When Fishing Becomes Fishy
When the police is held in contempt
 
The High Court at Hyderabad is housed in a palace. It reeks of old-time majesty, in decay. Especially in the courtrooms. Wooden panels, semi-circular tables for advocates, walls lined with All India Reporters giving instant access to judgements. One dreads the invasion of monitors on the judges’ table, especially when two excellent legal issues were argued this week. A fruitful visit was concluded by this writer, in more ways than one.
 
From Hyderabad, we bring you a case that deals with easements, tribal rights and contempt of court. Yes, these can all be the matter of arguments in just one case.
 
Contempt of court, to the popular imagination, is an accused throwing his chappal at the magistrate. Or hurling the choicest swear words. A mild form of punishment is a civil contempt order, lasting for a few hours, usually called “…till the rising of the court.” A more severe form is the criminal contempt notice, culminating in a sentence of incarceration, with or without a monetary fine. Of course, punishments for contempt. in earlier years. were corporal in nature. One book talks of hands being cut off and impaled on posts outside the court! We have, fortunately, moved on.
 
Easements means a right acquired by one (or many) without actually being a proprietor. Simply put, it is a right to enjoy a facility. It can mean a passage through another’s property to reach one’s home. It can be a right of way for traffic. An easement can be for fishing rights in a stream or a pond or on the coast, most usually available from long usage. It can be determined by a court.
 
In our case, it was a negative order. Fishing was banned, whatever be the reason. And that leads us to tribal rights. These are definite privileges accorded to certain people by demarcating areas for their use, usually exclusive use. People, who live near these places and whose families have lived off these parts for ages, are allowed to continue their livelihood. Being pristine zones, they are full of natural wealth like fruits, timber, grazing lands, fish from the streams, rivers and water bodies, eggs from birds’ nests and other God-given bounty. Yet, no one kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. It’s a win-win trade-off. Champanwalli village was one such hamlet and Ammanapalli was its fishing spot.
 
Civilisation is on the march. The ‘fruit’ is limited. Encroachment follows, insidiously at first, then more vocal and, later, by force. The simple people find that they have only one recourse; the court of law. Yet, a favourable order is often only a piece of paper in hand. Implementation by the poor folk, facing the might of the oppressors, is another kettle of fish. So, once again they bang on the doors of the court. Realising their plight, the court orders the local constabulary to protect the court-ordained rights. Usually, it turns out to be wishful thinking. One need not wonder why Naxalism and Chipko movements seem the only way out, illegal though they may be.
 
In our case, the cops did nothing, when it came to fishing by those exclusively banned from the site. The police failed to prevent the breaches of the law. Law enforcement agencies became spectators to, and therefore participants in, open flouting of the mandates. The usual Nelson’s eye syndrome.
 
You be the judge. What would you do, if the affected people came to you once again?
 
The court came down heavily on the Karimnagar rural circle inspector and two cops. Contempt of court was slapped on them. The cops were sentenced to three months each and fined Rs2,000, pending appeal. Yet, another victory for the common man. Unfortunately, such judgements are few and far between. More unfortunate is that they are little advertised. A copy of such orders, posted on the walls of every chowky, will not only to warn the errant but also to allow the citizenry to know its rights, options and recourses.
 
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected]
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