The newspapers in the past few years have been flooded with judgments of the apex court and various high courts where they have come forward with astute observations pertaining to thought provoking critical issues. The judiciary has not only been fulfilling its job of resolving cases put forward to them but has also gone two steps ahead by helping the law evolve by bringing out its genuine interpretation.
How did we witness this sudden surge of courage on the part of the judiciary? For the non legal fraternity of our country, these acts have been given the term “judicial activism”. In simple words, judicial activism is an exercise where by the judiciary fills up the void where the Legislature and the Executive fails to perform its duties.
Primarily the duty of the court was to decide upon the cases that were put forward before them. But after 1970s, the Supreme Court realised that it needs to venture more into the society so as to reach out the people and perform its function in the true spirit. There were multiple factors such as arbitrary behaviour of bureaucracy and political leadership, growing hopes of the people with judiciary and impartiality exhibited by the judges which were responsible for the growth of judicial activism in India.
Judicial Activism per se does not circumscribe a particular set of definitions. Its concept is not restricted in nature because it has become an ever evolving part of our governance. The Constitution of India, for the common man is the bible which the entire country abides by but lately by means of Judicial Activism, we have come to understand that it is not static in nature because the distinguished and perceptive judges seated at the apex court and the various high courts have progressed by analyzing, interpreting and giving the same words written in the constitution a different meaning. This has been reflected by way of various landmark judgements which are beginning to change the functioning of the Indian Legal scenario.
The revolutionary phase was first identified in cases involving environmental pollution where the statutory authorities provided meager attention due to which the courts had to step in and increase its ambit. The celebrated case of “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” was Justice P N Bhagwati’s work of glory which marked the inception of the concept of “Absolute liability” and consequently the concept of “Public Interest Litigation”. In the year 1998, the Supreme Court mandated the conversion of diesel run powered buses in Delhi to Compressed Natural Gas driven ones in a desperate attempt to check air pollution. Similarly by way of another petition, state governments of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh were ordered to take severe actions towards saving river Yamuna from the industrial effluents.
Honorable Justice Krishna Iyer has been instrumental in improving Bail administration by way of activism. He was among the first judges to observe the adverse condition of the poor due to unfair implementation of bails by way of cases like State of Rajasthan v Balchand , Moti Ram & Ors v State of Madhya Pradesh where he stated that judges should be more incline towards furnishing the bail bond depending upon the economic condition of the accused. In a report in The Hindu, Mr. Soli S Sorabjee said that “Thanks to Justice Krishna Iyer’s judgments `jail birds’ will no longer have to rot under degrading and inhuman conditions. The horrors of solitary confinement have been banished. No more will the jailer and his minions be the monarchs of all they survey, because prisoners now have rights and remedies to combat prison arbitrariness and assert their human dignity. Justice Krishna Iyer’s portrait should find a prominent place in every penal institution as the benefactor of numerous prison inmates.”
With respect to curbing the powers of politicians and dismantling their protection, the Supreme Court has been enjoying considerable confidence of the citizens of the country. Quoting former CJI, P N Bhagwati, that Indian SC is the most powerful court in the world, advocate K K Venugopal in a memorial lecture in the honour of Justice P D Desai has cited examples of cases like 2G, Coalgate, black money and Karnataka’s mining scam, in which the apex court crossed its limits. He asserted that no other country has given powers to its Supreme Court the way India has done. But he also appreciated this, if done to help 350 million deprived people of the country.
The courts have been facing severe allegations from the legislature and executive for overstepping its authority by terming it as “judicial overreach”. The most recent opposition came when the Kerala State Government was heavily criticized by the High Court for acquirement of land by private investors for their use instead of focusing acquisitions for public causes. The court said it is of the opinion that highways should have a width of 60 meters as seen in other states. To this the government has reacted strongly by saying that the judiciary cannot interfere in its governance. But sadly the government is not able to take strong steps because the judiciary has become the “Robin Hood” of today’s India. The citizens of the country saddened by the state of affairs have rested their final hope in this particular organ of the system to do what’s fair and just.
The Supreme Court of India enjoys far larger powers than any other apex court e.g. House of Lords in Britain or the Supreme Court in the USA. The court also enjoys very extensive jurisdiction. It plays a very significant role in the administration of law and justice in the country. It is the final arbiter and interpreter of the constitution. People have favored judicial activism over the legislature in many instances like “Vikram Singh v State of Punjab” where the legislature has overstepped its authority over the Judiciary.
Hence it’s the prime responsibility of all the organs to find a balance and truly define the purpose of the horizontal system of governance in India.
About the Author
Shweta Rath is a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She enjoys reading up on various important issues and is a keen learner who wants to work on enhancing her research skills. She is a big movie buff and loves interacting with new people.
 1977 AIR 2447
 1978 AIR 1594
 CRIMINAL APPEAL NOs. 1396-97 OF 2008