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PM Modi’s judicial jumla as appointment numbers differ from claims

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Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has announced that a record number of judicial appointments have been made during Narendra Modi led government so far, seeking to counter allegations of its slow approach to the issue as he listed the administration’s achievements.

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“In 2016, the highest-ever appointments of high court judges were made,” he said.

But while data shows that the number of appointments has indeed increased after 2014, the number of vacancies in high courts has also risen every year since.

Apart from this, Prasad made a slew of assertions on the ministry’s performance. But many of the assertions, when placed in context, do not convey a success story. ThePrint analyses the significant ‘achievements’.The Supreme Court now has 24 judges while its sanctioned strength is 31. In 2014, when the Modi government came to power, the SC had 28 judges.

Judicial appointments have been the perfect area for political landscaping for the Modi government. The elevation of Justice K.M. Joseph may be the latest flashpoint between the Modi government and the higher judiciary, but four other appointments — of high court judges — have been inexplicably stuck with the Centre for at least two years, ThePrint reports. The government received criticism from several quarters for sitting on and then rejecting Joseph’s name. Many believe the government’s action is connected to Joseph’s March 2016 judgment, in which he overturned imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand and reinstated the Congress government of Harish Rawat.

All four — Harnaresh Singh Gill, Basharat Ali Khan, Mohammad Mansoor and Mohd. Nizamuddin — were cleared by the three-member Supreme Court collegium, which is the final step in the selection process. However the numbers are a farcry from the claims made by the BJP government.

In 2015, three Supreme Court judges, including the then CJI H.L. Dattu, retired but no fresh appointments were made since the court had stayed — and then struck down — National Judicial Appointments Act. In 2016, six judges retired but only four were appointed. In 2017, four retired and five were appointed. In 2018, seven vacancies will arise but only one appointment, Justice Indu Malhotra, has been made so far.

As of now the apex court has just 24 judges while the sanctioned strength is 31. In 2014, when the Modi government came to power, the SC had 28 judges. Even in high courts, as mentioned before, the rise in the number of appointments has been in sync with the increasing number of retirements every passing year. As a result, the net difference has widened as never before.

In 2015, a year after the Modi government completed a year in office, India’s 24 high courts were 384 judges short of their sanctioned strength of 1,017. From 38 per cent in 2015, the share of vacancies rose to 45 per cent in 2016. It dipped to 39.6 per cent in 2017 as the government appointed 117 judges. Prasad has claimed that, in 2016, 126 judges were appointed, setting a record for maximum appointments in a single year. But in the previous years, 2014 and 2015, no appointments were made due to the standoff over the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC).

“Appointments were practically stalled in 2014 and 2015. So the record high in 2016, as the government claims, was a bid to catch up. The vacancies had soared to almost 50 per cent and functioning of courts was being affected,” said B.S. Suryaprakash, a fellow and programme director at Daksh, a Bengaluru-based research organisation that focuses on the judiciary.

According to a report in The Print, Prasad also sought to highlight the Modi government’s decision to limit the number of tribunals, or quasi-judicial fora. Out of the 31 tribunals four years ago, he said, only 18 remained.

The government has received flak for delay in clearing recommendations from the Supreme Court collegium for appointment of judges to the higher judiciary. Senior members of the judiciary, too, have questioned why the government should be sitting on recommendations for months even as the higher courts reel under severe shortage of judges.

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