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Friday, March 1, 2002

A poor, migrant watchman’s family lives in a hut in my neighbourhood. One morning when walking along the road, a pet dog from a posh home rushed out and attacked him. It was several long minutes before the terrified watchman could free himself - but not before his right arm was severely bitten from wrist to shoulder. There were gaping wounds and severe bleeding, and almost half the skin on the arm was hanging loose. The petrified man returned home with difficulty – drenched in blood and perspiration. After recovering from the shock, together with some relations he went back to the owner of the pet dog to seek some help. After an hour’s haggling, he was given a hundred rupees! The owner showed no concern for his plight and certainly made no effort to get him medical attention. The watchman then came to me. My wife and I did what we could to provide help and medical attention. He couldn’t work for about three weeks. He had to get dressing, full anti-rabies course, and antibiotics and wait for the wounds to heal. There was considerable pain, fever and suffering. The family, already poor, underwent severe privation, monetary loss, emotional trauma and uncertainty.One of the great challenges of modern urban life is protection of rights of citizens and ensuring quick, accessible and affordable justice and reparation. In Hyderabad – and in all cities in the country – there is no mechanism that can legally take care of simple offences, boundary or property disputes and such other small cases in a speedy and fair manner without getting involved in a long drawn-out process. In any civilized society the above incident would be a fit case for a civil suit under torts, and a fair compensation would be assessed at Rs.10,000 or more. The owner, whose carelessness resulted in this casualty, has the vicarious responsibility, and should pay damages.But thanks to our perverse sense of justice, such redressal is virtually impossible. If indeed somebody takes the trouble to file a civil suit, it will take years, if not decades. Not everybody has the patience or can afford that luxury, more so a poor family eking out a precarious living with neither the resources nor the stamina to wage a long legal battle for an uncertain outcome.What is particularly galling is, this can be easily addressed. There was a time when every city had honorary magistrates trying simple civil and criminal cases by summary procedures, and providing quick and efficient relief. In fact the 114th report of the Law Commission recommended such courts. We can easily establish such local courts for every 30-40000 population, and provide for summary trials in the local language. The magistrate visits the locality if necessary to gather evidence. He is obliged to settle the case within 90 days.In cities where impersonal lives are the norm, and social support systems are the exception, such mechanisms for quick justice are critical. A society that denies justice is neither democratic, nor civilized. If those without connections or means are left to their own devices, then it is an invitation to violence and anarchy. Lumpen elements and hoodlums will thrive on providing rough and ready justice. There is already a growing demand for criminals in our society. Hyderabad is a good example of criminalization of society for want of enforcement of basic rights. As someone rightly said a society that does not protect the poor cannot save the rich. It costs so little to establish honorary magistrate’s courts. A law can be enacted within the state. Several reputed citizens are available to serve as magistrates. Several mature societies have similar systems in place. Can’t we build pressure to establish such mechanisms for speedy and accessible justice?