July 19, 2008

Fast Track Courts : Is this a blackmarket for judicial services ?

The news that the Supreme Court is planning to introduce a fast track court for corporates who can afford steep judicial fees -- and in the process earn windfall income -- raises some very disturbing questions.

Profiteering from the sale -- at high prices -- of scarce goods and services is referred to as 'blackmarketing' and in India both the administration as well as civil society views it as crime. Jawaharlal Nehru had in fact wanted blackmarketeers to be hanged from lampposts and even today the government threatens to crack down on hoarders and blackmarketeers every now and then.

Unfortunately, if not paradoxically, the Indian state is no stranger to this tendency towards blackmarketing when it comes to the delivery of its own goods and services. "Tatkal" schemes -- in telephones, rail tickets and gas connections -- are nothing but blackmarketing in disguise where those who are willing to pay a premium are delivered scarce goods and services ahead of those who are able to pay only at the standard rate.

Shorn of its traditional trappings, the courts in India are nothing but mechanisms that deliver judicial services to citizens of India who through their taxes fund the judiciary. Viewed from this perspective the citizen has a right to ask (a) is he getting value for money ? and (b) is this service being delivered in a fair and equitable manner ?

We all know that the judicial services in India could have been delivered better -- both in terms of quality as well as timeliness. There are two ways to fix this - either (a) work out a way to improve the quality so that everyone benefits or (b) create this 'blackmarket' where those who can pay more can avail of the service. Unfortunately we have chosen the second route.

If a private citizen were to adopt this approach, he would be penalised -- if not hung from lampposts, if Nehru would have had his way !! But since this the Government of India, the Sarkar Bahadur itself, who is there to question -- let alone penalise it ?

Is this not extremely immoral ? Should civil society not protest at this naked display of sarkari immorality ?

With due respect and without any intention of exhibiting contempt I would request the higher judiciary to think twice before embarking on this drastic step. Having thus sold their services in the 'blackmarket' the judiciary would lose the moral right to try and convict anyone else who is accused of 'blackmarketing' goods and services in India.

Instead it would be far better if they engage the services of professional management consultants who can advise them on how to re-engineer the process of service delivery, put in place modern metrics -- key performance indicators or KPIs -- that will help identify bottlenecks and ensure higher levels of customer -- or citizen -- satisfaction. Prima facie this may sound rather theoretical but the judiciary must learn to accept that what they deliver is not really justice but actually judicial services. This calls for a change in mindset but once this change happens, it will not at all be difficult to find experts who have a demonstrated track record of improving service delivery in the most complex and challenging environments.

Will we have the courage to call them in ? For the sake of the country, I hope we do.