In public interest

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SummaryGovernance will be better served if public-spirited government officials are shielded from frivolous PILs while transparency is ensured

“We find no merit in this petition which is accordingly dismissed” must have come as a huge sigh of relief for the respondent and a stinging defeat for the petitioner.

This verdict of the Supreme Court in November last year refers to the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a habitual litigant against the appointment of UK Sinha as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) in February 2011.

Though it is two months since the judgment, this case is worthy of discussion as it raises several serious issues on the future of public servants in high positions, especially those occupying regulatory seats.

Reading the long 71-page order increasingly infuriated the author against the petitioner, as one after another, all allegations got trashed. Then why was such a petition even entertained, which ended up doing so much damage to so many people: the respondents, the judicial infrastructure and the taxpayers? The Court’s defence is that though it was simple for it to have dismissed the petition as not maintainable for a variety of reasons, it chose to closely examine the case to satisfy its judicial conscience. The judges finally did not deem it a public interest petition for protecting the fundamental rights of any class of downtrodden or deprived section of the population (which is the raison d’etre for PILs) but one that served private, vested interests.

To strengthen a weak case, petitioners would typically build not one or two, but several grounds in the hope that at least a couple of them would stick. In this case too, the petitioner did the same, using several RTIs to first collect information and then piece it together to suit his point of view.

Since there was no room to level any charges on the selection criteria of competence and standing, he focused on the nebulous criterion of integrity. Allegations were made that the appointment was a result of manipulation, misrepresentation and suppression of vital material by the respondent before the search-cum-selection committee. This was found to be without basis.

Then there was the oblique charge of mala fide. It is well settled that the burden of proving mala fide lies very heavily on the petitioner requiring him to provide cogent materials. No evidence was good enough to conclude mala fide.

On another front, the Court held that acceptance by Sinha of lesser salary as chairman, Sebi, cannot ipso facto lead to the petitioner’s allegation

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