New Delhi: If a fresh public interest litigation (PIL) finds favour in the Bombay high court, governments at both the state and Central levels may have to come up with the answer to a crucial question: Where did the money to modernize the police go?
The PIL, filed by the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) on Wednesday, one week after the Mumbai terror attacks began, and admitted for hearing on Thursday, also demanded a clear time table to implement recent proposals to strengthen security forces.
The 62 hours of terror unleashed by 10 attackers on Mumbai last week left at least 183 people dead and two of the city’s most prestigious hotels in ruins. The attacks triggered widespread outrage against the government’s inability to protect Indian cities and focused attention on the country’s poor security infrastructure and its ill-equipped police.
SILF asked the Bombay high court to direct the Union and Maharashtra governments to take “all such appropriate measures...to adequately meet” the threat of terror in Mumbai. A bench headed by the court’s chief justice, Swatanter Kumar, issued a notice to both governments seeking a response, and posted the PIL for hearing on 15 December.
“The Bombay Chamber of Commerce had also filed an application to be made a party in support of the SILF petition,” said Lalit Bhasin, president of SILF. “This application was allowed by the court.”
The petition, referring to media reports, said the security of Mumbai had been “severely compromised” because “financial resources, manpower and equipment have been diverted for non-core police functions”. It did not specify what the “non-core police functions” were.
The petition requested the court to direct the governments to “disclose the allocation of funds for modernization and/or upgradation of the police force and particulars of whether any part of these funds or resources (human, monetary or otherwise) have been diverted to any other applications other than such modernization and/or upgradation”.
A Mumbai attorney, V.P. Patil, filed another PIL in the Bombay high court, seeking action against national security adviser M.K. Narayanan as well as the Union and state governments for allegedly “being negligent and irresponsible”. The PIL was also admitted on Thursday.
While these PILs seek information and accountability, other PILs could potentially look to hold the government liable for negligence, citing security lapses and seeking compensation for the families of the victims, said Somasekhar Sundaresan, a Mumbai-based securities law expert and a partner at J Sagar and Associates.
“The victims may be able to sue the government to determine whether, having possession of information, it did not act with dispatch and if it had been negligent,” said Sundaresan. “Therefore, it would have an obligation to have acted in a reasonable and non-negligent manner.”
Failure to follow up on intelligence information that pointed to a possible terrorist strike on Mumbai has been cited by some agencies as a factor in the attacks.
The question whether the Supreme Court can award damages is being reviewed in legal circles. “The question here is, would it be possible to take a position that the state had in its possession information, which it ought to have acted upon?” Sundaresan said. “Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees a right to life as a justiciable right, and includes...reasonable action by the state on clear information available to them.”
He added, however, that only when a clear picture emerges on whether the government had prior knowledge of an impending attack, could a case be filed against the government for damages.
Anand Prasad, partner at law firm Trilegal, does not rate highly the chances of success in suits that may claim damages from the management of the ravaged Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, and the Oberoi Trident hotel. “It would be difficult to attribute negligence on the part of the hotels. The hotels were as much a victim as those who lost their lives,” he said.
With at least 19 foreigners losing their lives in the attacks, legal observers also point to the possibility of liability suits being filed by foreigners in Indian courts. Supreme Court advocate Menaka Guruswamy said there should be no distinction made between foreigners and non-foreigners. “After all, every life is equally valuable.” Article 21 of the Constitution protects the right to life of both Indians and foreigners in India.
As Mumbai struggled to get back to its feet after the bout of terror, some also ponder the sheer propriety of filing liability suits and taking legal action. “There will,” Sundaresan said, “be enough philosophical debate about whether it would be right in spirit to sue, whether we should go down that path at all.”
PTI contributed to this story.