Public Interest lawyer

Ghulam Mohammad Wani left the judiciary to remain just, and made public interest litigation his weapon to fight for people, at times earning him public ire. Hamidullah Dar reports.

It takes a lawyer and a judge to find the best tool to fight for peoples’ rights. In a way, Ghulam Muhammad Wani is both. A law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University, he started his career as a lawyer and after serving as a judge for 10 years, ended up a lawyer again.

Hailing from Handwara, 56-year-old Wani has put government on its heels for the last ten years by making it accountable through Public Interest Litigations (PIL).

Wani practised law for 12 years before qualifying KCS (judicial) examination conducted in 1985 to become a sub-judge. For 10 years he held the post only to resign it in 1996, due to “extreme pressures from different quarters to compromise” on his honesty and integrity. The judge in him ruled against his continuation.

Wani put on the lawyers robe again. Mostly he would fight service matters. It was then that Wani found that a useful weapon like Public Interest Litigation was used to fulfil personal motives instead of issues of mass concern.

“It pained me to see even lawyers not having right concept of PIL which was used to serve private interests in the garb of public interest,” says Wani.

He quotes an example, “A petrol pump owner from Pulwama had filed a PIL in 1998 for closure of unlicensed pumps and the high court direction saw many such petrol pumps closing down. It later dawned on me that the petitioner had a petrol pump and another person had set up one more near it that marred his business. He found that the new pump owner had no license and wiped out his adversary on this ground through PIL,” says Wani.

Taking a serious note of the case, he formed Public Interest Litigation Forum, J&K High Court, a forum to make people aware of the right use of PIL for public grievances. The forum had 23 members at its initiation. Brimming with concern for the fellow countrymen, Wani filed first PIL in 1999 for improvement in the healthcare sector of the state. “At that time, a child was killed by dogs in one hospital; another child’s ear was eaten by mice in another hospital; some deaths had occurred due to negligence of doctors and shortage of essential drugs in yet another hospital. I moved the matter to court through PIL to improve the condition of hospitals. The then director health personally appeared in the court and assured it that necessary steps would be taken to remove the loopholes in public health care,” says Wani.

With such a beginning Wani never looked back. One after other he filed PILs on various matters of public concern. When Delhi government condemned 15 year old commercial vehicles and implemented CNG compliance, Kashmiris became wholesale buyers of the old vehicles from 1999. Seeing a floodgate of pollution opening, Wani filed a PIL to send vehicles creating air pollution off the road. “When court stamped a ban on the plying of vehicles older than 15 years, the transporters fraternity rose in revolt. They went on strike from November 1 to 25, 2005 against the PIL. Even I had to go into hiding for about a month as furious drivers were baying for my blood. However, I was content as it was not done for my personal benefit,” says Wani adding that he had to face abusive language from drivers when he entered court for arguments.

Wani has his own way of looking at issues. When people were talking of saving Dal Lake, he filed a PIL in high court demanding an alternate source of drinking water once the Dal was extinct. “Almost 40 per cent of the drinking water supplied to Srinagar city comes from Dal. I asked the government that if they will not take steps to save Dal then show the residents of Srinagar the alternate source of drinking water, which it has failed to find so far despite passing of many years,” says Wani.

In 2004, Wani took a stand against unregistered private schools for their exploitative tactics and poor standard of education and filed a PIL. “Our petition bore fruit and government closed down 2300 unregistered private schools. Even those spared were asked to bring their pay rolls in the court that brought the exploitative element to the fore. Only one school was paying a salary of Rs 2000 to a teacher while as all others paid less than it,” says Wani.

Equally worried about the conversion and loss of agricultural land Wani took the matter to court. However, this time his petition was dismissed. “After hearing my argument, division bench comprising of justices Y P Nargotra and Syed Bashirudin declined to treat the petition as PIL,” says he.

Wani says he is fighting for third generation human (group, public and community) rights. “I want to bring about remarkable socio-economic change in the state through PIL. So far I have filed more than 60 PILs and the process is still on,” says Wani.

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