Out of the courts and into the social process – the careers of Harish Narasappa and Amba Salelkar


As a fresh law graduate, Harish Narassappa went to court to be handed a file numbered 1 of 1956. He thought to himself that it must have been a mistake – it must be 1 of 1996, but no, the number was right. Such was the extent of delays in the judicial process, he learnt. In this post, we meet two lawyers who picked up their first legal instincts inside courts – Harish Narasappa and Amba Salelkar – both having taken law degrees at NLSIU, the former in the mid-nineties, the latter in the mid-2000s. They remind us of Ramanathan’s sustained engagement with the question of law and poverty in diverse theatres, but these two lawyers built institutional edifices in furtherance of their queries about law’s role in the social process.

Having completed two stints of corporate practice, in London and in Mumbai, Narasappa returned to his hometown of Bangalore in 2005 and rented a space where he would begin an office. At this point, his vision was to do policy-related work. Two of his friends, Siddharth Raja and Roopa Doraswamy, also alumni of the National Law School of India University, had also quit their jobs, and asked if they could use the space. Over time, this space emerged as a corporate law firm. Their emphasis was on cultivating a space where young lawyers would be recruited and nurtured, where there was gender equity, humane working hours, and so on. The firm, eventually named Samvad Partners, grew over time to have a presence in four Indian cities, but Narasappa’s earlier desire to engage in policy matters had remained unfulfilled.

He started Daksh India in 2006. An idea initially, it took a couple of years to be registered. As a defining question of Daksh, Narasappa and his colleagues were interested in testing the efficacy of ‘democratic institutions’.

“…lot of people do things which makes change visible – volunteer time for a school, give some computers. I wanted to intervene at an institutional level…”

In sheer numbers, India carries an arrogant epithet of the largest democracy, but it is a democracy where the citizen’s capacity is numbed in the five-year period between elections. Further, he may have some form of accountability from elected representatives, but he doesn’t have the same from bureaucrats or other government agencies who may affect his well-being. Often, there is no recourse or clarificatory procedure available unless there has been a violation of a legal right, for which he can go to the courts. He does not know what the stance of his MP or MLA is on important issues like the Lokpal Bill, how he is going to argue in the house, and what his representative’s performance in the house has been like.

Harish Narasappa

Daksh and Narassapa designed a survey, which initially ran in Karnataka, but in the past two years, in other states such as Rajasthan and Bihar as well. The survey results were reflected in ‘scorecards’ for MLAs. Before the 2013 Karnataka assembly elections, leading Kannada newspapers carried their surveys. The representatives who had performed well on the scorecards were happy, those who hadn’t, claimed that the right criteria had not been taken into account. There was great support from people who said that they appreciated knowing these things as they went in to vote. Daksh’s intervention was to make the electoral process more effective by making crucial information available in the public domain, in local languages, for citizens to be able to exercise the franchise effectively. Daksh’s new intervention – the Rule of Law project – addresses the issue of judicial delay. With it, Narasappa attempts to strengthen the bridge between the two legs of his practice – in law and in public policy.

Amba Salelkar moved from a litigating career in a Mumbai criminal law firm to working in disability law and policy, when she quit her Mumbai criminal law career and moved to Chennai to join the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy. Her work in this realm concerned large sections of the public who suffered physical disability themselves or were caregivers or associates of others who suffered disability, legislators, law implementers, non-legal NGOs, and disability professionals.

After the switch, she could no longer take for granted the literacy in legalese on the part of the large and diverse constituency who were now her colleagues and associates. The other thing she began to get used to was the slow and seemingly non-eventful nature of policy work, involving long hours of deskwork and academic research. Initially, Salelkar wasn’t particularly interested in disability issues. It was the conviction and energies of Rahul Cherian, another older alumnus of the National Law School of India University that drew her in. She started working with Cherian on a shadow report on mental health law in India, something that interested her as she had received treatment for mental health concerns in her own life.

Amba Salelkar

Amba Salelkar

Rahul Cherian envisaged the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy as an offshoot of sorts from discussions which were taking place on The latter was a social networking website which was accessible for persons with disabilities, and it was through this that Rahul was exposed to the gap in policy and legislative interventions on behalf of persons with disabilities. Rahul was heavily involved in the “right to read” movement, which was seeking an exception to copyright law to allow for published material to be converted into accessible formats, and found that there was a lot more to be achieved when it came to advocacy under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities….”

After Cherian’s death in February 2013, she came to lead the organisation. Apart from work in the legislative domain, trying to influence bureaucrats and legislators, Salelkar’s advocacy operations take her to teaching disability law to a series of concerned groups. Her objective is to breathe life into a legal imagination of a person with disability as a citizen, a professional, a worker, a consumer, and a service-receiver. She attempts to equip people like caregivers with tools from the Constitution (like fundamental rights) that can be used to their benefit. For instance, understanding the right to equality and the vast jurisprudence under Article 21 (right to life) and other constitutional law principles including the tradition of courts having used international conventions as the Supreme Court did in the Vishaka judgment, can be used for strategic litigation.

“Some people are fascinated by the law….Some people are jaded. They say the law promised us so much, especially with the 1995 Act, and it never delivered… My job is give them a realistic perspectives on the things that a legal avenue can offer. I don’t want to give people too much hope….My job is to tell them you may be right, but it doesn’t mean you will get a judgment in your favour….”

Salelkar sees her role as having live intersections with other rights-based movements – especially, queer and feminist movements, recognising the absence of support within the legal and judicial system for a category of person that does not match the standardised legal imagination of the ‘normal’ person. Disturbing the ‘normal’ is at the core of her long journey within and without the law.

We will continue talking about Narasappa and Salelkar as we look at their institutional energies in a larger ecosystem of policy reform.

(Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.)


Why we urgently need judicial impact assessment for new laws

Sumathi_Chandrashekaran_LongRoadToJusticeReformLawmaking is at the heart of the democratic process. The number, the types, and the quality of laws made each year are significant indicators of the health of a democracy. A very large number of laws passed in a year, for instance, draw attention to the standard of parliamentary or legislative debate. An excessively detailed law on a simple subject, or a terse law on a complex subject, brings to focus, the question of delegation of powers. Too many amending laws demand an examination of the quality of the original parent legislations.

One feature of lawmaking that is only occasionally a subject of public debate in India is the effect of new laws. Studying the impact of new laws, also known as judicial impact assessment, involves estimating the additional case-load, expenditure, and other burdens that such laws are likely to impose on the judicial system.

Bills and financial memoranda

A large number of bills are introduced by the Parliament as well as the state legislatures every year. Between 2009 and 2014, an average of 172 bills were introduced in both houses of Parliament every year. Among these, the government alone introduced an average of about 60.

Bills introduced in Parliament-01

Not all these bills get passed, of course. Most (and practically all private member bills) remain pending. Nevertheless, these numbers indicate the enthusiasm with which legislators at the centre participate in the lawmaking process.

Bills tabled in Parliament are expected to be accompanied by three documents – a financial memorandum, a statement of objects and reasons, and a memorandum regarding the delegation of legislative powers. Under the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, financial memoranda are required to “invite particular attention to the clauses involving expenditure”, and provide “an estimate of the recurring and non-recurring expenditure” if the Bill is passed into law. In practice, however, these financial memoranda serve only as token appendices, providing little insight into the true implications on the exchequer, and no information on the effects on the populace. In effect, there is very little effort by the legislature to foresee the effect of laws they pass on the court system.

Burdensome legal provisions

A frequently-cited example of a burdensome legal provision is the law on dishonoured cheques. A 2014 report of the Law Commission of India highlighted the disproportionate number of “cheque bounce” cases under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1938 pending before Indian courts between 2010 and 2012. Acknowledging that the data was error prone due to incorrect reporting, it estimated that an average of about 7.8% of cases pending before various high courts in the country during this period was due to the law on negotiable instruments.

Some states struggling with the pendency of cheque bounce cases

The “avalanche of litigation” invited by Section 138, introduced in its present form by way of an amending act in 1988, was the subject of a Madras High Court decision in 2008, which observed, “Had a judicial impact assessment been made … regarding the litigation this enactment would generate and the consequent financial impact on the State, we do not know if the result would have been in favour of enacting S. 138.

Task force on judicial impact assessment

The effect of new laws became a subject matter of discussion in a 2005 case before the Supreme Court, Salem Advocate Bar Association v. Union of India, where a report submitted to the Court suggested a radical change to the nature of financial memoranda accompanying bills. The report studied amendments to the Code of Civil Procedure and said:

Further, there must be ‘judicial impact assessment’, as done in the United States, whenever any legislation is introduced either in Parliament or in the State Legislatures. The financial memorandum attached to each Bill must estimate not only the budgetary requirement of other staff but also the budgetary requirement for meeting the expenses of the additional cases that may arise out of the new Bill when it is passed by the legislature. The said budget must mention the number of civil and criminal cases likely to be generated by the new Act, how many Courts are necessary, how many Judges and staff are necessary and what is the infrastructure necessary.

The report spawned a larger discussion on judicial impact assessment in India, and was followed by a full-blown Task Force on Judicial Impact Assessment, which submitted its two-volume report (see here and here) in 2008. The task force said that judicial impact assessments must be carried out scientifically to estimate the additional case-load that any new legislation (introduced in Parliament as well as state legislatures) would place on courts. It also recommended that the cost of adjudicating such cases must be estimated and adequate budgetary provisions must be made accordingly. The task force further proposed an elaborate institutional structure to project such estimates, in the form of “judicial impact offices” located all over the country, modelling it on similar arrangements in the United States. Critically, in the proposed model, the role of the judicial impact offices included a continuous assessment of the impact of laws, including by way of post-facto verification of the original estimates, once the law was passed, to understand whether the projections were exaggerated or understated.

Judicial impact assessment has its detractors, such as G Mohan Gopal. He has argued that such assessments are “a blunt, ineffective and unnecessary instrument” for two reasons: first, reliable estimates of future litigation are impossible to obtain in India, where even basic court statistics are unavailable; and second, the recognition and creation of rights should not be linked to the existence or creation of judicial system capacity. He has suggested, instead, conducting “judicial use assessments”, which could measure if people were actually using courts to enforce their rights. Arguably, judicial use assessments have already been factored in by the mechanism proposed by the 2008 task force, through the verification of data relating to the impact of new laws, after they come into existence.

Judicial impact assessments continue to bear meaning for a country facing compound problems of high pendency and understaffed courts, besides fundamental concerns of legal literacy and access to justice. Unreliability of data remains a key concern, but it is very likely that data quality will improve with subsequent iterations. Such assessments offer at least one indicator of the impact of lawmaking, which has otherwise remained a black hole for statisticians and policymakers.

(Sumathi Chandrashekaran is a lawyer working in the area of public policy.) 

Supreme Court of India

An incredible number of cases are pending before our judges. How many vacancies need to be filled? How many more judges do we need?

SmritiParsheera_SumathiChandrashekaran_JusticeReformCourts in India are faced with a huge backlog of cases, leaving parties embroiled in legal battles for years, often decades, at a stretch. Many factors contribute to this problem, including procedural inefficiencies, new laws passed without any litigation impact assessment, and poor court and case management systems.

One reason however, comes to mind before any of these other reasons – the apparent inadequacy of the present judicial workforce to handle the large numbers of pending cases. While we can use the available data on the backlog of cases to estimate the number of cases that each judge would have to handle if this backlog were to be cleared in the current year, (see the first figure below) it is crucial to highlight the limitations of the available data.

We don’t really know the magnitude of the problem

Without a uniform system for indexing and categorising cases, different states have devised their own methods for recording data. As the Law Commission of India observed in July this year, some states count each interlocutory application as a separate case while others do not. Similarly, while some states exclude data on traffic and motor challan cases, most others do not. There is therefore, doubt about the accuracy of pendency figures.

An incredible number of cases pending before each judge


Working within these limitations, we can see that the number of cases pending for each judge is staggeringly high. High court judges, whose potential workload is over three times that of their counterparts in the Supreme Court and at the subordinate courts, seem to be in the worst position.

Many posts lie vacant

These numbers are based on the number of judges who are actually working, and not the sanctioned strength, which is the number of judges that are, on paper, expected to be in office. These two figures often tend to vary significantly. For example, at the end of 2013, 29 per cent of the posts in the High Courts and 22 per cent of the posts in subordinate courts were lying vacant.


On the bright side, the numbers show a steady increase in the sanctioned strength of judges over the years, particularly in subordinate courts, where it has gone up by over 30 per cent in the last eight years.


Who is responsible for filling these vacancies?

Recent debate surrounding the National Judicial Appointments Commission (“NJAC”) has focused extensively on appointments to the higher judiciary, that is, the Supreme Court and the High Courts. At present, because of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Articles 124 and 217 of the Constitution, it is the judiciary that plays a decisive role in such appointments.

The proposed constitutional amendment and NJAC law will change this, creating NJAC as a permanent body  to recommend appointments to the President. There will also be a timeline within which the central government has to inform the NJAC of imminent vacancies, though there is no such timeline timeline for the NJAC to complete its selection and make recommendations to the President.

Legal Research AdvertisementThe Governor appoints judges and judicial officers for subordinate courts in consultation with the High Court. The State Public Service Commission also has to be consulted for judicial officers below the rank of district judges. Rules made by different states provide for the actual recruitment process – whether through promotion or competitive examination.

In 2006, the Supreme Court in Malik Mazhar Sultan identified unfilled vacancies as a key reason for the pendency problem and directed states and High Courts to evolve a fixed schedule to fill vacancies in subordinate courts. After that, the Supreme Court itself devised a detailed time schedule for the states. The High Courts were asked to oversee this process, which included timelines for the determination of vacancies, issuing advertisements, conducting examinations and interviews, declaring results, and issuing final appointment orders. Seven years on, the Supreme Court is still struggling to ensure compliance with those directions.

How many judges do we need?

In 1987, the Law Commission recommended that there should be at least 50 judges for every million Indians. For today’s population of 1200 million therefore, India would need about 60,000 judges, that is, triple the current number of sanctioned judges.

In July this year, the Law Commission changed its opinion about the judge-population ratio, observing that it was not based on any objective criteria and that it did not capture state-specific needs. Instead, it proposed calculating the additional number of judges required to deal with the backlog of cases by using the current rate at which judges dispose of cases. By any reasonable metric however, the current sanctioned strength is far less than what is required.

Any real solution to these problems requires effective cooperation between the judiciary and the central and state governments. The judiciary should urgently take the initiative in filling vacancies and the government should create additional courts and extend infrastructure support to them.

(Sumathi Chandrashekaran and Smriti Parsheera are lawyers working in the area of public policy.)

(Images by Rachit Gupta.)