A JUDGE of the Bombay High Court for 16 years, Justice Abhay Oka may now be Karnakata bound, but he will continue to be remembered, among other things, for batting for better living conditions in Mumbai and reiterating in many of his orders that right to live in a clean and pollution-free environment is a part of Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty) of the Constitution.
Justice Oka, who was on Tuesday notified by the Centre as the next Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, had in recent years, kept the state government and Mumbai civic authorities on their toes, directing action on various issues plaguing the city, including noise pollution, illegal hoardings, pothole-ridden roads and safety at seafronts.
Last year, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) on potholes, he had said that it is the fundamental right of a citizen to have good roads, streets and footpaths. “We are aware of the state government’s endeavour to make every city smart. However, no city can be known as smart unless its roads, streets and footpaths are in good condition and pothole-free.”
Recently, hearing a PIL regarding project-affected persons residing at the polluted Mahul, Justice Oka had observed: “…PAPs cannot be forced to take accommodation in polluted area where air pollution is life threatening, as per the National Green Tribunal order… if rehabilitation is not done properly it may affect rights of people under Article 21 of the Constitution.”
Senior counsel and president of the Bombay Bar Association, Milind Sathe, said; “Justice Oka has left his mark on the University of Mumbai Law Academy, Maharashtra National Law University, the mediation centre of the High Court and the legal services authority. He has been instrumental in toning the administration of HC, particularly the office of the court receiver and testamentary department. His judgments on issues of environment, which was very dear to his heart, reflected his whole-hearted commitment to the protection of ordinary citizen’s rights, which are generally ignored by the authorities.”
Justice Oka had also presided over the division bench which, in 2016, upheld the Maharashtra government’s ban on cow slaughter. The bench had, however, held that the objective of the ban was to protect the cow and its progeny, not to prevent citizens from eating beef that may be brought from a state or a country where there is no prohibition on cow slaughter.
He had courted controversy in 2017, when the state government had accused the bench headed by him of bias while hearing a bunch of petitions related to noise pollution. The state had sought the transfer of all related matters from the bench. However, after a week, an unconditional apology was tendered by the state. Then Chief Justice Manjula Chellur, who had transferred the matters to a special bench, later withdrew the decision.
Justice Oka, born on May 25, 1960, did his BSc and LLM from Mumbai University. He enrolled as an advocate on June 28, 1983 and started practicing in the Thane district court in the chamber of his father Shreeniwas W Oka. He was elevated as an additional judge of the Bombay High Court on August 29, 2003 and appointed a permanent judge on November 12, 2005.
Known for his punctuality, Justice Oka, who had not availed official accommodation in south Mumbai, commuted daily from his Thane residence to the HC.
Senior counsel Shrihari Aney said, “Justice Oka has remarkable clarity of vision. He feels legal problems with unorthodox perspective. He attempts to solve the problem… which is quite unusual of a judge… He is not necessarily bound by precedent, but he does not ignore the law. He will come out with very innovative legal position.”