Akash Kumar sits down with Prashant Bhushan, prominent lawyer, activist and politician, in this interview by T5E at Shaastra 2018. Mr. Bhushan was invited by Shaastra to give a talk in IIT Madras in January 2018. Please note that this interview was conducted entirely by The Fifth Estate, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Shaastra organising team.
You are said to champion the cause of public interest litigations, sir. What drives you to work Pro Bono for most of these cases?
I am fortunate to come from the background where my father is a very well to do lawyer and he always supported me for all my public interest work. So, I don’t need to pay for my house because I stay in the same house with him. I don’t need to pay for my office because I use the offices he has set up. And initially I did not even need to pay for much of my staff. Therefore, my expenses were minimal and I could afford to do all the public interest work without having to bother for any income from that. You see my interests have been very very varied and wide-ranging. Initially I came here to IIT, thereafter I studied economics for some time seriously. I studied philosophy and physics and eventually law. Because of my very varied and diverse background, a lot of activists who were working in different areas started coming to me for taking up their public interest causes in the courts and I was happy to do that wherever I saw that the cause they were espousing is really in the public interest. So, I began to take cases involving all kinds of public interest; be it environmental issues, civil rights, civil liberties issues, rights of very poor and disadvantaged sections of society and thereafter issues of corruption. I gradually started doing more and more public interest cases. I still spend about 80% of my time on those and just 20% on other regular cases. But even that 20% time that I spend on normal cases, unfortunately in the country where lawyers’ fees is so high, gives me enough income to pay for all my expenses.
It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. This is one of the most serious problems that ails our judiciary today. What steps do you think the government and the Supreme Court can take in this regard?
The problem with the judicial system is not merely delays. There are other serious problems as well. For instance, judicial system is inaccessible to poor people because they can’t afford a lawyer. We have a problem of delays. Thereafter, there is a problem of poor quality judges as well as corrupt judges. So there are multiple problems and the judicial system needs comprehensive reforms. First, we need to simplify the system at least for normal cases so that poor people can approach the courts without lawyers for their normal disputes and litigations. Second, we need to increase the number of courts and judges. Third, we need to improve the method of selecting judges so that we get a better quality of judges. Lastly, we need to have a robust system of investigating complaints against judges so that corrupt judges can be rooted out of the system. So, all these reforms are required and unfortunately the government does not seem to be interested in these reforms. Whoever is in power does not need to go to the courts to get justice because they have the power. It’s only the poor and the weak who need the courts to get justice. So, unless there is a major people’s movement for judicial reforms which puts pressure on the government, on the parliament and on the judiciary itself to bring about these reforms, this will not happen.
You suggested adding an extra layer or simplifying the first level but we have attempted this with Gram Panchayats. There have been many attempts towards strengthening Gram Panchayats and their role in the whole judicial system but it hasn’t unfortunately worked out. What do you think is the reason behind it?
No, it is not to strengthen the Gram Panchayats that I am talking about. The idea is to create a judiciary which will consist of independent judges at least at the block level if not at the village level. The procedure of those courts would be so simple that an ordinary person without any lawyer can go and narrate his dispute or grievance and the judge should be able to handle that. But they must be independent judges. They must not be elected people as in Panchayats because Panchayat institutions can have various problems of caste etc.
What makes Swaraj Abhiyan different from all the other political parties and especially the Aam Aadmi Party?
In Swaraj Abhiyan, we are trying to do what was originally promised when Aam Aadmi Party was formed or when the India against corruption movement took place. Swaraj Abhiyan though is essentially an organisation which will take up various campaigns. It is not a political party. It’s an organisation taking up various campaigns. Currently, we have decided to take up four campaigns; first is the campaign regarding farmers and Agriculture who are in very bad shape today, second is the campaign against corruption, third is the campaign against communalism and fourth is the campaign to improve the education system. Swaraj India has been formed as a political party and the idea was that there needs to be a party which will truly practice alternative politics which means politics based on transparency, internal democracy, accountability as well as a party whose policies are based on a proper expert understanding of the policy consequences on the vast majority of the people judged purely from the point of view of public interest.
But isn’t it plutocracy, rather than democracy if it’s just expert opinion?
No, it’s not just expert opinion but you need to get a good understanding from people who have studied the issue and thereafter judge the matter from the point of view of public interest.
Would Kumar Vishwas be welcome in Swaraj Abhiyan?
It’s difficult to say that. I don’t have a great opinion of Kumar Vishwas. In Swaraj Abhiyan, we would rather have people who have a long history of taking up matters of public interest. He is a good satirical political poet but that’s not enough to be a leader of either a good political party or even of a movement.
Going back to the four issues that Swaraj Abhiyan is taking up, what’s your view of the agricultural policy and what do you think is behind the farm crisis in India today?
There are two major problems in the agricultural sector. One is that farming has become a losing proposition for most farmers. They are not getting enough income to even meet their costs. Now, to deal with that we have to certainly increase the price that they get for their agricultural produce. The Swaminathan committee had been asked to examine the issue. They gave a report saying that the government has figures of the average cost of production of any particular commodity and the minimum support price at which the government buys this agricultural commodity should be fixed in a way that the farmers get 50% over and above their cost. That will give them at least a living wage for their labour which they put into it. Unfortunately, though the BJP promised this before the election they have gone back on their promise. (Interviewer’s note: Just weeks after this interview was taken, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced fixing of MSP 50% over the cost of production in the 2018 Union Budget.) This is one thing that needs to be done but more important than that, we have taken our farming to a model of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farming based on hybrid seeds and irrigation done by large dams and canals. This model has now been understood to be a wrong model for agriculture. It’s now a general understanding that this model has led to high input costs and now the productivity is decreasing. In this model, you have to go on using more and more fertilizers, more and more pesticides every year. You have to keep on buying new seeds every year and the cost of providing irrigation through large dam projects is enormous. Apart from all the environmental and social damage of displacement they do. So, we have to go back to organic farming which is based on organic fertilizers where the use of pesticides is minimised and they are not chemical pesticides but organic pesticides, where irrigation is done by rainwater harvesting and micro watershed development rather than through large dams, where the seeds also have to be examined. You need some hybrid seeds which are of course very useful but indigenous seeds have their own advantages in many cases. We have to grow food according to the health effect of those foods. We have gone essentially to wheat and rice whereas it’s well understood that millets; Jowar, Bajra and Ragi are far healthier as food grains than wheat and rice.
Don’t you think that it is something that has to be taken care of by the market mechanism? Earlier, it used to be the case that these grains were fed to animals and now you see packaged oats and packaged millets going onto the dining table of urban elite as well.
Yeah, but unfortunately you see it’s really the government’s intervention by way of subsidizing chemical fertilizers, advertising and promoting fertilizers and pesticides, making large dams from public money that we have gone into this model. In any case government has to intervene because otherwise if you just leave it entirely to the market farmers will not get a remunerated price. Therefore, we have to have government intervention but the government intervention must be in the right direction. Currently, it’s not in the right direction.
What is your opinion of Aadhar?
Aadhar was originally thought of as a means of biometric identification of people. Now it is being made into a kind of identity card to be used for virtually everything including your travel, your phone service etc. The government is using, is planning to use it or wanting to use it as a method to collect all kinds of personal information about purchases, travels etc. of all individuals. Now, it’s clearly a violation of privacy. Biometric identification in such a large database of hundred crores is not easily possible with current technology. Therefore, people who have tried to identify themselves with fingerprints in Rajasthan for getting their wages under the Rural Employment Guarantee Act have been failing to do that because it fails to identify them. Therefore, they don’t get their wages. So, there are multiple problems with it. There is a problem of data security, of privacy, of failure of identification and therefore being unable to access benefits that you are entitled to; all these problems are there.
What do you think are the major education reforms that are needed in the country today?
The 2005 National Curriculum Framework which had been made under the chairmanship of Professor Yashpal had identified one major problem with the curriculum of schools that it is based on just memorizing information rather than understanding issues. They revised the textbooks so that problem was largely taken care of by this New Curriculum Framework. Now, there are new problems which have arisen. This BJP government is trying to change the curriculum again in order to saffronise it. They have given the task of making textbooks and curriculum to people like Dinanath Batra who are making a curriculum in which you first falsify history, then you say and teach things which are designed to promote prejudice and hate against minority communities specially Muslims and lastly which promotes superstition and obscurantism among children by feeding them with all kinds of bogus claims about the scientific achievements of the past and about astrology and so on which is totally unscientific and which will seriously compromise the ability of children to rationalize and do critical thinking.
In the anti-corruption movement you have had the experience of working with people from across the political spectrum. I think many from the right as well and many who don’t have political leanings. How was your experience and what are the takeaways?
Unfortunately, the anti-corruption movement in many ways was hijacked and used by the BJP and these people in order to put down Congress and come to power themselves. But after coming to power they have jettisoned all that the anti-corruption movement stood for. So today the BJP government has not appointed Lokpal. It has not notified the whistle-blower act despite the fact that it has been passed by parliament, signed by the president and gazetted as well. They are seeking to destroy the prevention of corruption act by amending it to say that no investigation of corruption can take place without the permission of the government itself. It has destroyed the Central Vigilance Commission. It is destroying the CBI. All anti-corruption institutions and laws are being systematically destroyed by a government which came to power on the back of the anti-corruption movement. This has been a very unfortunate impact of the anti-corruption movement.
How do you think the IITs and today’s youth can contribute not just to science and technology but also to public policy and governance?
The first thing that everybody must realise is that nobody can live happily in society by making himself into an island, earning a lot of money and spending that money if the society itself is in turmoil, if the environment itself is being destroyed, if climate change is threatening life on the planet, if the majority of the people continue to remain so poor that lakhs of people are forced to commit suicide. So even if one is fortunate and well to do, eventually it is going to affect us all. So, everybody must take an interest in the larger public issues which affect the environment, social relationships and the economic conditions of disadvantaged people in the society. First thing is that everybody should try and make himself aware of what is happening in the larger society. All of us have a social responsibility especially those of us who are fortunate to have had the benefit of a good elite education. We have a social responsibility to improve things in society, to reduce conflict to make this world more sustainable and that’s what we need to do to the extent which is possible within our limitations.
You had a brief stint at IIT Madras. So any anecdotes from your time in campus?
Unfortunately, my time here was very brief. It was only one semester. What I remember most is that in our time every alternate week we used to have workshops so half our time was spent working with our hands which was the part of the culture that came from Germany because IIT Madras was aided by the German government and in Germany they used to put a lot of emphasis on people working with their own hands. The other thing that I remember is that of course at that time there were much fewer students and therefore the wooded area, the jungle area was even more than it is now. At that time the fees were very little. I think we were hardly paying hundred rupees a month for our mess so consequently the food also used to be very basic. I had a good time here but I was home sick because of my little sister who was just 2 years old at that time. Mainly because of my little sister whom I was very fond of and then I realised that my interest was not so much in engineering but it was really in physics, that’s why I eventually left.
Thanks a lot for the interview, sir. It was a pleasure having you here on campus.
Thank you, Akash.
After the interview, Mr. Prashant Bhushan delivered a lecture on Current Challenges to the Constitution and Institutions as a part of Shaastra Spotlight 2018.