The demonetisation of notes of higher denomination came under scrutiny of the courts Friday with the Calcutta High Court seeking a report from the government on steps taken to “alleviate the sufferings of common people”, and pulling up the Centre for not applying its “mind properly”, doing “no homework” and “changing procedure” everyday.
The Supreme Court, while observing that long queues outside banks and post offices was “a serious issue” and a reflection of the “crisis”, refused to pass any immediate order to state high courts and other courts not to hear demonetisation-related cases.
Questioning the steps taken by the Centre, the bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice A R Dave told Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi: “Last time you said there will be relief for people in the coming days but you have squeezed the exchange limit to Rs 2,000 only. What is the difficulty?… It is a serious issue which requires consideration.”
The court asked all parties to be ready with data and other issues in writing. “Some measures are required. See the kind of problems people are facing. It is a crisis. People have to go to the high court. If we shut them from going to the high court, how can we know the magnitude of the problem. People going to different courts indicates the magnitude of the problem,” the bench said.
The Calcutta High Court, hearing a public interest litigation, observed that it appeared the government had made the demonetisation move without sufficient “homework”.
Observing “we cannot change government policy but lack of sincerity of bank employees is there,” the bench of Chief Justice Girish Chandra Gupta and Justice Arindam Sinha underlined the need for “some measures to alleviate the sufferings of the common people”, particularly for those who are ill or have urgency, so that “medical institutions, private and public transport — rail, air, bus — and also essential commodities” are not affected.
Ramaprasad Sarkar, the petitioner who is an advocate, later said: “The court told the advocate for the central government that they need to submit, in writing, the steps taken by them before the bench by November 25.”
Meanwhile, the bench also admitted a PIL by seven persons with serious disabilities who sought modification in the notification announcing demonetisation. Counsel Akbar Ali said the notification should be changed allowing “authorised representative” of a person with disability to exchange currency. He said the matter will be heard on November 25.
In the Supreme Court, when Attorney General Rohatgi pressed the Centre’s plea, the bench of CJI Thakur and Justice Dave said, “Ordinary people are affected. People are frantic. People have the right to approach courts.” Asking the Centre to see the difficulties, the bench said, “Can you (the Centre) dispute?”
To this, Rohatgi said there was no dispute, but claimed that the queues outside banks were getting shorter. He even urged the CJI to go out during lunch and take a look at the queues.
The hearing witnessed a sharp exchange of words between Rohatgi and former Law Minister Kapil Sibal, who was appearing against the Centre, with the Attorney General accusing Sibal of exaggerating the problem.
“It’s a political attempt in court. I have seen your (Sibal’s) press conference also. You are not appearing for a political party, but for an advocate. You are turning the apex court into a political platform,” Rohatgi said. To this, Sibal replied, “Was my press conference held in court? Then why bring it here.”
Rohatgi claimed there was no shortage of cash. “After printing, the currency has to be moved to thousands of centres across the country and ATMs have to be re-calibrated to issue new currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 2,000,” he said.
While the Attorney General was listing steps taken by the government, Sibal intervened and said the problem was of printing. “They (Centre) need to print Rs 23 lakh crore but they do not have the capacity to do that. Already, they have frozen Rs 14,000 crore and it is not clear under which law they have done so,” he said, pointing out that it was a serious situation where people cannot withdraw “their own taxed money”.
“They are trustees, how can they not let us withdraw our legitimate money,” asked Sibal, adding that “the situation has turned from bad to worse”. He accused the government of not being concerned about problems being faced by people living in remote areas of the North-East, Himachal Pradesh and areas like Bastar where people have to walk for 20 km to reach an ATM.
Realising that the bench was not going to entertain the Centre’s application seeking directions to courts not to hear demonetisation-related cases, the Attorney General said, “We will file a transfer petition”. The matter will now be heard on November 25.