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The first impression you get when you walk into Courtroom One of the makeshift campus of the Andhra Pradesh High Court at Vijayawada is that it is a conference room. A roundtable with microphones seats thirteen lawyers, and a wooden projection about two feet high emanating from the far wall seats about fifteen very uncomfortable souls.
In stark contrast to the cavernous Courtroom No. 1 at Hyderabad – where the combined High Court for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh functioned – the lawyers, court staff and judges are within touching distance of each other. Unlike the court halls at Hyderabad, there isn’t a single reference book in sight.
“It is smaller than our moot court hall”, whispers a young National Law University graduate. Courtrooms number two, three, and ten are similar in size, while the other six are a couple of hundred square feet in area at best.
Courtroom One may well have been used a conference room, given that the High Court is now functioning out of the Chief Minister’s Camp office in downtown Vijayawada.
As the judges’ sedans whiz into the premises in a neat convoy, it quickly becomes apparent that any more vehicles would cause parking problems. Lawyers have to park at the Public Works Department ground, which is a few hundred meters away, but even that is woefully inadequate as a long line of cars parked on both sides of the road pays testimony to.
“You should go see Justice Rajani’s court”, murmurs our law school grad.
I walk through the manicured lawns on which lawyers and litigants alike are taking in some winter sunshine, and reach a small building that is separate from the main premises. A bevy of lawyers mill around a door with a brown board having ‘Smt Justice T Rajani’ emblazoned on it in gold. A clerk steps out and calls the names of two lawyers in exactly the sort of way that parties are called in the lower courts.
With a peek through the door, it’s evident that the judge is conducting court in her office. She sits at her desk, which serves as a place for lawyers to rest their papers. Most of the judges’ chambers are the former offices of Secretaries to the Chief Minister.
I wander back to the main building to take a look at what kind of facilities are available to lawyers. There is no mess, and I couldn’t spot a library. A room on the right-hand side corner of the first floor houses a motley assortment of mismatched chairs. A printed piece of paper stuck to the door of this room proclaims this to be the premises of the Andhra Pradesh High Court Advocates Association (APHCAA). The ladies room which I sought permission to access was slightly better in that the furniture was a little more uniform.
“What can you expect when you have to shift the High Court in three days? As far as facilities for advocates are concerned, we will not raise any demands for one month. One has to be considerate and give the administration some time”, said KB Ramana Dora, President of the APHCAA.
He did. however, say that accommodation for those advocates having to migrate from Hyderabad was a major concern and that he would raise it. He said that a government order had been passed wherein civil service officers could buy a 750 square yard plot close to the Secretariat on the payment of Rs 5000 per square yard.
“We require 200-300 square yards, and that too strictly for lawyers who have had to migrate”, he added.
On the question of whether the notification was rushed, he said that what was done was done, and that there was no point in talking about it.
Not everyone I spoke with was as philosophical, though. Calling it a “staged drama”, Senior Counsel L Ravichander said that there was a total lack of sensitivity in the timing of the notification.
“There was no reason that the notification could not have specified that the Court would start functioning after the Sankranthi vacation. This would have given both the administration and lawyers the time to settle their affairs and find adequate accommodation and the like”, he added.
Senior Counsel P Veera Reddy said that the move was inevitable, but that the inevitable could have been delayed. He said advocates were being severely inconvenienced and had not received any support from the government.
A senior member of the Court administration echoed these sentiments, saying that the establishment of a High Court in five days was an impossible task.
“This is not an office, it is a Constitutional establishment,” he added.
It was not all gloom and doom, however. In a small balcony on the first floor of the building, I noticed a small group of advocates positively brimming with optimism. I decided to ask for their views.
What was different about this group was that they were all residents of Vijayawada. Dholapalli Bala, who is a member of the Bezawada Bar Association, was elaborate in her praise for the administration.
“To give us this kind of infrastructure in five days in unthinkable, nobody else would have been able to do it,” she said. “Of course, there are some inconveniences for lawyers and judges, but the comfort of the litigating public is foremost”, she added.
Others said that these inconveniences were only temporary, and that once the building was completed in Nelapadu, all would be well.
The Andhra Pradesh government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court stating that the structure would be complete by the end of December had, and continues to be the subject of heated political debate. So, when will the structure really be complete? The only way to find out was to travel to Nelapadu.
I was told that Nelapadu was about 35 kilometers away and that the best way to get there was by bus. Google Maps was inaccurate, and so was everyone else at the enquiry counter at Vijayawada’s Pandit Nehru Bus Terminus.
The closest I got to a concrete answer was that the best way to get there would be to take a bus to Velagapudi – where the Secretariat is – and then take my chances with whatever local transport was available. Given my previous experience with local transport at Velagapudi, I decided to take a return trip by auto.
Amaravati’s progress since my last visit was clearly evident as soon as we crossed the banks of the River Krishna and entered Guntur District. Lush fields where cash crops such as yams, plantain, and turmeric thrived, owing to the land’s proximity to the river. High rises meant to house either government offices or the officials that manned them, dotted the landscape. Workers and heavy machinery were everywhere.
We had to ask at least four different people before arriving at a building outside which a board proclaimed it to be the judicial complex. The picture of the building bore absolutely no semblance to the picture displayed on the board.
If someone told me that the building would be complete in three months, I would have to say it was an optimistic assessment. Should someone say two months, I would have been skeptical. But the Capital Redevelopment Authority official at the project office on site went one better.
When I expressed my disbelief at his stating that the building would be ready in one month, he told me that this was not like constructing a house.
“There are 1500 workers toiling day and night; the structure is complete, it is only the interiors, electricity and plumbing that need to be completed. Of course there is also a dome that must be erected, but that won’t take much time,” he added.
Looking at the structure and the ragged landscape it sat in, it was difficult to imagine this being a fully functional High Court with parking and the entire security infrastructure in place in one month.
Even if the one-month time frame could be taken with a dollop of salt, other problems for lawyers and litigants alike were evident. There wasn’t a single shop, eatery, petrol bunk, or hotel for miles around.
The distance from Vijayawada also presented challenges.
“I will have to employ a person just to sit in my Vijayawada office to ensure that if any additional file is called for, he can ferry it to me in time”, said an advocate, on the condition of anonymity.
The government’s announcements that the building will be functional by January 31 are incredulous. A source close to the government added a little clarity to their definition of “functional”.
“By functional, they mean that about 10 chambers and court halls will be complete, and that they will function while the rest of the building, the compound wall, and the landscaping are completed,” he said with a wry chuckle.
Whether the Acting Chief Justice will agree to hold court amidst the din of incessant drilling and loud heavy machinery on the move, is debatable. But what is clear is that the government has its task cut out. If you are a litigant, make sure you have your own transport, don’t rely on Google Maps, and bring your own lunch.