The bitter PIL cures

  • 14/03/1995

A MAJOR disaster is not enough. It takes censure and orders from the courts to shake the somnolent bureaucracy into action.

The still-traumatised Marathwada quake victims have created history by resorting to public interest litigations (PIL) to ensure relief through the natural disaster management efforts of the government.

"Such legal interventions can be an effective tool in ensuring government accountability and for providing timely relief and services in times of crises and disasters," says S Krishnadas of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a Bombay-based association of legal activists.

Medical relief alone did not solve all the problems, as the VHAI realised. "In many villages drinking water, sanitation and even tinsheds were not available, despite repeated promises," says P V Unnikrishnan. Representations made to local authorities like tehsildars, district collectors and even to the commissioner for earthquake rehabilitation could not shake the administration out of its torpor.

Exasperated, in February 1994, VHAI and HRLN filed 2 writ petitions in the Bombay High Court (Aurangabad bench), seeking primary healthcare, temporary accommodation, drinking water and sanitation.

But the district administrators of Latur and Osmanabad swore in response that everything was normal and that the affected people had no grievances.

On March 7, 1994, another writ was filed before the High Court, challenging the government for not paying death and disability compensations to victims below the age of 18 and above 60.

Meanwhile, the 1994 Latur-Osmanabad report of the Indian People's Tribunal (IPT), an independent forum comprising legal experts and retired judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, recorded the "callousness of the government with respect to the provision of basic amenities like drinking water, temporary sheds, sanitation, fair price shops and compensation not being paid for both deceased and disabled". Characteristically, the government vehemently refuted the IPT's findings.

But on March 21, the High Court directed the government to remove anomalies in compensation distribution, improve healthcare facilities and provide basic amenities immediately. The government was asked to draw up a rehabilitation blueprint and furnish relevant documents to show that the work was proceeding satisfactorily.

Hectic activity followed. The HRLN volunteers regularly surveyed all the 92 affected villages. The quaking bureaucracy now went on a crash course of improving the supply of drinking water, essential drugs and mobile clinics. Temporary sheds were erected.

In July, residents of the devastated Bet Zavalga village, Osmanabad, filed a petition alleging complete neglect by the authorities. The High Court intervened. On October 16, Sumit Mullik, deputy secretary, (earthquake rehabilitation) was forced to commit to setting up temporary tin sheds within the next 3 months. According Krishnadas, more than 3,000 households are yet to be given tin sheds.

But so far, the government has submitted no rehabilitation blueprint. "We don't think such a plan exists. We filed a writ in this regard," says Krishnadas. The writ came up for hearing on 9 January, 1995, but was adjourned to March 8.

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