As 2016 draws to a close, it is time to reflect on the major issues and controversies that made headlines. Standoff between the judiciary and the government over appointment of judges for higher courts, vexatious inter-state water disputes involving Cauvery and Satluj-Yamuna link canal, PILs related to rising NPAs, the appointment of Lokpal and the CBI director, etc, consumed much of the judicial time this year.
Apart from the huge embarrassment over the Central rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the Narendra Modi-led government also drew flak for its November 8 decision to demonetise old R500 and R1,000 currency notes, with the top court asking the government to address the inconveniences and hassles being faced by the common man.
A major achievement of the year is its determination to cleanse the rot that has crept into the BCCI. The ongoing tussle between the cash-rich cricketing body and the Justice RM Lodha Committee made headlines throughout the year. Earlier this month, the SC also hinted at launching prosecution against BCCI president Anurag Thakur for committing perjury. It said that he will go to jail, if held guilty in his attempts to obstruct structural reforms recommended by the panel.
Looking back, the going year started-off with a setback-of-sorts for consumers when the Supreme Court quashed penalty provision for call drops, prompting the regulator to seek more powers to penalise errant telecom operators. It struck down the Trai regulation imposing mandatory compensation by telecom service providers to subscribers for call drops.
But the cellular operators bore the brunt with the SC, recently, ruling that property tax can be levied on mobile towers by the state governments and their municipal bodies as they are to be taxed as “land” and “building” under the Gujarat legislation.
In an another setback to big corporates including RIL, Vedanta, Adani, a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the SC upheld the demand of entry tax by states for allowing goods and raw materials to their territories, saying it did not restrict freedom of trade or other constitutional provisions on inter-state trade. However, the 7:2 majority verdict by the apex court ruled that the taxing measure should not be discriminatory and restrict entry of goods from other states. Estimates put the gain for the states around R35,000 crore. Over 2,000 petitions were before the apex court on the issue.
Cracking down on companies that sell pan masala and tobacco in separate pouches to circumvent the gutkha ban, the top court banned the sale of all forms of chewable tobacco and nicotine, and directed authorities, including the FSSAI, to strictly enforce its directions. This will enable the food regulator and other enforcement agencies to prosecute companies that have resorted to an ingenious way of ensuring that sales continue despite the 2011 regulation.
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Besides these developments, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee emerged winner when the apex court termed as “illegal and void” the acquisition of 1,053 acre of land in Singur by the erstwhile Left Front government for Tata Motors’ small car ‘Nano’ project. While the judiciary has been reluctant to interfere in acquisition proceedings, it emphasised on the importance of fair compensation and transparent procedure.
A path-breaking judgement came banning all liquor vends on national and state highways across the country. This was to curb rising fatal mishaps due to drunken driving. The court also clarified that licenses of existing shops will not be renewed after March 31 next year.
In October, it stayed the operation of the Patna High Court judgement quashing the Bihar government’s law banning sale and consumption of all types of liquor in the state. While the Nitish Kumar-government had moved the SC after the law was set aside, it came out with a new law banning the sale and consumption of liquor which was notified on Gandhi Jayanti.
On environmental issues, the worsening air pollution levels in Delhi and NCR kept the court busy since December 2015, when it had given number of directions, including restricting entry of trucks and barring registration of diesel SUVs and high-end private cars with engine capacity of 2000cc and above. The court later allowed registration of diesel vehicles on payment of 1% of their ex-showroom prices as cess. Further, it asked authorities to suspend licences for stocking and selling of fire crackers in the national capital.
Sahara chief Subrata Roy was granted interim parole by the SC after spending over two years in jail to attend his mother’s last rites and the same is being extended on various conditions.
In another far-reaching verdict that brought relief to lakhs of contractual employees working in government departments and agencies, the court basing its judgement on the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ ruled that temporary workers are entitled to wages at par with permanent employees.
The top court also came down on builders like Supertech, Unitech, Parvnath, etc, saying that people who have invested their hard-earned money for booking flats could not be allowed to suffer because of the bad financial condition of a builder and directed various realtors to refund money to home buyers who invested in various project in Noida, Gurugram and Ghaziabad.
In an effort to bring about the required change in the attitude of people being reluctant to help hapless victims of accident, the SC approved Centre’s guidelines for protection of Good Samaritans from all forms of harassment at hospitals, police stations and courts.
From the lawyers perspective this year, the happening at the court aimed at bringing about a meaningful change in the society, be it environmental issues, clarity on taxation and defending itself. Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves said that the judges courageously stood up to the “tyranny of the government in browbeating the higher judiciary,” safeguarding democracy and upholding the judiciary’s independence. Supporting him, another senior lawyer CA Sundram said that the court has stood very firm on maintaining independence and dignity of the court, but at the same time should have exercised self-restraint in issues related to private bodies like BCCI in its zeal to protect the public interest.