Fighting to get pathway for Dalit women

Highlights

Fighting to get pathway for Dalit women. One of the major problems that the very poor face in rural India is that when a village divides on account of politics of any kind, the interests of the poor suffer as the poor have to join one or the other of the dominant groups whether or not their real interests are thus served.

One of the major problems that the very poor face in rural India is that when a village divides on account of politics of any kind, the interests of the poor suffer as the poor have to join one or the other of the dominant groups whether or not their real interests are thus served. When this happened in a village in Krishna district the results turned out to be pretty costly for the Collector himself! The Zilla Parishad High School (ZPHS) in this village abutted the harijanwada but there also existed a no man’s land between the harijanwada and the school, about six yards wide. It was represented to me by the Dalits of this village through a respected leader of the district Guntur Bapanaiah that this land was being used by the women of the harijanwada as a pathway to reach the bushes some distance away serving as toileting ground by these women. It was brought to my notice that a barbed wire fence was being erected by the ZPHS right up to the houses in the harijanwada in such a manner that this pathway to the toileting grounds was blocked off so the women lost their right of pathway to answer calls of nature.

It was alleged that this was done because the occupants of this harijanwada belonged to the faction opposed to the one that had influence over the affairs of the school. The resultant predicament of the women was brought to my notice by Guntur Bapanaiah who had been a legislator. Accompanied by the chairman of the ZP I inspected the spot personally on the 1st September 1974 and found the facts on ground to be exactly as reported by the harijans. I examined the village records and found that the area occupied by the ZPHS was classified as playground poromboke. In other words, it was government land and had continued to remain so despite the school having been built. The women needed immediate relief from being constrained by the act of the ZPHS. Under the Zilla Parishad and Panchayat Samithis Act 1959 the Collector was the chairman of all the standing committees of the ZP including the one on Education. The chairman ZP was also present at this inspection. I noticed a clear “footpath” in the disputed area created by its constant use by the harijans establishing beyond doubt that they had been using the path over a long period. This beaten path could not have appeared suddenly and must have been in existence for several years and enclosing that now with a fence against custom and usage was unfair and calculated to harm the interests of the harijans. To obviate this, I ordered that the fencing be shifted so the pathway would continue to be available to the harijans. I wrote a note accordingly on the file justifying my decision.

This order was challenged by the ZPHS Committee by way of an appeal to the Government in the Panchayat Raj Department. The Government rejected the petition upholding my orders. The School Committee went in appeal against the Government orders to the High Court in a writ petition claiming that the land in question was private land having been gifted decades earlier to the District Board for the construction of a school building. Justice O Chinnappa Reddy dismissed the writ petition at the admission stage itself on the ground that a regular suit was the appropriate remedy for determining the title and ownership of the property in question. Now the School Committee went in a letters patent appeal to a Division Bench of the High Court against the orders of Justice Chinnappa Reddy. This Bench happened to be presided over by the same two judges who had threatened to initiate contempt proceedings against me in the lanka lands case, referred in my previous article.
In that case they had upheld my orders, though. The appellant School Committee, I should record in all fairness, did not allege any mala fides against me in their petition before the Bench but contended that the land was not government land but private land gifted to the School Committee decades earlier and therefore the Collector had no jurisdiction to order the pulling back of the fence. Yet, the Bench, as reported by the Government pleader to the Government, made certain remarks touching on the previous case, prejudicial to me even before the arguments started in the case. The judgment was delivered by the Bench accepting the arguments of the appellants that the land in question was private land having been gifted decades earlier to the School Committee as a playground for students. In the process the Bench passed six serious strictures against me, which I considered were prompted by prejudice, the gravamen of which was that I thought I “could act as a dictator” and “do and undo things”. The Bench directed that a copy of their order be communicated to the Government so the Government “may also consider the desirability and advisability of not posting Mr. Venugopal Rao (sic) as District Collector”.
My initial reaction to the strictures in the judgment delivered in September 1975 by which time I had gone on deputation to the Government of India as the Senior Regional Manager, Food Corporation of India (FCI), was to ignore them. However, I had to change my mind and challenge the remarks made against me because every time I took stringent disciplinary action against any official in the FCI a pseudonymous telegram would go to the Chairman, FCI quoting this judgment in this case that “Venugopal should not be posted as Collector”, implying my unsuitability as an officer. These telegrams became so frequent that the Chairman, FCI one day asked me what it was all about. I realised that this was a sword of Damocles suspended on me and I would never be able to act against the corrupt officials unless I had those remarks of the Bench expunged.
For this I had to go before the same Bench which had passed the strictures as per procedure.
A reading of the judgment had convinced me the Bench was prejudiced against me because of the previous case. Therefore in my affidavit seeking expunction of the remarks I took my stand accordingly referring to their reported remarks that in this case I “should not be let off”; I also averred that the “observations are not only not based on material but were made in a biased view to condemn me”. On this the Bench observed in an order made by them that they had neither prejudice nor bias against me and added “concerned to maintain the independence and fair name of the judiciary” …“we do not propose to hear this application”. They directed that the matter be posted before another Bench for disposal according to law. The Bench before which the matter was posted expunged the two remarks I have adverted to above while allowing the other remarks to stand, holding two others to be general observations regarding the duties of the Collectors and not specifically against me and there was therefore no reason to expunge them. By the time this judgment came giving me partial relief it was mid-1979, almost five years since I had intervened to protect what I had genuinely felt were the interests of the Dalit women.
Meanwhile, a petition by the Government to grant special leave to file an appeal to the Supreme Court under article 133 (1-C) of the Constitution of India against the order of the Bench had been dismissed by the same Bench in April, 1976 holding that in their opinion no substantial question of law of importance required to be decided by the Supreme Court.
I bow before the supremacy of the Courts. These illustrations I have given in the previous and the current articles show, however, the various fronts on which the civil servant has to fight if he takes the spirit of the Constitution in regard to social justice seriously. That could be among the reasons why many throw in the towel. I am not fighting cases decided 40 years ago in a newspaper article, but I believe that at least a study of the unequal fights we wage on behalf of the deprived sections of society would come to light if the strictures in the judgments delivered in these two cases could be studied by activist jurists concerned with the way justice is delivered to the poorer sections of Indian society. As we see the parlous state in which the entire system of governance is mired today in India, studies of cases of the kind mentioned here might help us see if there are alternate methods of looking at the predicament of the hapless like not only the dalits and the tribes but also other classes of citizens like government officials.
In an ideal democracy, in the context of decentralised governance, the political electives and the permanent civil service should work in harmony and unison particularly where the poor are concerned. Yet, that cannot happen if purely partisan considerations guide the practice of politics as we see in our rural areas, especially in the context of caste-based discrimination.
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