Gayatri Singh
Gayatri Singh
Interviews

The #Bombay Seniors: In Conversation with senior counsel Gayatri Singh

Anuj Agrawal

One of the few women senior counsel in the Bombay High Court, Gayatri Singh is also the co-founder of the Human Rights Law Network.

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal, she talks about her journey in law, what got her into trade unions and much more.

Anuj Agrawal: There is surprisingly little information about you before you became a lawyer.

Gayatri Singh: Well, I don’t like interviews too much (smiles). I went to the US to do my undergraduation; I studied B.Com at Wharton School, but did not complete the course. My father died when I had just passed out of high school from Hyderabad, and my mother got a scholarship in Pennsylvania for her higher studies. I got a scholarship at Wharton so I started studying there. And then I got fed up (laughs) and left.

Anuj Agrawal: Fed up of?

Gayatri Singh: Wharton is a business school and is very elitist. So I just wasn’t able to fit in; the Indian community was very amongst themselves, the American students were in their own [circle] and I just felt left out.

Anyway, I was there for about two years and then I got homesick and came back to India. I came to Bombay and completed my [degree] from Osmania University in Hyderabad.

Then I came back to Bombay where my sister was. I was doing part time jobs, and started working with Indira Jaising as well as certain unions.

Anuj Agrawal: How did you get involved in trade unions?

Gayatri Singh: Well, in America I was very active in student politics. And when I came back, I started working with people in the trade unions, helping them with their legal work. This was just after the textile strikes [in Mumbai]; a lot of mill companies were closing down and the dues were not being paid. It was really a basic issue of non-payment of dues, it wasn’t like there were bigger demands or demands which could not be met.

People were starving in a city like Bombay, workers were dying of malnutrition because they were not being paid their wages. I was moved by the entire situation and that is how I joined that movement. I got involved in an organisation that was active amongst mill workers for payment of dues.

Anuj Agrawal: Did you decide all this in Wharton?

Gayatri Singh: Oh no. It wasn’t like this was planned or that I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I mean, I wanted to be a professor of Economics!

Here I got involved in trade unions and I felt the need to know the law because everything was so intertwined in law. For example, workers dues not being paid because the employers were not complying with the law. In the industrial courts, you don’t have to be a lawyer to appear, so I used to appear and worked in the unions.

So, unwittingly I got involved in the legal aspects and the more I got involved, the more I felt I should have a degree. So around three to four years after completing my undergraduate degree, I graduated in law from Government Law College in Mumbai.

Anuj Agrawal: In an earlier interview, you spoke about being attacked by local goons hired by mill owners. Weren’t you scared?

Gayatri Singh: Not really. At that point of time, the textile industry was in the grips of the underworld. That is why textile workers were not willing to (pauses) they were scared to organise. The committee set up to examine their claims consisted of people from different political parties like the Shiv Sena, the Janta Dal etc. So workers felt that they would not be attacked.

And moreover, there was a lot of support from the workers, so in that sense, that fear was not there. We had workers behind us, it wasn’t like we were right there in the open.

Anuj Agrawal: In that same interview, you spoke about how Phoenix mills was started as a gymnasium or a bowling alley to escape compliance?

Gayatri Singh: Of course. I mean most of the mills today have all violated the law. Phoenix Mills has blatantly [done so]. I mean they set fire to part of the mill, created a vacant space and then started constructing on that. Earlier, the law was that even if you demolished a building, the vacant land would have to be divided equally.

We won the case in the High Court, but the Supreme Court interpreted the [BMC] circular to mean only open vacant land. So even if the company demolishes a building, it would not have to be divided. So the city lost a lot of land that way.

Most of the mills were on leased land; it was not really something that the mill owners owned. The land belonged to the government. Pictured above: Phoenix Mills
Most of the mills were on leased land; it was not really something that the mill owners owned. The land belonged to the government. Pictured above: Phoenix Mills

Most of the mills were on leased land; it was not really something that the mill owners owned. The land belonged to the government.

And before the High Court, we also won the issue that we were able to identify the mills that were on leased land. And the BMC had also filed documents to show that the mills were on leased land. However, the Supreme Court did not agree. So again, the city lost a huge tract of land.

That is as far as the mills are concerned. If you look at other industries where the Urban Land Ceiling Act applies, hardly 0.05% of that excess land was handed over to the government. For most of the surplus land, the company owners applied for exemption which was granted.

They were supposed to either use it for industrial purposes or if they were not doing that, they had to prepare a scheme for housing economically weaker sections of society. This was never done.

Anuj Agrawal: Do you think people care about these issues?

Gayatri Singh: Which people?

The poor care. I mean, naturally, because you are taking over land which should have been given to them for housing. The government says that there is no vacant land for housing the poor in the city of Bombay. So they are taking over marshy lands or mangrove land on this premise. But there was land, and there still is land, for housing the poor.

“The rich are not concerned because all they want is their big buildings to come up. Right?”
“The rich are not concerned because all they want is their big buildings to come up. Right?”

The rich are not concerned because all they want is their big buildings to come up. Right?

Anuj Agrawal: When it comes to EWS housing, you have written that very often people are unable to afford the maintenance for these buildings.

Gayatri Singh: Yes. In the case of mill workers, they are told that they have been given great houses in the city of Bombay.

But most of them are forced to sell it and move out. People said that they are misusing the benefit that is being given to them. But actually, they were forced to leave because the maintenance is so high.

Anuj Agrawal: Are you ever discouraged?

Gayatri Singh: I am discouraged but at the same time there is some hope in the judiciary. It is only the judiciary that can maintain the rule of law. That is why I became a lawyer – because may be the judiciary will come out and save the situation.

Anuj Agrawal: That is a bit unfair. Aren’t there good people in the government as well?

Gayatri Singh: In the government? Having a few people in the government is of no use unless they are able to implement it right. You can have a great MLA and one great MP who is not corrupt who is really serious about his work.

But he has no say in the government so what use is it? I mean ultimately it is the Cabinet that sits there and decides.

Anuj Agrawal: When it comes to the judiciary, you have said that a lot of the labour laws have been whittled down.

Gayatri Singh: When it comes to labour law, over a period of time, the rights [of workers] have been taken away. For instance, the issue of back wages; earlier the Supreme Court had held that you are entitled to back wages if your services are terminated illegally. Then the Supreme Court said that you are not entitled to back wages.

A poster in Gayatri Singh’s office
A poster in Gayatri Singh’s office

This whole definition of “industry” has been reduced to a few industrial establishments, whereas the Supreme Court had earlier said that almost everything would be covered by the term “industry”.

Or the definition of “workman” being made so narrow that very few workers can come under that definition. The larger part of the working class is unorganised with no rights at all.

Anuj Agrawal: Did you ever consider working with the government, as a government lawyer for instance?

Gayatri Singh: Never. Not at all. Because so many of my friends who are really doing some good work in the government find it so difficult. That is because ultimately, it is the government officials that decide what kind of work is given to you.

So if you are an honest person, if you are not willing to argue something which is wrong or not within the law, you can just be thrown out. Or given cases which have no relevance, or transferred to some irrelevant position.

I mean if you had some sort of say then perhaps I would find it worthwhile but otherwise, no.

Anuj Agrawal: You were designated in 2015. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Gayatri Singh: I never wanted to apply. I think you should be recognised for what you are. I think applying is a sort of humiliation in a sense. But then I felt that you are somehow recognised more if you are a senior counsel, recognised in other courts as well.

And I was really happy that [Mihir Desai and my] work was recognised. We do work for the poor, we don’t take up all these rich cases. And to be recognised for that is something very fulfilling I would say.

Anuj Agrawal: You chose to get your designation application signed by senior counsel Phiroza Anklesaria.

Gayatri Singh: I wanted a woman senior to sign the form. There are so few women lawyers who are recognised and there are some really good women lawyers. I still feel that women lawyers don’t have it so good in terms of the working conditions, in terms of how people look at them or how clients look at them.

Those women lawyers who have been able to become senior counsel have gone through hell. Pictured above: Senior counsel Phiroza Anklesaria
Those women lawyers who have been able to become senior counsel have gone through hell. Pictured above: Senior counsel Phiroza Anklesaria

And it is very, very difficult to be able to overcome all these difficulties. So those women lawyers who have been able to become senior counsel have gone through hell. I mean they have gone through much more than I have gone through.

So, [getting it signed by a woman] was basically a show of support.

Anuj Agrawal: How do you choose your juniors?

Gayatri Singh: It is basically whether they are really sincere in terms of working for the poor. And that they believe in certain principles. For example, we don’t take up employers’ cases, we don’t take up husbands’ cases. So people working in our offices have to abide by that. It is not that they have to conform to what we believe in but at least in basic principles like fighting for the poor.

Anuj Agrawal: Are you a taskmaster?

Gayatri Singh: Well, I believe that people should work to the best of their capacity. I don’t think people should work from morning till midnight but you must complete your job. And it must be done properly.

Because you are up against people who have that infrastructure, those facilities which we do not have. The only way we can compare to their level is by being really good at our job. So yes, in that sense, I am a taskmaster as far as our capacity is concerned. We must meet the best standards and be good in our law.

Anuj Agrawal: Any advice you have for those considering the legal profession?

Gayatri Singh: Well I would say that there are many ups and downs and you have to stick to your principles. This is very hard, so you tend to make compromises.

Everyone wants to make money, have recognition. And it is much more difficult to fight for the poor and be recognised for that work because you are always looked upon as a person who is out of place, someone who is crazy (laughs).

So I feel that you should, despite all odds, be able to stand up and fight for what you believe in.

Anuj Agrawal: On the Make in India initiative, you have said that there was a lot of pressure to prevent workers from unionising. 

Gayatri Singh: That is because the emphasis is on development, on industrialisation. And in the process, the basic perception is that workers who demand for better working conditions are really putting hurdles in the development of the country. So even the basic right to organise is being taken away.

Similarly, on the issue of the environment, where you want better air, cleaner water, more forests, open spaces. We have filed so many cases in this regard. And you are looked upon as someone who is hampering development.

“Is “development” something that you only see from the point of view of industrialisation? Or also in the upliftment of the living and working conditions of the poor?”
“Is “development” something that you only see from the point of view of industrialisation? Or also in the upliftment of the living and working conditions of the poor?”

This concept of “development” is something that we are challenging. Is “development” something that you only see from the point of view of industrialisation? Or also in the upliftment of the living and working conditions of the poor?

It is all very one-sided. You take away the right to organise, the right to be a permanent worker, the right to all rights that existed and you compare it to the situation in America where workers don’t have the protection that workers have in India. But that is because you have a safety net in America, you have social security. We don’t have it here.

So either you focus on providing for a safety net or you provide stability in your employment. And that can only happen if these [labour] laws exist.

This concept of “development” is something that we are challenging. Is “development” something that you only see from the point of view of industrialisation? Or also in the upliftment of the living and working conditions of the poor?

Anuj Agrawal: You think there will be a revolution?

Gayatri Singh: Well people are going to protest. There will be a time when people will rise and that will happen because you are slowly taking away whatever little benefits people had. Even if you look at our subsidies – all that has been taken away. Sixty percent of the funds that are going for the ICDS  (Integrated Child Development Services) schemes has been withdrawn. Sixty percent!

You talk of food security – that is slowly being taken away. We are filing cases to ensure that people are covered under these schemes. Tribals are being thrown out, workers are being thrown out. So from all sides they are being attacked.

So people are going to rise up. Hopefully there will be widespread protests, and the government will realise that they cannot do that.

Anuj Agrawal: Do you think it is about human greed?

Gayatri Singh: It is not human greed. You want more and more capitalisation of your wealth in whatever way possible. It is not something that is inbuilt within you, that you want more and more. But basically whatever capital you have, you want to expand that. And in the process you could not care less about what happens to people.

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