Saturday, May 24, 2008


Ashok Agarwal, advocate and convenor of the NGO Social Jurists, believes in the principle, “Courts to people and people to courts”. In an exclusive interview with Smriti Kak, he talks about his journey in the echelons of justice.

A fervent desire to fight for the rights of society saw a student of BA walk into the courts as a trade union representative. That was in 1969, today having armed himself with a degree in Law, the same man dons the black robe to continue his fight.

Ashok Agarwal, advocate and convenor of the NGO Social Jurists, is convinced that as a lawyer it is his privilege and duty to take up the cause of the poor and the marginalised. His talisman, he asserts, is “courts to people and people to courts”.

Refusing to bow to the inertia that benumbs society at large, be it government offices or educational institutions, Mr Agarwal is steadfast that for every problem there is a solution.
Having assimilated the problems that ail civil society he takes refuge in the power that is rooted in the scales of justice, “Courts can be seen as the best platform for highlighting the cause and exposing the government to some extent,” he points out.

You have managed to take up issues that concern education and sought aid for the deprived sections. How did you decide to get involved in the cause?

Being a labour lawyer with a trade union background and fighting cases for the labour class and against the establishment for the last 33 years from the labour courts up to the Supreme Court, I have closely seen the plight of the labour class in this country. Through the introduction of public interest litigation (PIL), I got an opportunity to use judicial forums for ventilating the grievances of the common man, who is incapable of fighting for his rights directly.

I filed my first PIL in 1978, in the High Court of Delhi, highlighting the delay in appointment of the Presiding Officers of the Labour Courts/ Industrial Tribunals in Delhi and also shortage of other staff in these courts, causing immense delay in adjudication of industrial disputes.
When parents under the banner of Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh came out on the roads in 1997, protesting against arbitrary and unjustified fee hike by unaided recognised private schools in Delhi, I offered them free professional services and took up their matter with the High Court.
While I was preparing the PIL against exorbitant fee hike by so-called public schools, I found that one of the main causes of exploitation of parents by these schools is the continuous deterioration in the standard of education in the government schools.

This is when I decided to take up the cause of the children studying in government schools. In December 1997, I filed a PIL highlighting the absence of basic amenities like drinking water, toilet blocks, electricity, pucca building, boundary walls etc in Delhi government and MCD-run schools, which was a violation of the fundamental right to education as guaranteed by the Constitution.

What laid the ground for NGO Social Jurists?

Social Jurists is an unregistered and non-funded organisation of a group of lawyers. Members of this group, besides doing their professional work, devote themselves to the cause of the weaker sections. We are clear that we are doing it as our duty and not as charity. We don’t accept any money in any manner from anybody for taking up these causes.

We pay from our own pockets because we believe in making friends. We go to people, befriend them, identify their problems and examine what can be legally done for them. Once we are convinced that taking up their cause in the courts can solve their problem, we prepare and file PIL in the name of Social Jurists.

We also try to educate people on how to fight for their rights. We are convinced that courts alone cannot solve all problems of the people and, ultimately, people have to fight their own battle. We are using court orders for empowering the people to understand that authorities can be moved if rights are asserted and fought for.

The Public Interest Litigation filed by Social Jurists have resulted in favourable judgements for the people and the society at large. What have been, according to you, the most memorable and also the toughest cases so far?

Cases pertaining to fee hike by unaided recognised private schools, absence of total basic amenities in relocated resettlement colonies, free beds for poor in Apollo Hospital and Lal Kuan fire tragedy are the most memorable and also the toughest cases so far.

You have fought for the rights of the people living in resettlement colonies and for the rights of rag pickers. Working with the government departments and making your way through the red tape must have been quite an experience.

Yes, but my experience is that if right issues are taken up with honesty, forcefully and strategically, even people who constitute the government are moved. There are lots of good people in the government who want to work but are not allowed to work. Court interventions help them work. Reputation of an activist also influences the officers’ approach.

Court’s intervention, highlighting of the issue by the media and formation of public opinion has really worked in pressuring the government to respect the rights of the common man. Poor people feel empowered when they see that the court takes the government to task.

You have earned respect and acclaim as a crusader for providing people what is their due, how did you deal with the pressure and even threats that you must have encountered on the way?

I have never bothered about the pressures and the threats. If your are strong and determined no one dares to threaten you. I have been threatened just once by a police officer, who threatened to arrest me because I was leading a community demonstration at MCD school, Hastsaal Resettlement Colony. We were protesting against horrible conditions in the school.
When the entire community offered to court arrest alongside me, the police officer withdrew the threat and started showing sympathy with the agitators. My experience is that when you fight for the people in right way and for right cause, even your opponent has to appreciate you.
You recently organised a seminar to discuss the concerns of the Common School System. You have been interacting with not just academics, but also other stakeholders. What is your evaluation about the CSS and the Education Bill?

Establishment of CSS is a must for giving socio-economic and political justice to the people. The Education Bill is totally defective and must be rejected by the people. The Education Bill is totally contrary to the object underlying therein. Government must redraft the Education Bill on the basis of good quality Common School System.

What are your concerns as a lawyer about the legal profession?

Friends in the legal profession are a very powerful segment of the society. Now, the composition of legal profession is not the same as it was 20-30 years ago. A large number of friends in legal profession are from economically weaker sections of society and they can do wonders in changing the society if they devote some of their time for the cause of the poor, but as a privilege and duty and not as charity.

For the common man courts and lawyers are best kept at a distance. Your comment?

It is not correct. The lawyers’ major income comes from the pockets of the common man. Lawyers and courts look at common man as only consumers of justice and not as citizens of the country who are equally entitled to share the wealth of this country. Lawyers have a duty towards the common man.

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