Devidas Pangam recently completed three years as Advocate General (AG) for the State of Goa after his appointment to the post on June 10, 2019. He has led the State in several legal battles before the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India.
Over the course of his career as a lawyer, he has served as standing counsel for the Medical Council of India and the Goa State Election Commission, among other entities.
In May, 2018, Pangam was recommended for elevation as a judge by the Bombay High Court Collegium. However, the Supreme Court Collegium, in a resolution passed on March 25, 2019, remitted the recommendation to elevate him and three other lawyers.
In this conversation with Bar & Bench's Aamir Khan, Pangam looks back on his tenure and speaks on cases pertaining to infrastructure projects that are the subject of litigation owing to Goa’s sensitive ecology, among other topics.
Edited excerpts follow.
Aamir Khan: You recently completed three years in office as AG. How would you like to reflect on the tenure?
Devidas Pangam: It has been very satisfying and it was a pleasure to serve the State. It was a very difficult tenure because of the COVID-19 situation and the various problems we faced during the court hearings. So it was challenging, but it was a pleasant experience as far as the work is concerned. It was a difficult time for everybody, not only me.
AK: Can you share a little a bit on the virtual functioning of the Bombay High Court at Goa? How was it handled?
DP: Compared to the rest of the country, we relatively had a better system of video conferencing, and we did not face much problems, if you'd ask me. The number of cases disposed of by the Bombay High Court at Goa were more than the rest of the country. If you see, the pendency was not at all affected; cases that were disposed of and heard were almost the same.
The disposal rate of cases - custody matters, criminal matters, where accused are in jail - were disposed of on a fast-track mode and pendency of such cases literally came down to nil during this time.
AK: When you were appointed as the AG, you said in an interview that you’d be working in the interest of the State and the public. You think you have achieved what you set out for?
DP: Surely, I am very satisfied that I have been able to live up to the statements and I was so candid in the court, that whenever I felt that a citizen required justice, I was fair enough to tell the court to deliver justice without opposing the petitions, etc.
AK: Any highlight or a profound memory from the tenure as AG?
DP: There are several actually. In a court of law, day in and day out, there are points of law that are argued and sometimes you don’t succeed on those points. Sometimes, you win on those points. As far as the results are concerned, they are not so important. What is important is what you have done - whether you have done justice to the brief, whether you have put all points forthright and properly.
Those are the things which are seen. In every case, one party has to win and other has to lose. So winning and losing hardly matters, as it depends a lot on the facts of the case. You can’t change the facts. Basically, you have to be satisfied with your performance, whether you have satisfied your conscience and if you find yourself on the right side of the truth.
I am satisfied that I have not done anything wrong as far this profession is concerned and as far as this post is concerned.
AK: Any particular challenging moment or a case that you recollect in the High Court or the Supreme Court while defending the State government?
DP: I don’t recall any particular case, but overall it has always been challenging. I mean that’s why I am in this profession. Every day is a challenging day. And that actually keeps me going. It is never monotonous.
Every minute, every case is different and you have perform on the spot as sometimes you don’t know what the judge is going to ask. You don’t have a written script. You have to create one on the spot. That way, I find all cases are challenging. Can’t tell you a particular one.
AK: Over the years, litigation has cropped up before the Supreme Court and the Bombay High Court on Goa’s grapple with environmental issues such as mining and unlawful constructions.
As its top law officer how do you think the State can achieve a balance between preservation of its ecology and rich resources and increasing construction activities?
DP: Society, by itself, is a balancing factor. There are different interests, contradicting interests. They fight and ultimately what comes out of that tussle is the best for the society.
So democracy is based on this principle that there are two contradictory views and they pull against each other. That is the theme and principle on which democracy works. You require somebody to oppose you and require somebody to support a particular point of view. That’s when you get the best.
It is always good even with respect to any project, etc. Opposition also, but not for the sake of opposition, but on some principles.
For example, the (Mopa) airport. If you ask me, it is indispensable. Whatever precautions, restrictions have to be taken, have to be taken…But it can’t be like at whatever cost I want to block this project; it is not the correct approach, if you ask me.
When it comes to infrastructural projects, they are required, but we have to take care of the ecology also. There is no doubt about it and we have to consider the point of view of the other side also, and based on that, we should come to a correct conclusion in the interest of the society.
AK: At a recent inaugural function of the Bar Council of India’s University, Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, in lighter vein, mentioned the legal tangle surrounding the road construction at Dudhsagar Falls.
How do you approach cases where you have to defend infrastructural development in the state and keep in mind interests of residents and environmental activists?
DP: I can give you the best example of the new airport at Mopa. What happened was initially that project was cleared by the government, and ECs (environmental clearances) were granted, etc. At that time, the Supreme Court said no, it is wrongly done, it is not done in accordance with law. It told the government to go through this process again.
And the government went through that process again and they did it in accordance with law and according to the statute, then the Supreme Court permitted it.
So far as infrastructural development and projects are concerned, they have to go on. The court intervenes when the procedure prescribed under law is not followed properly. So to that extent, the court interferes. Court never says that a particular project is not required. Court will always say that you have not followed the law and therefore it is bad.
Even in my view, infrastructural projects are required but, at the same time, the law will have to be followed.
AK: Taking a cue from what you said, if you feel there is a genuine concern of the citizens of Goa as far as a particular project is concerned, would you give that opinion to the State as AG and support it in court?
DP: There are two aspects. First, when you talk to a lawyer or when it comes to a lawyer’s profession, they are supposed to defend the interest of his client. As a lawyer, while defending a government or a party, it is not as if he is putting his own views. He is actually putting up the point of view of his client. Whatever may be the point of view, ultimately the correct point of view is the one decided by the court.
For example, in a criminal case where someone is charged of murder, if we go by common sense or common understanding, that person shouldn’t be defended, but that is not how the system works.
Our democracy and system is based on the principle that whatever may be his offence, his side should be conveyed to the court and conveyed in the best possible manner. He is entitled to legal assistance so that the courts also should decide correctly.
Ultimately, the lawyer who represents a person or a party doesn’t decide if something is right or wrong. It is decided by the court. So court requires assistance from both sides. As I told you in the beginning, when the two extreme points tussle, the best comes out. Suppose there is one side which is properly represented and the other side was not represented properly, then that is a cause of grave injustice.
Therefore, our system is not based on the principle whether the lawyer agrees with the client or whether the lawyer is on the right side or the wrong side. Neither he is on trial nor his principles are on trial nor his ideas. He is purely representing the party.
AK: Has there been any instance where your legal opinion differed with that of the State?
DP: I am supposed to give the opinion. The government is not bound by my opinion. They are entitled to their own views and entitled to take opinions also.
Many a time, it may so happen that they may not agree with my opinion and might take a different opinion. That is possible and it must be happening also. Day in day out, I give opinions and they may not agree with me on several occasions. They are entitled to differ with me.
AK: You were recommended in 2018 for elevation as a judge by the Bombay High Court. Do you regret not becoming a judge?
DP: My philosophy in life is whatever happens, happens for good. If you ask me today, I don’t have any regrets. Whatever God does, it is for the good.
AK: The Bombay and Goa Bars have produced many stalwarts. Who is your source of inspiration? What are your thoughts on the recent crop of lawyers coming out of law schools?
DP: I can tell you I got inspired by so many stalwarts who were there when I joined the profession. Someone like - unarguably the best lawyer we had in Goa in my firm opinion - SK Kakodkar. We were really inspired by him. He is one person I can think of.
The other person is Justice Ferdino Rebello, who was the ex-Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court and judge of Bombay High Court, and Justice MS Sonak. I was his junior. These three names I can think of immediately.
There are others too, but off-hand I can’t tell you. There are many judges also who came from Bombay and inspired us. The Bombay High Court has a great tradition of producing some of the best judges.
As far as the legal fraternity is concerned, it is growing by numbers, but quality-wise it is not growing. It is the unfortunate part. And that is the problem with the profession.
Same is reflected in the judiciary, because ultimately lawyers make the judiciary. So if there is a problem with the legal fraternity, it percolates into the judiciary. I think if we improve the quality of lawyers, automatically judiciary will be also benefitted.
AK: Do you think the Goa Bench should work full strength with four judges given the pendency of cases?
DP: In my personal opinion, I am not so keen on numbers. I will be happy even if we have two judges who are competent.
You want to talk about your beginnings. How was growing up in Goa like?
Pangam: I am basically from a business family. We were involved in business at the same time my father was a freedom fighter and two of my uncles were also freedom fighters.
I have strong national feelings and I can’t live without it. We have strong moral standards—typical Hindu mentality, orthodox, at the same time us being Goans, liberal also.