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The animal kingdom can defend itself now, and it’s all thanks to Uttarakhand’s crusader judge

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Justice Rajiv Sharma’s bench has given many rulings on environmental PILs, including giving ‘legal entity’ status to rivers, glaciers and forests.

New Delhi: The Uttarakhand High Court has been in the spotlight recently because of the stalled elevation of its chief justice, K.M. Joseph, to the Supreme Court. However, the court has also grabbed attention for another reason – its rulings on public interest litigations.

Last week, the court declared the “entire animal kingdom, including avian and aquatic creatures” as legal entities, capable of defending themselves in courts.

The ruling follows the high court’s trend of declaring rivers, glaciers and forests as legal entities over the last year to protect the environment. In fact, from banning river rafting in Rishikesh to using drones to curb poaching in Jim Corbett, the court seems to have covered all ground to protect the environment.

A closer examination of the rulings reveals another important fact – all these rulings were passed by a bench headed by the same judge – Rajiv Sharma.

In all the cases, Sharma’s bench “enlarged the scope of the PIL” on its own. This means that although the PIL was originally filed on a limited, narrow premise, the court on its own extended its scope to cover the entire state and other connecting issues.

Key environmental cases

Justice Sharma was joined by Justice Lokpal Singh on this bench when the latter was appointed a high court judge last year. Before that, Justice Alok Singh used to hear PILs with Sharma.

Last year, Sharma and Alok Singh, in two separate rulings, granted rivers, forests, and glaciers legal status. Undeterred by criticism, protests by the state government and the Supreme Court stay on the ruling, the new bench of Sharma and Lokpal Singh has now declared the entire animal kingdom a legal entity.

Debris dumping: On 11 June, the bench noted a “startling revelation” that during the 2013 floods in the state, debris dumped into rivers directly in an unscientific manner were washed away and changed the course of the rivers. The judges immediately noted in their order that they were “enlarging the scope of the petition”, albeit “with the consent of the parties”, without stating any specifics of what the original plea was and what became of it later.

The court went on to order a complete stay on all construction activities and road widening along the river till proper debris sites were identified.

Jim Corbett: Just a few days later, the same bench issued rather stringent orders in another PIL on rampant poaching in Jim Corbett National Park, the state’s famous tiger sanctuary. Interestingly, this 2016 PIL was filed by Vishwanath Singh, who was found to be an encroacher in a colony inside Jim Corbett. Since Singh did not show up in court or hire a lawyer, the high court fined him Rs 5 lakh but heard his PIL in his absence, and passed a slew of orders.

The directions included an inquiry into the circumstances of the tiger deaths in the national park by a sub-divisional magistrate.

Other cases

Uttarakhand’s unique topography explains why a bulk of the court’s litigation is on environmental issues. But the rulings of the bench which see it step into the role of the executive are not just limited to environmental causes.

Last month, the bench of justices Sharma and Lokpal Singh asked the state government to provide a contingency fund to grant ex-gratia to the families of clerks of advocates in case of untimely death or fatal injuries of the clerk. The court said since advocates pay the clerks a meagre amount, the government must frame progressive legislation for their welfare.

On 20 June, the court, while hearing a PIL seeking relocation of a liquor vend in Almora district, summoned top IPS officers of the state – the DIG of Kumaon Range and the SSP of Nainital – to court and sought suggestions to tackle the menace of narcotics. The court naturally expanded the scope of the case to “curb the ever-increasing consumption of liquor in the state” and its directions included posting policemen in plainclothes outside schools and colleges and setting up of special check posts at the Indo-Nepal border.

On 21 June, it ordered the setting up of a bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal in Nainital on a plea filed by Lalit Kumar, an ex-army personnel who is now a practicing advocate. The court, while observing that “we are proud of our armed forces and the sacrifices they make”, directed the setting up of a new bench within four months. In the meantime, the tribunal in Lucknow will hold proceedings in Nainital every week, the court ordered.

Criticism of the bench

While legal experts have criticised many of the recent PIL rulings, the state government has appealed against a few before the Supreme Court, including the ruling granting legal status to the Ganga and the Yamuna.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has argued several significant PILs, also agreed that the rulings granting legal status to rivers and forests “seems odd and is controversial”.

“Courts must not step into those cases that are clearly matters of government policy. They must do so when the policy is itself arbitrary or fundamental rights are being violated,” he cautioned.

Attention-grabbing rulings

Although Sharma’s role as presiding judge stands out in all the rulings, Anuj Bhuwania, associate professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, argues that the judge is not an aberration when it comes to handling PILs.

“The PIL system rewards and incentivises judges to give orders that are attention-grabbing. These judges are not aberrations but are the norm,” he said.

An advocate with over 16 years of practice in the Uttarakhand High Court, who did not wish to be identified, explained the court’s stance on PILs. “This is a small high court and not more than one judge makes it to the Supreme Court at any point of time, so the judges remain here till retirement. Something has to be done to stand out and be noticed,” he said.

“There are at least 3-4 environmental PILs in this court listed almost every day, and each case is an opportunity.”

Justice Sharma, if not elevated to the Supreme Court, will retire when he turns 62 in 2021.

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