If one were to measure the access an ordinary citizen in India has to courts on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most accessible, the state of Chhattisgarh would likely get a 3.
That is a below par rating in a nation whose Constitution, under Article 39A, obligates the State to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of any economic or other disabilities.
Ordinarily, the impediments that one faces in accessing justice are lack of awareness of rights, inadequacy of competent legal representation, high costs, and lack of speedy resolution, among other things. In the State of Chhattisgarh, however, these hardships barely matter to a litigant since for these hardships to be of any concern, the litigant must first be able to literally access the courts. The sheer distance that a litigant has to cover to get herself heard before a court of law is what makes justice in Chhattisgarh a rare commodity.
Chhattisgarh is the tenth and the sixteenth largest state of India in terms of area and population respectively. Termed as one of the fastest developing states in India having several heavy industries in the power, steel, and aluminum sectors, among others, it is appalling to note that the state has one (1) commercial court, located in Raipur, for adjudication of disputes of a commercial nature.
The Commercial Courts Act, 2015 provides for constitution of such number of commercial courts at the district level, as it may deem necessary, for adjudication of disputes of a commercial nature for a specified value of not less than 3 lakh rupees.
The government of Chhattisgarh, in its wisdom, has constituted one (1) commercial court having territorial jurisdiction over the entire state. That’s one district level court having territorial jurisdiction over an area of 1,35,192 sq. kms. For a litigant who does not reside within the close proximity of the court, the place at which the court is situated itself becomes an impediment to access to justice.
On top of that, commercial courts being trial courts, the litigant also has to make arrangements to appear as witnesses before the court. Further, it is not just the litigants who may face difficulties in approaching the court due to the place at which it is located, but it is probable that the court itself might also face difficulties in executing its own decrees.
Moreover, with the increasing tribunalization of the adjudication system barring the jurisdiction of civil courts, it becomes imperative for the state to take necessary steps for establishment of tribunals, or their circuit benches within the state for enabling residents access to justice.
However, as on date, Chhattisgarh does not have a National Green Tribunal (NGT) bench. To access the NGT, a litigant has to travel to Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, which is at a distance of 630 kms from Raipur. The government has failed to provide any mechanism for setting up of even a circuit bench of NGT within the state. The non-establishment of a National Green Tribunal bench is of a larger consequence since, Chhattisgarh being home to several coal mines and coal-fired power plants, it has allowed industries to operate without worrying about the environmental damage that they are causing.
The nearest National Company Law Tribunal is located at Cuttack, Odisha, whereas the Debts Recovery Tribunal is located at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Chhattisgarh has also failed to establish a Real Estate Appellate Tribunal under Section 43 of the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, which it was required to establish within 1 year of the coming into force of the Act.
The aforesaid issues were also raised by the Chhattisgarh High Court Bar Association in a Public Interest Litigation filed in 2017 before the High Court of Chhattisgarh. In the said matter, the Court took serious note of the situation, highlighting the necessity of access to justice for effective enforcement of constitutional rights of a citizen. However, the Court disposed of the petition with a direction to approach the Chief Secretary of the government, who was to take a policy decision after considering the views of everyone concerned.
Three years have elapsed from the date of the order of the Court, and the government is yet to take any steps to ensure access of justice to its subjects. One can’t help but wonder, with the state being the biggest litigant, whether it is in its best interest to maintain status quo vis-a-vis access to justice.
The author is an Advocate based out of Raipur, Chhattisgarh.