The concept of judicial infallibility is valid, but a legal pronouncement need not always be the last word on a given subject.
The article in The Hindu by Ramaswamy R. Iyer, “With all due respect, My Lords,” on March 2, a critical study of the ruling of the Supreme Court giving certain directions under the authority of Article 141, relating to inter-linking of rivers was noteworthy. And his request to reconsider the decision deserves serious consideration.
What the Supreme Court decides is final not because it is infallible; it is infallible because it is constitutionally final and structurally supreme. If ignorance is made final, governance becomes chaos. That is why the Montesquieuan theory of the trinity of instrumentalities is accepted by many Constitutions across the world, including the Indian Constitution. What is in the realm of the Executive is decided by the Executive. What is legislative, in the shape of law, is decided by the Legislature. When there is a dispute over a fact or law, the decision of the court is final, and all the other branches of the structure are bound by the judicial decision.
From this perspective, river disputes fall within the jurisdiction of the judiciary. But, for instance, how high an aircraft should fly without the possibility of danger, or how a safe dam should be constructed to store water, are matters highly technical, and hence these do not belong to jurisprudence or judges.
I was once a Minister for Irrigation and Electricity (in Kerala) and started projects on the advice of engineers. The court never interfered, nor could they. There may be some areas where submergence by a river may cause risks — and on the basis of clear technical advice a court may pronounce an order. The jurisdictional borders of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are fairly clear, and one of them cannot interfere with the other. Viewed from this angle, I agree with Mr. Ramaswamy Iyer's critical observations.
Judges, merely because they wear robes, cannot decide on the course of rivers, whether they should be linked or not, and if at all, how they should be linked — just as they cannot decide on matters to do with the safety of flights or other such technical issues. Judges are not infallible; and they cannot issue executive directions or promulgate legal mandates or punitive impositions in such contexts.
The central flaw of the Supreme Court's verdict on the inter-linking issue is the failure to realise that a pan-Indian river project may have dangerous limitations. The Ganga and the Cauvery are two great rivers, but they cannot be linked up without first making a careful and exhaustive study of the various features of the terrain through which they flow over a vast territory of India. Otherwise, it may well end up as a horrendous blunder, irreparable after the decision is operationalised. A national debate involving also the great engineers, especially river engineers, that we have is essential before undertaking the implementation of a national project such as this.
The Supreme Court is indeed infallible, but while in its jural specialties it may well be top of the league, it is largely innocent in matters to do with mighty river-engineering. Therefore, great caution with all the wisdom at our command, must first be used to study the implications and the perils of this Himalayan-scale project before implementing a juristic wonder beyond what the Supreme Court has so lightly directed. Where the implications are too great to grasp and the consequences may be beyond repair, “hasten slowly” will be a good piece advice. Never assume that the robed wisdom that is good for jurisprudence will not land us in dangerous waters.
Therefore, never be in a hurry. Study every dimension of this huge project.
When the project was announced a decade ago in 2002, one section of public opinion supported it, and another opposed its implementation. It is without taking any note of the conflicting public opinion that the present binding directions have been issued by the court.
(V.R. Krishna Iyer was a Judge of the Supreme Court of India.)