Monday, September 13, 2010

Un-pimped via judiciary

Consider the tragic case of Renu Agarwal, a 39 year old woman who was killed in a road accident in Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh, which has given rise to some interesting questions about the law, judicial activism, and the role of women in society.

Upon Renu's death, her insurance company offered to pay her family a sum of money far less than what it would have for a person in full-time employment (she was a housewife). Arun, her husband, sued for higher compensation in vain, then appealed to a lower court and finally to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did agree with Arun and ordered the insurance company to pay up a larger sum that the Court found appropriate.

It wasn't the judgment itself but rather the observations made by the Court about inequities in the law that caught national attention. It noted that the current Motor Vehicle Act does not recognize the service, and the economic value thereof, rendered by those who manage households without holding a formal job. The Court went on to observe that this bias extended to classifications adopted in the national census, wherein housewives are "categorized as non-workers and equated with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who, according to Census, are not engaged in economically productive work".

A couple of aspects of this story struck me:

Firstly, it comes across as extremely media-savvy of the judges to have used the comparison with prostitutes to illustrate the bias against housewives in the Census. The Court could simply have observed that "The Census' categorization of housewives is unfair"; instead it noted that "The Census equates housewives with prostitutes". The former would have been relegated to dusty reams of case law; the latter hit front pages and will probably fuel a political will towards modifications to the law and the Census methodology.

Judicial activism in India has been on the rise since some time now, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it (without any sarcasm, I personally recognize the "executive judiciary" as the fourth arm of government). On the other hand the impact of mass-media on Indian polity is now more powerful than ever before in history; it is only appropriate that the judiciary too learns how to manipulate the media.

Secondly, on its way to correcting one perception, it seems the Court itself completely failed on another. Which is because it seems to abet the general perception that the work performed by prostitutes is economically non-productive. Does non-authorization of a transaction by the government make it non-productive? Legality is one thing; recognition is another - a service is provided in exchange for money; seems like perfectly fair trade to me (I don't wish to gloss over the fact that some or many prostitutes enter the profession under duress; but that fact contributes or takes away nothing from this argument).

I don't wish to rap the Court on this; one cannot get everything right in one go, and perhaps it is not time yet. In fact, I am convinced that when prostitution does eventually start moving towards legalization, it will not be motivated by the legislature but owing to a big push from either a champion in the executive (e.g. what A Ramadoss did for legalizing homosexuality) or an activist judiciary.

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