MANUSHI in Witness Box

Special Court set up For Hearing Complaints of Rickshaw Owners and Pullers

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The experience of being subject to intense cross examination in the witness box for last several days in the Special Court set up by the High Court to hear individual complaints of rickshaw owners as well as testimonies of Manushi volunteers/staff has been both stressful as well as hilarious. Court scenes in Bollywood films are so much more interesting. By contrast, real courts are soul destroying.

Court procedures, language, modes of argument and fact finding remain ridiculously antiquated. It is as though we have taken a dharmic vow to stay loyal subjects of the British empire of Victorian vintage. Sometimes I wish we should invite the British back to come back for some years and update governance practices and dismantle colonial minded kaws in order to help us meet with challenges of today’s India.

To begin with, the questions posed by the government counsel and my responses have to be dictated word by word in English to a DTP operator whose knowledge and command of English language and vocabulary is limited. As a result we have to spell out a good number of  words, tell her where to put commas, full stops and so on. The only saving grace is that the evidence is being recorded on a computer, not a mechanical typewriter. In the days of the typewriter, no one even bothered to correct spelling errors or wrong grammar. Many of the court testimonies recorded in those days read like gibberish. It escapes me why in this day and age, evidence cannot be video recorded. Dictating every sentence and spelling out half the words for the benefit of DTP operator makes the process excruciatingly slow.

In this case, we are taking pains to ensure that our testimonies are recorded accurately. But what about cases where the testimony is in Hindi or some regional olanguage and the whole thing has to be translated into English on the spot by people whose skills in the two languages are questionable?

Secondly, it is becoming like a routine criminal trial whereby the victims are being put in the dock. The hearings in the High Court have been far more useful thanks mainly due to the care and compassion with which Justice Ravinder Bhatt and Justice Murlidharan listen to this case and the amount of time they have spent hearing arguments. Judges like them keep alive our faith in our law courts despite their colonial legacy and antiquated, counterproductive ways of operation.

We are also fortunate that our counsel, Indira Unninayar has put her heart into this case and is pursuing it in true public spirit.

Why Was The Special Court for Rickshaw Owners and Pullers Set Up?

Two years after the Delhi High Court declared key provisions of rickshaw policy as being lawless and unconstitutional, in response to a petition filed by Manushi in 2007. On June 2, 2012 the Court appointed Retired Additional District Judge, Mr Bharat Bhushan, to act as a Special Enquiry Officer to investigate the cases of illegal confiscation of rickshaws even after the Supreme Court had upheld the High Court order banning the policy of impounding rickshaws on devious pretexts.

The retired judge has been provided a separate courtroom No 006 in the Saket District Court complex. 

MCD was ordered by the Court to place advertisements in Hindi newspapers to let rickshaw owners and pullers know that they can go with their complaints to the Enquiry Officer (EO).  The salary and other costs of running for this court are to be borne by the MCD and Delhi Police. Among several other instances of brazen violation this order was prompted by the trials and tribulations of Dhanik Lal after he tried to register an FIR with Manushi help against the municipal clerks who had illegally confiscated his vehicles. (For details of Dhanik Lal’s case see earlier document, click here:  http://www.manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1632&ptype=campaigns)

While ordering the setting up of the Special Court the Justice Ravinder Bhatt and Justice Murlidharan had said that: “The scope of the enquiry will be to examine the veracity of the complaints made by the Non-Motorised Vehicle (NMV) owner or pliers, of harassment and violation of the court’s judgment and orders, identify and fix responsibility on the officials concerned of MCD, Delhi Police and any other agencies involved, and to suggest measures to bring about effective enforcement of the court’s directions issued from time to time.’’

In the wake of allegations of illegal acts of some MCD officials pertaining to impounding of cycle-rickshaws, the court noted that these assumed “seriousness’’ and could not be left without an inquiry by a responsible officer. “The EO shall devise his own procedure and furnish a report within a period of four months from today,’’ the bench said.

It also asked the Delhi Legal Services Authority (DLSA) to help rickshaw-pullers get legal assistance to lodge FIRs. It said that DLSA’s trained para-legal volunteers could be contacted through the Samajik Suvidha Kendras, a community-based programme of the Delhi government.
The bench also ordered registration of an FIR against two MCD employees in Dhanik Lal who had illegally confiscated his cycle-rickshaw and demanded a hefty bribe for its release.

Registration-on-Demand for Rickshaws

On the issue of registration of cycle-rickshaws in the city, the bench said the MCD should “with utmost expedition’’ start registering them, and directed the civic agency to come out with application forms in sufficient number. The court also ordered the MCD to make adequate arrangements for digital photos and recording of index fingerprints of applicants, as is done in the case of applicants for Motor Vehicle licenses, asking the agency not to insist on proof of residence and proof of purchase of cycle-rickshaw. These requirements become a major hindrance for getting a registration, since most rickshaw pullers are seasonal migrants and have no permanent address or even a jhuggi in slum cluster in Delhi.  These are unable to provide proof of residence.  Likewise most rickshaws are assembled and sold by road side mechanics. These small time entrepreneurs do not own proper business establishments and are often not even educated enough to do the required paper work for issuing legal receipts to those who buy these humble vehicles.

However, ever since the special court began work, MCD counsel has been raising all kinds of flimsy objections to the assistance being given by Manushi volunteers to rickshaw owners and pullers in submitting their complaints to the special judge.

Given the mafia like stranglehold of the police and MCD officials over the lives and livelihoods of rickshaw owners and pullers, it is almost impossible for ordinary pullers and small time rickshaw owners to stand up to the terror tactics of these two worthies. The fate of Dhanik Lal, after he gathered courage to lodge a written complaint against the illegal confiscation of his rickshaw by MCD is illustrative of the risks faced by rickshaw owners and pullers in raising their voice against their exploitation. The impact of the lawless behavior of the MCD — Police Combine can be gauged from the fact that hardly any rickshaw pullers or owners have dared go on their own initiative before the special court.

Despite losing several thousand rickshaws every month to confiscation drives from the 1970’s onwards, not a single police complaint or F.I.R was ever lodged by rickshaw owners against the MCD. Similarly, despite being forced to pay hefty bribes to the MCD and the city police, no one ever lodged a protest against these extortion rackets. Rickshaw owners and pullers gained courage to lodge complaints or admit to terror and extortion only after MANUSHI took up their case.  But even the solid support of Manushi with the matter still being heard in High Court those who are gathering courage to submit their complaints, are finding that this process may land them in more trouble.  Here is an illustrative example

Rickshaw Owner Arjun Ghosh

Arjun Ghosh who runs his rickshaw garage in Jangpura, had given Manushi volunteers a video recorded interview complaining against the confiscation of his rickshaws by the MCD on 6.7.12. We put down his statement in writing and helped him submit it before the special court. Even though Arjun Ghosh did not say a word the local police—whether out of fear or otherwise—about 4 persons from Nizamuddin Police Station descended at his rickshaw yard and asked him very threateningly why he had lodged a complaint in the special court. Out of fright, Arjun denied all knowledge of the matter. But the police did not give up and hounded him with repeated visits to his rickshaw stand, till he yielded to the pressure and gave a false statement saying that Manushi volunteers had made him sign some papers without his knowledge of the contents.

These intimidatory tactics were brought to our notice by another rickshaw owner Zia of Jangpura. He brought the terrified Arjun to our office and gave video-recorded statements how the police was blackmailing them into withdrawing their complaints.

That very night three policemen led by an Asstt Sub Inspector of Lodhi Colony Police Station came to Arjun’s rickshaw stand and forcibly took away 5 rickshaws in a Tata mini truck and dumped them in the police station.  Arjun was also ordered to permanently shut down his rickshaw garage or face action. When Arjun phoned me in panic, I called the SHO Lodhi Estate and informed him that this action amounted to contempt of court.  Fortunately, in this case, the SHO paid heed to my advice.  At 3.30a.m. 3 of Arjun’s rickshaws where returned to his yard while two others were dumped on a nearby road.  However, the policemen continue to threaten him that as soon as the special court is wound up, he is going to face hell.

The extent of losses suffered by rickshaw owners can be gauged from the fact that by 2009 Arjun had built a fleet of 150 rickshaws.  During the “beautification” drive in Delhi on account of the Commonwealth Games, 75 of Arjun’s rickshaws were confiscated in 2010.  Since then Arjun has lost 60 more rickshaws to confiscation drives.  Today he is left with just 15 rickshaws.  At a minimum of Rs 7000 a vehicle, if amounts to a loss of Rs 8,75,000 in one and a half years plus having to live with endless harassment and terror.

It is to be expected that the MCD and police will deny charges leveled by victimized rickshaw pullers and owners, since they risk their jobs if they admit to their illegal acts. Therefore, we are not surprised that each Additional Commissioner of each municipal zone has filed identical rejoinders denying all charges in the court. However, their latest strategy is to use offence as the best form of defence by alleging that Manushi is helping rickshaw owners file bogus complaints. At the same time they are targeting each and every rickshaw owner who has filed a complaint by trying to implicate them in false criminal cases. For example, the policemen from Nizamuddin East thana went and threatened rickshaw owner Zia that they are going to investigate his antecedents since he is “suspected” of being an illegal Bangladeshi migrant. The real reason is that he spoke strongly and honestly about the harrassment and extortion he was being subjected to by Police and municipal employees. Zia has all the required identity papers, including his school leaving certificate, to show that he and his family are bonafide Indian citizens. The SHO of Nizamuddin Police Station told me that a police team is being sent to check his credentials in his native village Khailsana in Malda District of West Bengal. Thus apart from his own safety, Zia was worried about the safety of his village based family.

I phoned the SHO Nizamuddin on September 12, 2012 in the hope that might also soften his attitude as did SHO Lodhi Colony after my personal intervention in Arjun Ghosh’s case.  However, even though he was polite on the phone, SHO Nizamuddin did not back off with regard to enquiry into Zia’s citizenship status.  He also justified his order to Zia that he should remove his rickshaw garage from its present location in Jangpura on the ground that it is “unauthorized.”  I tried telling him that since Manushi’s PIL regarding legalization of rickshaw stands was still being heard, he should heed the earlier orders of the court banning confiscation of rickshaws.  None of this cut any ice with him.

Reports of police crackdown have keep coming on complaints are coming from different parts of Delhi with MCD and police using all kinds of devious stratagems for breaking the morale of rickshaw owners/pullers. We cannot even lodge these complaints for fear of exposing the concerned persons to greater risk.

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