Verdicts ordering probe into alleged use of Pegasus spyware for surveillance, and paving the way for widening of the strategic Chardham highway project near China border and the Central Vista construction were among key imprints of the Supreme Court in 2021.
The apex court also for the first time got as many as nine judges in one go including Justice B V Nagarathna, who is poised to become the first woman Chief Justice of India in 2027.
The year witnessed change of guard at the top of judiciary with Justice N V Ramana, hailing from an agriculturist family of Ponnavaram village in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district, taking charge as the 48th CJI upon retirement of his predecessor Justice S A Bobde in April. The collegium led by the CJI made a slew of recommendations leading to filling up nine vacant posts in SC and over 100 posts in high courts.
For the first time, three women judges — Hima Kohli, Nagarathna and Bela M Trivedi — got the judgeship at the top court. The Justice Ramana-led collegium ended the 21-month-long logjam over appointment of judges to the apex court when nobody was appointed after the superannuation of the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi on November 17, 2019.
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With the country witnessing an unprecedented second wave of COVID-19, the apex court passed several directions to assuage the miseries of the citizens. But the judiciary lost legal luminary Soli Sorabjee due to coronavirus. Another sad news came as the top court lost sitting judge Mohan M Shantanagoudar in April.
In a significant verdict, the apex court refused to refer to a larger bench to revisit its 29-year-old Mandal verdict, putting cap on quotas at 50 per cent, as it quashed a Maharashtra law granting reservations to Marathas in admissions and government jobs, saying it violated the principle of right to equality.
It also said that reservation in favour of Other Backward Classes in local bodies concerned in Maharashtra cannot exceed an aggregate 50 per cent of the total seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and OBCs taken together.
Later in the year, it directed the State Election Commission of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to notify the seats reserved for the OBCs in local bodies in these two states for the general category.
The Centre got mixed results in 2020 in the apex court which gave the green signal to the strategic Chardham highway project near China border after taking note of security concerns and also junked pleas to stall the ambitious Central Vista Project, covering a three-km stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in Lutyens’ Delhi.
The top court found ”no infirmity” in grant of environment clearance and other permissions for the Central Vista and at the fag end, dismissed another plea challenging the change in land use of a plot where new residence of the Vice President is proposed.
It also upheld the Centre’s power to extend Sanjay Kumar Mishra’s tenure as Director of the Enforcement Directorate but clarified that extension of officers after the age of superannuation should be done rarely and in exceptional cases.
However, it trashed opposition of the government to pleas for probe into alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for surveillance and appointed a three-member panel of cyber experts to investigate under the monitoring of former apex court judge R V Raveendran, saying the state cannot get a ”free pass” every time the spectre of national security is raised and it cannot be the ”bugbear” that the judiciary shies away from.
It also intervened to ensure fair probe into the Lakhimpur Kheri violence in which eight people including four farmers were killed during a protest as it appointed Justice Rakesh Kumar Jain, former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, to monitor the investigation of Uttar Pradesh SIT which will also have three IPS officers.
The apex court, which took back its 2020 order of extending period of limitation for filing cases due to the pandemic saying the country was returning to normalcy, again found itself in the midst of the brutal second wave and passed a slew of orders on issues ranging from delivery of oxygen, medicines, hospital beds, insurance for frontline workers, helping sex workers, migrant labourers, kids in street situation and those orphaned by COVID-19 and payment of ex-gratia of Rs 50,000 to the next of kin of those who died of the infection.
Terming the resurgence of Covid cases as ”national crisis”, the CJI even advanced the Supreme Court’s summer vacation and also ordered decongestion of prisons by ordering immediate release of prisoners who were granted bail or parole in 2020.
The top court said black marketing of critical COVID-19 drugs and oxygen is a condemnable attempt to exploit peoples’ misery and directed the Centre to consider constituting a special team to identify and prosecute offenders.
Highlighting the digital divide between rural and urban India, it posed searching queries to the Centre on mandatory registration on CoWIN for Covid jabs, vaccine procurement policy and differential pricing, saying the policy makers must have ears on ground to effectively deal with the unprecedented crisis.
At the fag end of the year, the court was dismayed over the poor air quality in Delhi-NCR and asked the Centre-appointed panel to work on finding a permanent solution to the menace.
The year also saw the Supreme Court staying till further orders the implementation of three farm laws and constituting a committee to listen to grievances of the protesting farmer unions’, which held an over a year-long protest at Delhi borders, as also make recommendations to resolve the impasse.
The three farm laws were subsequently repealed leading to a situation where a clutch of pleas challenging their validity and others against the blockade by farmers in the apex court became infructuous.
The much-anticipated corporate battle resulted in a victory for the Tata Group with the top court setting aside appellate tribunal NCLAT’s order which had restored Cyrus Mistry as the executive chairman of the USD 100 billion salt-to-software conglomerate.
In a major victory for US-based e-commerce giant Amazon, the apex court held that Singapore’s Emergency Arbitrator award, restraining the Rs 24,731 crore merger deal of Future Retail Ltd (FRL) with Reliance Retail, is valid and enforceable under Indian arbitration laws.
Nine years after taking up cudgels against Supertech, home buyers finally got relief from the top court as it ordered demolition of the under-construction twin 40-storey towers which would have blocked sunlight and fresh air, violating building norms in collusion with NOIDA officials.
During the year, it also put the curtains down on suo motu proceedings initiated to probe a ”larger conspiracy” behind sexual harassment allegations against former CJI Gogoi in April 2019.
It also closed the nine-year-old criminal proceedings that were initiated in India against two Italian marines accused of killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012, after Rs 10 crore compensation was paid by Italy to heirs of the deceased and the boat owner.
It also said that according to the international arbitral award accepted by India, Italy shall resume further probe in the case against the marines — Massimilano Latorre and Salvatore Girone.
In another significant verdict, the top court said the Delhi Assembly and its committee have the power to compel attendance of members and outsiders on grounds of privilege.