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May|June 2003
Lowball By David Newman
Political Capital By Brian Montopoli
Justice, Interrupted By Siddhartha Deb
Access Malibu By Benjamin Nugent
A Tree Grows in the Hamptons By Kim Lemon

Justice, Interrupted

By Siddhartha Deb

THE CALCUTTA HIGH COURT SITS IMPOSINGLY in the center of the city, in a government area filled with 19th-century red brick buildings, many of them in advanced stages of decay. A bright red and yellow sign on Old Post Office Street directs visitors to the court's Gothic edifice, while on the crumbling building that rests opposite it, a faded sign (also in red and yellow) announces, "Dangerous building. Pedestrians beware." A warren of law offices, bookstores, and tea stalls encircles the high court like a medieval bazaar around a royal fortress, and lawyers in black coats stroll through the crowded streets.

The city that surrounds the court is notorious for its slowness and grinding inefficiency, and festivals and strikes frequently bring it to a dead stop. Last October, the court suspended its proceedings for the sake of a raucous Hindu festival. During this time, its 38 judges—who also take two-week holidays for Christmas and for summer—were represented by a vacation bench presided over by a single judge.

The Calcutta High Court is the most clogged node of a failing judicial network that spans West Bengal, a mid-sized Indian state. It is buried under a backlog of 350,000 cases that grows by 50,000 annually. Only about 3 percent of the business before the court is disposed of in an average year, mostly because the system is ruinously short on staff and resources. The court has set a goal of expanding from 38 judges to 50, but the number needed is probably in the hundreds.

The city has grown accustomed to delays, and many people have learned to take advantage of them: In response to the October closing, the police began arresting stray pedestrians on trumped-up charges, then offering to accept a "fine" as an alternative to languishing in jail until the courts reopened. When the festival ended, the courts reopened as scheduled, only to be shuttered again in a few days. This time, the lawyers were to blame. The largest bar association in the state launched a protest that began as a 10-day strike; ultimately, it stretched well over a month.

STOPPING WORK IN A CITY WHERE IT NEVER QUITE GETS UNDER WAY may appear to be an unnecessary endeavor, but strikes like these have become an old habit in Calcutta—so much so that they can be organized with almost no awareness of the larger social and political changes they were once intended to bring about.

According to the striking lawyers, the reason for the latest protest was an increase in court fees instituted over the autumn holidays. The fees, which go to the government, are part tax, part administrative surcharge; they are fixed in certain cases like writ petitions, but are calculated as a percentage of the amount claimed in suits for recovery of money or property. The lawyers complained that the new fees were three to five times the old amounts, not acknowledging that the last fee increase took place in 1970.

Perhaps the real trouble lawyers had with the change in procedure was that it came about almost overnight. But levying a new tax on litigants, especially those with modest cases, was in any event going to be a risky move—especially for a government composed of leftist parties that draw heavy support from the poor—and the lawyers engaged in the protest claimed that their actions were a defense of the rights of the poor.

At a press conference three days after the strike began, seven lawyers met with reporters around a long table in a tiny room on the seventh floor of the city and sessions court which stands a few yards down from the High Court. The speakers, who were members of the executive committee of the West Bengal Bar Council, emphasized to the journalists that the striking lawyers had given the matter careful consideration. Should the people of Calcutta support this sort of policy, one asked, when it requires a court fee of 6,000 rupees ($120) to make a claim of 10,000 rupees ($200)? Below, in the narrow entranceway to the city court, an allied group of lawyers had set up a public meeting, complete with a banner, speaker's podium, folding metal chairs, and a set of old wooden sound boxes that vibrated and produced shrieking feedback whenever a speaker raised his voice.

Many of the strike leaders were members of the center-right parties of the political opposition. In press releases and conferences, they repeatedly invoked the suffering of the "common man," though they conceded the presence of other issues, including the prospect of losing clients to alternative dispute settlement venues such as "people's courts," which offer free, legally binding arbitration. And they expressed suspicion about Nisith Adhikary, the law minister who was instrumental in implementing the new fees. "The law minister's even written a book about the rights of women," one of the lawyers said, evoking derisive laughter.

With the atmosphere lightened, a lawyer with long hair and a very youthful face started telling the group about the farm he owned in the provinces. Apparently, it had just been fully converted to rice cultivation from potatoes. Using the press as a go-between, the lawyers were conveying to the chief minister of West Bengal that many of them could afford to wait out a strike by relying on "land-based income," and the long-haired lawyer's chatter reinforced the point.

THE LAWYERS HAD PORTRAYED NISITH ADHIKARY as a haughty politician, but he seemed readily accessible. A short man in his late fifties, he was dressed in loose Bengali clothes, and had a bushy white moustache and large spectacles. He looked very much like a man of the people as he drank his tea out of an ordinary glass and padded across his small office in bare feet to fetch a file. "The enrollment fees to the lawyers' associations have been increased five times in the last five years. The fees of the lawyers have been increased about 10 times. How can you call the new court fees a hike?" he asked. An author of two books, one on the rights of sharecroppers and another on the rights of women, he was spirited in his defense of the new fees. He explained that he had studied court systems in other Indian states and in other countries to come up with a reasonable "updating to today's norms." As if to prove his point, he produced a blue bound volume, the cover of which read "Revised Statutes of Nebraska: Chapters 31-42."

The raised fees were part of an attempt by the government to increase revenues, money that could be used to appoint more judges, finish constructing a new court building, and continue computerizing case assignments—ways to reduce the massive backlog in the courts. According to Adhikary, the fees were designed to protect the poorest litigants, who are unable to bribe their way onto the docket. "Those who have less in life should have more in court," he said.

Not everyone was convinced. By the end of November, Adhikary was isolated within his own government, as the smaller parties on the left in West Bengal added their voices to the criticism of the new fees. Adjustments were made to some of the court fees, even as the Supreme Court in Delhi declared the strike illegal and the Bar Council of India asked their colleagues in Calcutta to call off the strike. Still, the impasse continued. By late December though, with a couple of days left before Christmas, it became clear that the pendulum had swung the other way. The request from the Bar Council of India had made an impact among the majority of lawyers in the state, who began to speak of calling off the strike.

The lawyers agreed to resume work, although they said they were merely "suspending" their suspension of work for a month while they continued consultations with the law minister. The fees had been introduced hastily in a city where everything happens slowly; it was only natural that the strike would take a long time to resolve.

Siddhartha Deb is an Indian writer currently living in the United States. His novel, The Point of Return, was published in March by Ecco.

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