Nyaya Panchayat: India’s Village Level ADR Mechanism

Daniel Albuquerque deals with the Gram Nyayalayas, or adjudication of disputes at the village panchayat level. He demonstrates that irrespective of the size of the jurisdiction, whether national or village panchayat, as long as it emulates the same system the disadvantages of the system will not go away but rather exacerbate the situation. Facts on the ground prove that panchayat courts has not been popular with the people

The Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008, in its preamble, aspires to be an Act to provide for the establishment of Gram Nyayalayas at the grass roots level for the purposes of providing access to justice to citizens at their doorsteps and to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of social, economic or other disabilities and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
The Act has its basis in Article 39A of the Constitution of India which directs to provide free legal aid to the poor and marginalised. In other words, it unequivocally calls for social responsibility. It advocates justice with equity. The enacted law of 2008 is merely an elaboration of it.

The Case
This case cries out for the spirit of Article 39 of the Constitution of India, and for the implementation of Nyaya Panchayat Act in the same spirit and call for the social responsibility in adjudication at the grassroots level, the Panchayat. The case under study: Bombay High Court, Village Panchayat of Collem versus Industrial Tribunal, Government, on 19 July 1994. (See: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1046109).

We will consider it in two stages:
Industrial Labour Tribunal: Petitioner, an employer versus Respondent, a peon: The peon was in the service of his employer from 1966 to 1983; whereupon with due formalities of a month’s notice his services were terminated. The unhappy peon approached the Government of Goa to refer him to the Labour Tribunal alleging that he was retrenched. His request was granted and the matter was referred to the Tribunal in 1986 under Section 10 of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947. The Tribunal had upheld the peon’s plea and ascribed the obligatory benefits.

Bombay High Court: Village Panchayat of Collem versus Industrial Tribunal, Government, 19 July, 1994: Note: Since verdict of the Tribunal dealt with the Industrial Disputes Act the then sarpanch of the village reasoned that it is not under his juridical powers as the panchayat was not an industrial entity. However, the counsel of the peon argued that it was a case of neglect. The sarpanch was, however, ousted in 1992, and the new sarpanch represented the peon. This may sound peculiar but the petitioner actually fighting the case for the peon and the Tribunal and the Government to whom the peon had appealed in the first place were in the dock. The reason being the case was first under Section 10 of Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and then the second under Section 2 of the same Act.

Hence the following order of the Bombay High Court at Goa: Having applied its mind the Court came to the conclusion that the Order of 6 September 1983 has created a situation whereby the respondents could deal sufficiently as per law, because it has been confirmed that the petitioner has already taken action in this matter. So the petition succeeds and, naturally it leads to quash and set aside the award dated 3 March 1988. Consequently, the Court held that the Tribunal must now dispose of the matter at its earliest. The Court granted a maximum period of six months to do so.

First: The natural query to be dealt with is as to what has been achieved after such a lengthy legal battle and the impasse at the climax. ‘Back to square one,’ you would say. The much acclaimed and romanticised ‘free justice at the grassroots level’, is dashed.

Second: If the self-same national legal system is adopted at the basic level, the village panchayat, irrespective of its small size, it does not make it any different. On the other hand, if the lawmakers have to innovate and initiate a different form of justice delivery then suddenly the monster of two legal systems will emerge. Such a dilemma is unthinkable if equity and justice are to be served.

Third: The object of social responsibility may hold the key. But such a hope is only ideal, an idyllic fantasy. This is so due to two main reasons: a) the panchayat system is a democratic political system and functions under a ruling banner and the other dons the role of the opposition. The aggrieved is torn apart seeking justice from within such a system; b) the close knowledge and relationships that exist in a village community hinder people from fighting for their rights without creating quarrels and enmities. Further, the adherence to caste, creed and community can play havoc and tear apart the social fabric of a village. Thus causing more harm than good.

Statistics: Some bare statistics will prove why this Gram Nyayalaya Act, or any other statutory and legislative methods will not serve the purpose of rendering socially responsible justice. Enacted in 2008 and it was notified on 2 October 2009, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the advocate of Panchayati Raj, who dreamed of Village Swaraj or the village republic. To date, that is 2021, it has been claimed that there are 395 Gram Nyayalayas across 12 states of India, a far cry from the set target of 5,000. Even those which are said to be functional are under financial stress. The main reason for this state of affairs being the administrative machinery under a Nyayadhikari, the judge, is quite elaborate. The scope of the Gram Nyayalayas is limited to civil disputes where the Evidence Act does not apply. Since there are a plethora of Taluka courts, very few cases get referred to the Gram Nyayalayas. The best example is the case which we discussed above which ultimately lands in the usual courts and their multi-level ascendency.

Conclusion: There is a guiding principle regarding the law itself: Aequum et bonum est lex legum. ‘That, which is equal and good, is the law of laws.’ Gram Nyayalayas law is too late and probably redundant; if it was to be enacted in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the Constitution of India in 1950 its benefits would have been reaped admirably, but since it came as late as six decades down the period, it has lost its relevance.

The columnist is a writer with Oxford University Press and a published author.                                                                    Email: albuquerque.daniel@gmail.com

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