In October last year, the new combined court complex building in Udhagamandalam (Ooty) was inaugurated, over two decades after the four-acre plot was allotted for the same.
The new complex houses eight court buildings, chambers for lawyers, two rooms for paralegals, rooms for the judges' drivers, a vulnerable victims' room, a convention hall, and for some reason, also a plush 'bedroom' with a queen-size bed and a chaise longue.
What the new building doesn't have, however, is a toilet for the 60-odd women lawyers who practice there.
In fact, the women lawyers of Ooty have never had access to a women's toilet in the court complex, old or new, for as long as they have been practicing.
Some of these lawyers have been members of the Bar for 20-25 years. And through this time, they have "controlled" their water intake, "held their pee for hours," or have made a quick dash in between matters to the houses of friends and colleagues who live closer to the court to use their toilets.
"I remember my seniors holding an agitation in the 1990s, demanding a room and a toilet for women lawyers in the Ooty court. And I can say for sure, that wasn't the first time that such demand had been raised," said Advocate Kavitha Arun Kumar, who has been practicing in Ooty since 1999. Kumar is the Secretary of the Nilgiris Women Lawyers' Association.
The women lawyers say that initially, their male colleagues and male members of the local Bar Association would also make representations to the Principal District Judge and the Madras High Court Registrar, asking for adequate infrastructure facilities for themselves and for the women lawyers.
However, after a representation made in open court to the then District Judge Dr P Murugan, and another one made before then Madras High Court Acting Chief Justice T Raja failed to yield any result, the women were left to fend for themselves.
"We had to speak up in open court because the Principal District Judge had refused to hear us otherwise. And, that meeting with the Actig Chief Justice was a disgrace. Nothing came of it, and worse, those who had gone to meet the judge ended up actually apologising for all previous agitations," another lawyer said.
On March 8 this year, on International Women's Day, these women lawyers broke away from the unisex Nilgiris Bar Association, and got registered as the Nilgiris Women Lawyers' Association. The Association has decided to continue their two-decade long agitation to demand for a women's toilet, and a room where they can sit, eat lunch, or change in and out of their gowns. Kumar says,
"One of the by-laws of our Association is to never allow any male lawyer to become a member. Not because of some feminist principle, but because we were so furious. Furious and hurt. What we don't understand is, what is the problem here? There is a men's toilet, a room for judges' drivers, a bedroom even, but no toilet for women lawyers? We have been demanding a toilet for 25 years now. It is not a silly whim that we are chasing after. We are only asking for something that is our basic right."
The women lawyers even went on a hunger strike on January 26 this year, which they were forced to call off owing threats of "suspension and other consequences."
"A day before that, we had asked the District Judge what the hurry to shift was? We had been promised all infrastructure facilities at the new building but we knew that the building wasn't even complete ready. Yet, the District Judge wanted us to shift on January 27. When we sat on our fast, we were warned we were fighting with the judiciary and we will have to face consequences," said Advocate Ranjini Raghavan, who is one of the Executive Committee members of the Association.
"So, we had no choice but to shift. Once we reached the building, we were shocked to see that they had not kept their word and we didn't even have a toilet for the women to use," said Advocate Malini Prabhakaran, Vice President of the Association.
"You build a court building for ₹39 crore but can't provide a toilet for women. One of our juniors was on her period and had no place to dispose of her sanitary napkin. She wrapped the used napkin up and kept it in her Scooty and took it home to throw," she added.
The old court building, though a heritage structure, was decrepit and inadequate to house court rooms, accommodate increasing parking requirements etc.
Thus, in 1996, the State allocated an alternative plot in the Kakkathopu area in Ooty. This plot, where the new complex was finally built and inaugurated in June last year, is six kilometres away from town. The lawyers, both men and women, protested for years, refusing to shift.
"While in the plains, six kilometres is hardly anything, in the hills, it is a long distance, especially considering that there is hardly any public transport connectivity. Besides, to reach the new Court, one has to drive through the forest area and that becomes an immense task during the rains," Raghavan said.
On February 17 Justices VM Velumani and J Sathyanarayana Prasad of the Madras High Court visited the new complex. Justice Velumani surveyed the entire building and spotted an empty room that she immediately asked to be allocated to the women lawyers for their exclusive use. The room also had an attached toilet.
However, three days later, that room and the washroom were sealed with some of the lawyers' belongings still inside.
"The Principal District Judge said it was the Records Room and was to be taken back. He said the room had been sealed following a High Court order. We requested him to at least open washroom but he said whatever we had to say, we must only say to the High Court," Advocate Aruna Mohsin Sait said.
The women said they felt then that they had no choice but to go to the Supreme Court. On April 29, however, a Bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha disposed of their petition, taking note of the submission made by Senior Advocate Guru Krishnakumar on behalf of the Madras High Court that necessary steps have been taken.
The Court gave liberty to the Association to approach the district judge or the Registrar General of the High Court for redressal of any subsisting grievances.
The women said that the day after this hearing, the district judge got two rooms meant for lawyers chambers painted and allocated it for the women. At the end of the corridor along the rooms are three cubicles, two with western commodes and another with an Indian toilet. The women were told they could use the Indian toilet and the other two toilet cubicles will be used by the general public.
The two rooms, the women say, are just about 2x10 square feet in area and the toilets are "so tiny" that one cannot walk in straight and come out without having to squeeze oneself. The Public Works Department norms say that an average person requires atleast 20 square feet worth of space to be able to comfortably sit and stand.
"We are 60 women lawyers so as per the PWD norms, we need 1200 to 1300 square feet worth of space at least. So, we are really confused now. We went to the Supreme Court but have been sent back to the High Court. Again we have to start from scratch. Today we are 60. Tomorrow we might become 100, then 120. Are we expected to run to the courts every year asking for larger space?" Raghavan questioned.
"The most pathetic thing is that we have been fighting for all these years for just a toilet. My 17-year-old daughter says aren't you ashamed of having to fight for a toilet? It is not like we are going to take the toilet home!" she said.
Most days, the women lawyers begin work at the court at 10:30 AM and try to wrap up by 2 PM. However, there are days when they need to stay on till 6-7 PM.
The women say that most of their male colleagues and friends do not understand.
"They ask us, 'you all can't adjust or what?'" Kumar said.
"This denial of basic amenities is harassment. Already, the rains have started in Ooty. June will bring in heavy rains. We have to sit in someone's car to eat our lunch that we carry from home everyday. A colleague recently had to hide behind a cupboard and change her gown, put on her head scarf," said Sait.
"Why should we fight the judiciary? Aren't we part of the judiciary too? Are we so jobless that we have been fighting for something unwarranted for 25 years now?" The fight is so many years old but that is it. There has been no solution," Sait said.
The women said a board bearing the Association's title was installed above the two rooms they had been promised since the Supreme Court hearing. However, on May 22 this year, following an inspection by Madras High Court's Justice N Satish Kumar, even that board was removed.
They then made a representation before the new District Judge, Abdul Khader. However, the meeting with the new judge has not led to any solution. The two rooms and the toilet they were previously offered along have now been locked again.