It’s 7.20am. Just off NH24 in Haryana’s Mewat district, a group of villagers runs to a small truck that has stopped to give them a lift. One kilometre ahead, advocate Akhtar Hussain hitches a ride with us.
As the car passes through Indana village, he points to a tree by a police chowki (outpost). “Last week the court was here,” he says.
Hussain and his colleagues in the neighbouring villages service clients at a unique courtroom that travels between four locations in the district — Punhana, Indana, Shikrawa and Lohinga Kalan — besides practising at the regular district court located 40km away.
This week marks one year since they became lawyers on the move.
In the last year, the court has disposed 2,234 cases, related mostly to marital and property disputes, theft, robbery and cow slaughter.
“The project was the brainchild of the former chief justice of the high court of Punjab and Haryana, Virender Jain,” says justice K.S. Garewal, judge at the Punjab and Haryana high court who was appointed to monitor the project in its initial stage.
The idea was that the government should bear the cost of taking justice to litigants in remote rural areas. When the Chief Justice of India flagged off the mobile court on 4 August 2007, some even claimed it was the only one of its kind in the world. A second mobile court was set up in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab two months later.
But, one year and two mobile courts later, the future of this unique project is uncertain.
A mobile court comprises a bus with basic facilities such as a typewriter, computers and a room for the subdivisional judicial magistrate appointed to preside over the court. There is also a staff bus for the magistrate, his peon, public relations officer and stenographers.
On the day this reporter attends the mobile court at Punhana, the bus is stationed outside a government rest house for farmers. The scene outside is the same as any other regular rural court; anxious litigants squat on the patio, waiting for their cases to come up.
A list of the day’s 50 cases is up beside the door. Ruzhar, 60, seems confused as he looks at the writing on the wall. The majority of the population here is illiterate; that’s the main reason Mewat, one of the most backward districts in Haryana, was picked for the country’s first mobile court.
“Punhana has a 1% literacy rate among its women and 21% among its men. We hoped the new project would encourage the people to choose scientific education for their children and develop a scientific temperament,” says justice Jain.
Ruzhar’s daughter, Farida, has filed a dowry harassment case against her husband. He says the mobile court saved him a 30km walk. Another litigant, Mubin, 32, says he is glad his case is progressing quickly. “This court concentrates on cases from Punhana alone, so my case that started a year ago will get over soon,” he adds.
Hussain agrees that the court delivers speedy justice. “The regular courts in Gurgaon wouldn’t match up, “ he says.
Inside the bus, a stenographer types away, transcribing handwritten judgements of the magistrate whose seat is empty. “The air conditioner is in the bus, but our magistrate is sitting in the heat and working at a low cost,” explains advocate Sher Mohammed, president of the Mobile Court Bar Council.
The action has moved from the bus into a makeshift court set up inside the rest house that reflects a decorum far removed from the silence and order observed in regular courts. Magistrate Sundeep Singh sits at the same level as the litigants. Those who attempt to jump the queue and push their way in are blocked by the policeman on duty.
Huddled outside the magistrate’s room, amid pandemonium, the lawyers are discussing how they will celebrate the first anniversary of the mobile court. “After the extravagant launch, no judicial officer has come to check on how we are doing,” says Hussain.
At noon, everyone gathers outside: A water tank has mysteriously been deposited on the premises.
So far, the system hasn’t provided for any drinking water facilities but over the last year, Kamluddin, a 40-year-old volunteer, has played the role of water man.
“Maybe now they have heard our request,” he says.
Photographs: Madhu Kapparath