BY JUSTICE M.M. KUMAR
The unprecedented catastrophe caused by flood in September 2014 is engraved in my mind even after eight years. The deluge engulfed the High Court building (10 feet water); District Court building (18 feet water) and Chief Justice House at Sonawari (9 feet water).
It posed serious challenge to keep the fountain of justice flowing. Fortunately I was able to successfully start a make-shift High Court from the un-occupied house of a judge at Gupkar Road and impart justice in a number of cases.
Those days Justice A.M. Magrey was my bench partner in the Division Bench. He came on Friday 5th September morning fretting and fuming that Doodh Ganga bandh had breached late in the evening.
His own house was nearby and the flood water entered an inch or two in his house. There was then some indication of flood but still we did not take it seriously.
Few guests who had come from Delhi and Chandigarh luckily left Srinagar by the afternoon flight. Before 6th September, 2014 indications had come that River Jhelum might swell and water could erode its banks.
The evening of September 6, 2014 (Saturday) was normal as usual at Chief Justice’s house in Srinagar at Sonawari. We followed the same routine. We missed the walk because the walking track inside the house was submerged in water.
We went to bed at about 11.00 P.M. At 2 o’clock early morning my cell phone started ringing. My PPS Mr. M.Y. Akhoon was on the other end suggesting me to shift to Hari Niwas - a Government guest house about 2 kms away from our house but situated up the hill.
He apprehended that our house might be flooded. I was reluctant, but he insisted. I called Registrar General Mr. Suresh Sharma. He promised to return the call after talking to Chief Engineer and the Deputy Commissioner. No decisive view was forthcoming. My home staff thought that it was all VIP syndrome and nothing was likely to happen.
However, Mr. Akhoon was more persuasive when he said, ‘Sir, it is better to shift and if all goes well then your Lordhsip could return home the next morning’. Eventually, I asked Pinky Kumar, my wife, to pack a bag or two with necessary clothes.
My daughter Misha also packed a small bag. We sat in our car with our driver and reached Hari Niwas by 2.40 A.M. It was hardly two hours in Hari Niwas when our cook called saying ‘Sir there was 4 feet water in the house’. Then at 7.00 A.M. he again rang to say that they were all in the midst of water which was 6 feet.
My worry always was to restore the working of the High Court and the District Courts. To that effect, I sent handwritten letter to the Governor and met him also for retrieving the confidential record and my belongings from my house.
We had left the house in a huff with few clothes packed with the idea that we were to go back to our own house - Chief Justice Bunglow – within 24 hours as some bureaucrats had also suggested.
At Hari Niwas conditions were precarious. First 12 hours were reasonably unproblematic but then shortage of food, drinking water, dry taps and power failure confronted us. Our three day stay there was burdensome and we felt like refugees. September 7, 2014 was not a good day for a number of factors.
We were barely able to have breakfast and lunch; water and electricity supply was not regular. We were all overtaken by the feelings of uncertainly. The phone lines were dead. My other daughter Eshna Kumar, then a law student at University of Delhi could not be reached. She was overtaken by thinking that something unnatural has happened to us.
The Chief Secretary Mr. Khanday and some Ministers obviously affected by deluge were also the guests there. No one knew anything and complete chaos prevailed. The day looked very long and the night was even longer. Somehow the day of September 7 passed. We could hardly have our dinner as no food was available. We reconciled.
The night was extremely disturbed. The quietness of the night would be disturbed intermittently by huge noise of the crowd, and barking of dogs. We could wonder how difficult it would have been for a common man to survive the floods.
Moreover, there was no ‘Access to Justice’ as the city courts situated on bsndh were under 18 feet water. The High Court had submerged in 10 feet water and the Chief Justice’s House was under 9 feet water. I had taken refuge in the State Guest House along with my wife and daughter.
The atmosphere was rife with rumors mongering. Someone rumored that twenty five thousand people had died on account of floods and a large number of buildings in Sri Nagar had collapsed. We were all worried about the safety of our brothers and sisters in the valley.
Out of sheer frustration and amidst chaos we decided to go around at about six in the evening to have glimpse of our submerged house down Gupkar Road crossing. There was complete chaos and disorder. Our car could reach the end of Gupkar Road near the crossing where flood water could be seen like a sea. It was horrifying feelings.
Our house was deep in water. The boundary wall was not visible and both the gates could not be seen. The canopy type verandah was also covered with water and the level of water was about 9’. A large number of people have gathered there because they had reached Gupkar Road after braving the floods. The rescue operations were slow.
Those who were rescued from the nearby area were left at the dry area of Gupkar Road. They had no idea where to go or what to eat. The local volunteers organized one truck carrying bananas for flood victims and the other one carrying ‘Kashmiri Roti’.
Hundreds of people were rushing for Bananas & Rotis. It became difficult to distribute and the attendant in banana truck started throwing full bunch of bananas amidst the crowd. A very pathetic scene of snatching food was witnessed by us.
It was morning of 8th September. It was luckily a sunny day and there was no rain. People had a sigh of relief on the thought that water level would not rise any further. We had our morning tea and hardly any breakfast. Shortage of food had been showing up since 7th evening.
There was no lunch. Justice Mujjaffar Jan (Rtd.) has his house on Gupkar Road. He called on us and found that we did not have food for the last two days. But for his timely help of sending vegetarian food we were heading towards serious problems.
My wife Pinky Kumar, my daughters Misha Kumar and Eshna Kumar (both advocates) successfully activated various social and philanthropic organizations to help flood victims. From Chandigarh and Punjab, a large number of trucks reached Srinagar carrying Atta, Dal, Rice and Clothes etc. My wife and my daughter distributed food and clothes to the flood victims living in camps. It was satisfying to mind and soul.
The Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah had also visited Hari Niwas. The cabinet meetings were held there only. In the evening we met and I told him that deluge had completely suspended ‘access to justice’ as the High Court and city court buildings were in deep water.
I also apprised him that ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘Access to Justice’ cannot be kept in suspended animation for long. I emphasised that it was our constitutional obligation to keep the doors of justice open to everyone.
I, therefore, requested for providing some alternative building so that people may have access to justice. He was receptive to the idea but expressed his difficulty because of huge apprehension of loss of life.
He said that it was considered far less important to provide alternative place for functioning of courts than giving full-fledged attention to rescue operation. But I thought there was no inherent conflict between the two things. It was an easy job to identify two places for High Court and the City Courts to function temporarily.
On 9th I sent hand written letters to the then Governor Mr. N.N. Vohra and a similar copy to the then Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah. Those were penned down by my daughter Dr. Misha.
In a nutshell, I expressed deep shock and sorrow for the people of the State and I requested them that functioning of the High Court and the other courts be restored and it was a constitutional obligation cast upon each one of the State functionaries and that it would inspire confidence in citizens in the justice delivery system.
These two letters did not evoke any reply from both the dignitaries. I was, however, conveyed by Mr. B.B. Vyas, the Personal Secretary to the Chief Minister that it would be better for me and my family to leave for Jammu. I was also intimated that helicopter service had commenced from Hari Niwas itself from newly constructed helipad to reach Srinagar Airport. I was in two minds and not sure whether to leave for Jammu.
Mr. N.N. Vohra invited me to Raj Bhawan the same evening. He assured me that all efforts would be made to restore the functioning for the High Court and the City Courts. Late in the evening we realised that it would be better to leave for Jammu because there was no food, no water and no electricity in the premium State Guest House.
Accordingly, we availed first sortie of the helicopter at 8’O Clock on September 10, 2014. While flying we saw flood ravaged Dal Lake, Lal Chowk, the City Courts, the High Court and other areas. We were all shocked at the devastation caused by floods.
The helicopter landed at a far distance from the door of the Airport. We did not have even a cup of tea or water. We started walking towards the airport which must have taken more than 25 minutes. The Airport wore a deserted look and no soul could be seen. We reached the departure lounge and the attendant showed in-availability to serve us even a glass of water.
The High Court Protocol had kept an attendant at the Airport. He appeared on the scene after about an hour and made inquiries about our well being. He organised tea and snacks for us. It was about 9:30 and our spice jet flight was to take off at 12:20.
Then the issue of purchasing tickets for the flight arose. We were not carrying any cash. However, attendant of the High Court organised our tickets. Eventually, we boarded the flight and reached Jammu on September 10, 2014.
The Chief Justice house at Jammu was not operational, therefore, we reached a hotel in city Jammu for lunch. All of us took lunch like hungry persons. I do not remember ever in the past I had passed through such an ordeal on account of non-availability of food.
We spent some time in the hotel and by evening the house was cleaned up for us to occupy. I held the Court at Jammu from 12th September to 15th September, 2014.
Mr. Suresh Sharma, the Registrar General conveyed on 15th September that the cabinet had expressed its inability to accede to my request and had conveyed that no space was available for functioning of the High Court or that of City Courts on make shift basis. I was extremely unhappy with the decision of the State Government.
Yet, I was hopeful of finding some way to resume the functioning of the Court. My inner conscience guided me to insist that a Constitutional Court with plenary jurisdiction cannot be kept closed even for a single day.
This was to my mind minimum requirement to allow access to justice. I maintained the view that in the prevailing situation a judge would require a table, paper, pen and a stenographer for functioning.
On 16th September I finalised the programme to leave for Srinagar, so as to find ways and means to start functioning of makeshift High Court. I found that a house of a Judge is lying unoccupied although it was allotted to him. I had reached Srinagar and found that from the Airport to Hari Niwas one could reach via outer road through Pantha Chowk.
The water level at Pantha Chowk was still waist high and it was touching upper part of our car tyre. We straight away went to the unoccupied house of the Judge at M-5 Gupkar Road, Srinagar. After the inspection, I held the meeting with the officer of the Registry and found that we could start the functioning of the High Court by converting three rooms as the Court rooms.
The issues like washroom, parking of vehicles and canteen arose. I provisionally decided to go ahead with the idea of makeshift High Court which was subject to the view of brother judges. I requested them to assemble for meeting and to discuss the issue in detail. Each one of them supported the idea of setting up makeshift High Court and City Courts.
It was also suggested that the functioning of District City Court be also restored by dividing the same into two parts. On the Southern side there was office of the Custodian General situated near Pantha Chowk which have many rooms available.
On the northern side of the city we have the Kashmir University to support us. The Moot Court rooms were allowed to be used as actual Court rooms. The police stations were divided into two groups and were allocated to each of the makeshift Courts.
We also invited the High Court Bar Association and took into account their point of view. The bar was happy and supported the idea of establishing makeshift court. As per Rules on 16th September a notification was issued announcing the functioning of the High Court from makeshift Court building. A circular to that effect was issued which would read as under:
“Hon’ble the Chief Justice Mr. Justice M.M. Kumar has directed that the functioning of high court (Srinagar Wing) shall temporarily start from a Make-Shift Building, namely, HOUSE NO. M-5 GUPKAR ROAD SRINAGAR with effect from 18.09.2014 from 10.30 a.m._ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _”
The Governor Mr. N.N. Vohra extended his unstinted support to the cause establishing the make shift court. A company Commander along with adequate staff was deputed to ensure the proper functioning of the Make-shift High court and also in retrieving some of my belongings locked up on the first floor of Chief Justice house.
In the make shift court we decided a large number of insurance cases by carving out an exception to the general principle that no compensation could be awarded in the absence of surveyors’ reports. The insurance companies required one year time to submit surveyors’ report. Expanding a clause in the policy concerning small shopkeepers we directed that 50% of the assured amount be disbursed immediately which shall remain subject to final assessment by surveyor.
We further held that if the disbursed amount exceeded the payable amount then it would be recovered even from the insured property. The order was challenged before the Supreme Court and SLP was declined. It is true that Insurance Companies disburse huge amount but it is equally true that later the number of assured increased geometrically.
Everyone started feeling that if you have insurance cover then you can be granted relief by courts. This reality of our system has dawned on everyone. The judgment has been followed by other High Courts too.
The other category of cases was admission matter which were time bound. The Supreme Court has laid down that after 30th September, no admission by courts was permitted. A dedicated division bench was constituted and all pending admission matters were also disposed of.
I had sent hand written letters to many other functionaries including the Chief Justice of India. Justice Mr. H.L. Dattu rang me up on the satellite phone and told me in encouraging words that ‘do not feel alone and the whole Supreme Court support you’. He came to Srinagar along with his wife on 5th October, 2014 and straightaway visited the make shift High Court at Gupkar Road.
He was visibly disturbed after seeing the shabby treatment being given to the Chief Justice and the Judges. The next day he visited the District Court building, the High Court Building and also saw the Chief Justice’s house. In the meeting held on 6th of October, he expressed his extreme displeasure to the Chief Minister, Mr. Omar Abdullah for delaying the cleaning up process and the failure of the State to restart the functioning of the High Court and District Court. As a result the cleaning up operation were expedited and the functioning of the High Court and District Court could be restored on October 13, 2014.
M. M. KUMAR, Chief Justice (Rtd.), now member, NHRC
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.