ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Judgment of Grave Import

The Supreme Court's judgment on the Narmada (Sardar Sarovar) case fails to deal with the very issue that was brought before it, namely, an existing situation of lapse and non-compliance in relation to certain aspects. It makes sweeping pronouncements about the desirability of dams. The judgment has introduced no new safeguards to ensure compliance but has advanced the doctrine that the existing institutions must be presumed to be working. The judgment is a negative answer to those who sought relief, and a severe blow to people's movements.

This article is about the nature and implications of the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Narmada (Sardar Sarovar) case, and not about the merits of the project or about the question of large dams in general. ‘Judgment’ here refers to the majority judgment by Justices Kirpal and Anand. While the minority judgment by Justice Bharucha is not without importance, it is the majority judgment that prevails and constitutes the judgment in this case; and being the judgment of the highest court in the land, it represents finality from a legal point of view. The petitioners have no legal recourse against it, other than a review petition to the Supreme Court itself. It follows that criticisms of the judgment may have no practical consequences. Nevertheless, they may still serve a useful purpose, and it is in that belief that this article is being written.

It is written with a heavy heart. During the last decade or two, the Supreme Court has been blazing a trail. While there has been some criticism of what has come to be known as ‘judicial activism’, it has on the whole won national approval. Most of us (this writer included) have been grateful to the judiciary for trying to rescue the country from the egregious failures of the executive and the legislature. Unfortunately, all that good work has been nullified at one stroke by this single judgment, which blazes a trail in the wrong direction. The complaint of the present writer is not that the judgment allows the project to proceed further. It was never his expectation that the court would stop the project. However, he had hoped that approval to further construction would be severely conditional and that justice would be done to project-affected persons (PAPs). Those hopes have been belied. The judgment can only be described, with deep regret, as a most unfortunate and disquieting one. Such a statement cannot be made lightly; the following paragraphs will provide the necessary justification.

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