Its walls still smell of fresh paint. The long, pebbled pathway leading up to it is surrounded by shrubs and uncut grass. Policemen standing guard at adjoining buildings are clueless why the sprawling bungalow number AB-13 in the heart of Delhi has been lying vacant for almost a year.
The bungalow was supposed to be the cynosure of the NDA government’s ambitious plan to change the way judges are appointed in the country. It was earmarked to be the headquarters of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) — which was at the centre of a crucial debate this year and was struck down by the Supreme Court, incidentally located barely 100 metres away. Now, the bungalow has been allotted to Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das.
In response to an RTI application filed by The Indian Express, the Ministry of Law and Justice said that after the constitutional amendment bill and the NJAC Act was unanimously passed by both Houses of Parliament, it had requested the Urban Development Ministry to allocate a space to serve as the NJAC headquarters. Accordingly, on February 17 this year, AB-13 — a Type 7 bungalow — was allotted to the Department of Justice.
Within a month, occupation of the bungalow was taken over by the Department of Justice and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was requested to paint the house and carry out necessary repairs.
According to the RTI response, seven posts were sanctioned by the Finance Ministry to work for the NJAC, and the Department of Justice had requested the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to make officials available. Accordingly, seven officers, including a deputy secretary and an under secretary, were provided to work at the NJAC headquarters.
However, before AB-13 could be converted into a full-fledged office, where applications of those who want to become judges would be scrutinised, the plan met its Waterloo. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on October 16 declared as unconstitutional the amendment to validate the NJAC Act, which had contemplated a significant role for the executive in appointing judges to the higher judiciary. Sealing the fate of the proposed system, the apex court ruled with a 4:1 majority that judges’ appointments shall continue to be made by the Collegium system in which the Chief Justice of India will have “the last word”.
On December 9 — more than a month after the NJAC was quashed — the Department of Justice handed back the possession of the vacant bungalow to the CPWD.
Of the seven officers sanctioned for NJAC work, the deputy secretary and the under secretary were sent back to the MHA. The rest were “adjusted” against vacant posts in the Department of Justice.
The Indian Express has learnt that the Urban Development Ministry allotted the bungalow to Das on December 21. Das, however, is yet to occupy the house, which would have been a focal point in judicial history had the NJAC passed the muster.