A Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justices A K Sikri and R Banumathi grilled "crusader" Prashant Bhushan on the credentials of his Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), which has challenged the allocation of 4G spectrum to Reliance Industries Ltd's Jio on the ground that it was given at cheaper rate for internet use and was later converted into voice telephony. The bench questioned Bhushan on whether his laundry list of PILs can be allowed to take the "system for a ride".
"Prashant Bhushan, you have an image of a crusader. But can you become the centre for public interest litigation? Can the system be taken for a ride in such a manner? We cannot allow this. We must be satisfied that you have a committee which scrutinizes the complaints and allows only genuine ones to be converted into public interest litigations," the Bench told Bhushan.
"Has this matter (Jio telecom) been examined by the committee? We must have the confidence that when CPIL files a petition, it is not prompted by someone who has a vested interest even though the cause may appear genuine. If a corporate rival gives documents for filing of a PIL, will you do it? Why would that corporate source not come out in the open and pursue the litigation in its own name? Why should CPIL be a front for settling corporate rivalry or personal vendetta? CPIL should not become proxy litigant. It should not become an instrument in the hands of commercial players," the Bench told Bhushan.
Responding to a tidal wave of questions, Bhushan said CPIL was set up by ex-SC judge V M Tarkunde in the late 1980s when the concept of public interest, similar to the class action suit in the US, was taking root in India. Bhushan said a committee comprising senior counsel Fali Nariman, Anil Divan, Kamini Jaiswal, Shanti Bhushan and himself scrutinizes any PIL before it is filed, report Bar and Bench and Daily Mail.
"We gave PIL, you created Centre for Public Interest Litigation. Now we must move to next stage of credibility. A lot of (court's) time goes into it (hearing the PILs). How much hours of court's time goes into it. There must be an inbuilt mechanism," the bench of Chief Justice T.S.Thakur, Justice A.K.Sikri and Justice R. Banumathi told Prashant Bhushan.
Chief Justice Thakur asked Bhushan: "Why should we hear PILs filed by CPIL. You are a professional litigant. Can you become a 'centre' for PIL. Can anyone walk into your office and tell you 'I want to file a PIL'."
Bhushan said his NGO was now operating from his office though its founder members were Fali S Nariman, Shanti Bhushan, Rajinder Sachar and Anil Divan. Bhushan said the committee has authorized advocate Kamini Jaiswal to file public interest litigation on behalf of the NGO.
“So is it just Kamini Jaiswal and you sitting in your chambers and deciding. Our impression is that you have no mechanism to verify the credibility of your information”, asked Justice Thakur.
Reporting on this hearing, Bar and Bench quotes Justice Thakur saying that whenever a PIL is filed by CPIL, the court should have the confidence that the same is not at the instance of a party which is trying to settle a score.
“So are Your Lordships suggesting that we should have a research wing?”, asked Bhushan, reports Bar and Bench.
“You should have an investigative wing. It will help you and us”, said Justice Thakur.
Thakur said that when a petition is filed by CPIL, the court usually considers it seriously while the same petition might be treated indifferently if filed by a party with commercial interests.
“When you come to us, we take you seriously. But when a commercial competitor comes to us, we might not. This competitor knows this and might send a proxy to you with documents and information which you otherwise don’t have access to. You have to establish a credible mechanism to justify that a particular case is fit to he agitated”, said Justice Thakur.
Bhushan said that “Whenever a commercially interested person comes to us, we look at the information given by him with great suspicion. It is only after the Committee scrutinises the information and is satisfied that aside from the commercial of interest of the informant, there is public interest involved that we decide whether to file a case or not.”
"If these five eminent persons file an affidavit saying they have examined the contents of the PIL filed by CPIL, then the courts will not waste its time examining the maintainability of the public interest litigation," the Bench said, reports The Times of India.
"The eminent persons who are promoting CPIL must file affidavits saying they are satisfied with the issue. We will entertain only those PILs which are accompanied by such affidavits," the Bench said.
Bar and Bench reports that there were also questions about the funding of CPIL, to which Bhushan replied that “there is hardly any funding” and most of the work is pro bono.
The hearing in the case continued for the whole day and the court reserved its verdict.
With IANS and PTI inputs
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