discernible change in the attitude of people regarding the rights of disabled people. A beginning has been made, says Justice A.K. Sikri, Judge in the Delhi High Court, in conversation with Rama Chari and Anjali Sen Gupta.

Picture of Justice A.K. Sikri, of the Delhi High Court

Can you tell us briefly about your background?

As a student I excelled in studies -- I stood Third in the Merit List in the Higher Secondary Exam of the Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE), Delhi. I was awarded the Gold Medal for attaining first position in LL.B. in Delhi University; I also got the first position in the LL.M. course. I was President of Campus Law Centre, Delhi University, in 1976-77; and Member of the Academic Council of Delhi University in 1976-77 and of various committees of Delhi University.

I was enrolled as an Advocate in July 1977 with the Bar Council of Delhi. I have conducted all types of cases, with specialisation in Labour -- Service Matters and Arbitration matters. I was Counsel for numerous public sector undertakings, educational institutions, banks and financial institutions and various private sector corporations; part-time lecturer in Campus Law Centre, Delhi University (1984-89); Vice President, Delhi High Court Bar Association during 1994-95; Member of the Governing Body of various colleges from time to time. I was designated as Senior Advocate by Delhi High Court on September 30, 1997; and appointed as Judge of High Court of Delhi with effect from July 7, 1999, five-and-a-half-years ago.

What motivated you to join the judiciary?

I am not sure. I always had respect for judges. I believe that judges do a divine job and this job – when done sincerely -- is a service to society. I recall that within few years of my joining the Bar, my father was offered a Judgeship. He declined… [When] I said that he should have accepted, he replied, “If I am not going to become a Judge, I shall become the father of a Judge.” I thought I shall strive to fulfill this dream of my father.

What is your experience and contribution in the field of disability?

I can neither claim any experience nor can I say that I have given any significant contribution in the field of disability so far. I would only say that as a Judge I dealt with certain cases relating to disability. In deciding those cases, which may have given impetus to the cause of disability, I find some satisfaction and solace.

What has been your experience in dealing with cases related to disability?

Disabled persons have this feeling that non-disabled people do not understand them. Non-disabled people sympathise with disabled persons but do not trust them for anything. While dealing with cases related to disability, I found that this is true to a great extent and it is really a disturbing feature.

I have witnessed, in many cases, mental blocks on the part of authorities also. However, one can find solace in the fact that there is a ‘perceptive change’ in thinking and things are looking better than before.

Has there been an increase in the number of cases related to disability in the recent years? What could be the reasons?

Yes, I have noticed an appreciable increase in the number of cases relating to disability in recent years. One of the reasons could be awareness among disabled persons. Knowledge is empowerment. When more and more disabled people come to know of their rights that are denied to them, and when they have the backing of persons who can take up their causes, the number of such cases is bound to rise. Some NGOs and social activist lawyers have also come forward to espouse the cause of the disabled. Other reasons could be that courts are interpreting the provisions of law relating to disability liberally and are giving relief. This also generates hopes in the people deprived of their rights and prompts them to approach the court.

What are the important judgments that you have passed in your tenure?

The following are a few of the notable judgments passed concerning disability:

  1. In the case of Delhi Transport Corporation vs. Rajbir Singh, it was emphasised that when an employee suffers from some disability during the course of his employment, he should be kept in service at some other suitable post with due regard to his pay and service benefits.
  2. In the case of Baljeet Singh vs. Delhi Transport Corporation, the petitioner, who had been retired prematurely on account of disability, was directed to be taken back into service with salary dues.
  3. In the case of Govt. of NCT of Delhi vs. Bharat Lal Meena, a handicapped person cleared the requisites for holding the post of Physical Education Teacher (PET) but was denied the post on account of his disability. It was held that a person with the requisite degree cannot be told that he is not suitable.
  4. In the case of Pushkar Singh and Ors. vs. University of Delhi & Ors., it was directed that 3% reservation be given for blind and orthopaedically handicapped candidates in teaching posts in Delhi University and colleges as per the mandate.
  5. In the case of Shruti Kalra vs. University of Delhi & Ors., it was directed to take the petitioner with the disability and congenital blindness for the post of Lecturer (Instrumental Music) in Delhi Unversity.

What motivated you to take the issue of discrimination against disabled people in Civil Services on a suo motu basis?

The job of a Judge is to dispense justice. When I read in the newspapers that some disabled people were denied entry to Civil Services, I felt it was unjust and this provoked me to take up the issue suo motu. It is gratifying to note that those persons were inducted into the Service.

When there is so much violation happening on a daily basis, why are judges not taking up issues on disability on a suo motu basis?

Normally somebody has to file a case in the court of law. Of course, in exceptional cases, Judges may take suo motu notice but it cannot be made a routine. However, I may add that the Court can now entertain a petition as ‘Public Interest Litigation’ even on the basis of a post-card or a letter addressed to the Court. Therefore, public-spirited persons should come forward and file petitions or even send letters pointing out violations -- with necessary material in support of the allegations.

How disabled-friendly is the Indian judicial system?

I think Judges have so far done a commendable job in enforcing the rights of disabled persons. This is at least the position in the superior judiciary, that is, in the Supreme Court and High Courts.

What are your suggestions for reforms that will make the system more disabled-friendly?

There is a definite change in legal and political thinking. If human beings, including disabled persons, are given a conducive environment to develop, it would result in the development of society, economy and the potential of human resources. And for anyone to develop, they need to enjoy equality and non-discrimination.

The traditional approach to disability, as health and welfare issues, is changing fast. This has resulted in enacting various disabled-friendly laws.

To make the system disabled-friendly, we need to equip disabled people with educational opportunities, ensure employment, ensure easy and convenient access to all people and increase public awareness on disability issues. For this the Legislature, the government, the Judiciary and society -- all have to play a meaningful role.

One effective way would be to sensitise the Executive, judges and society about disability issues. NGOs and media can also play important role in this direction.

Access to the judicial system is a major problem for disabled people. There are legal aid cells for women, SC/ST and other marginalised sections of the population in the High Court/Supreme Court. What is your opinion about having legal aid cells for disabled people in the various High Courts of the country?

It is an excellent idea. Nearly 6% -7% of the population -- a sizable minority -- of this country has one or the other kind of disability. Enforcement of their rights is a major problem, as you rightly point out. However, I may point out that there are legal aid committees and legal aid cells in each State. National Legal Service Authority Act was enacted for this purpose way back in the year 1985. Guidelines for providing free legal aid to poor and other deserving persons certainly include disabled persons as well. Therefore, if these disabled persons approach such legal aid cells, free legal aid can be provided to them.

There are certain categories for which there is a system of speedy disposal of cases and system of justice at doorsteps, etc. Should this not be so for disabled people also?

I am in agreement with you. A few years ago the then Chief Justice of India had emphasised that cases of senior citizens be given priority. Emphasis of this kind is given to old cases, particularly criminal cases, as well. Cases of disabled people can be included in such a category.

Do you have any special message for disabled people in the country who are facing various kinds of discrimination day in and day out?

Maybe the pace is slow, but there is a discernible change in the attitude of all concerned authorities regarding the rights of disabled people. They are no more an invisible minority. No doubt much is yet to be done but a beginning has been made. Our joint efforts, with the backing of international and domestic laws, can transform materially the conditions of, and the public's mental attitudes towards, disabilities. I am an optimist and, therefore, my message for disabled people in the country is that the day is not far away when discrimination meted out to them would be reduced significantly, if not eliminated altogether. Good luck to them!

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