The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The arm of the law is reputedly long, but it is possible to wonder exactly how long it might be. The Supreme Court has been obliged, for quite a few years now, to haul up civic, political and bureaucratic powers for alleged neglect of their offices. From the environment to food distribution, the court has had to wander into territory that would formerly have been considered under the purview of quite different forms of authority. And there is neither a lack of authorities responsible for each of these specific areas, nor a dearth of official watchdogs. Yet no one today seems satisfied till the court has had a say in the matter. Many people have become convinced that nothing else works. It is no wonder then, that the Supreme Court has had to comment on the acceptable flying age of airhostesses.

In these gender-sensitive times, any hint of a policy of sex-based discrimination in employment is fodder for controversy and justified dispute. The demands of one profession may differ from another, and the issues under consideration may be delicate. But there are expert bodies already in place, meant to deal with exactly such specific problems, with, presumably the requisite training in law, constitutional rights, and a fund of experience to draw on. Industry and labour, for example, are extremely specialized spheres. In the case of the age limit for in-flight duty of Air India airhostesses, the national industrial tribunal is the appropriate body for purposes of resolution. Yet a petition had been made to the Bombay high court while a reference on the matter was already pending with the tribunal. A tribunal, apart from anything else, also helps to keep the courts clutter-free, an important function, since delay in resolution of court cases is an evil that continues to dog the justice system in India. The fact that the high court accepted the petition is in itself an indication of laxity in the system. The acceptance set the ball rolling on a double track, while it and the resultant appeal to the Supreme Court compelled the judiciary to step into an area that should have been monitored by other authorities.

It is necessary to look at the psychology at work among the petitioners and appellants here. It signals an erosion of faith in most of the appropriate administrative, political and dispute-settling bodies, coupled with a disproportionate faith in the highest legal authorities. Such an erosion speaks ill of the political and civil administration, for at its root lies the sense of an overall failure of most forms of authority to deliver. But the solution cannot lie with the courts taking over responsibility where others shirk them. The balance of power among the various arms of the democracy has to be maintained rigorously for it to function as it should, with accountability as one of the essential requirements of all public offices. While overturning the high courtís ruling and stating its stand on the complaint of discrimination, the Supreme Court has suggested that the case be referred to the national industrial tribunal by the Centre. It would help the system to function efficiently if the courtís suggestion is taken as seriously as its comments on the case.

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