New Delhi, Aug. 15: Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur today regretted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day address contained not a word on the piling judges' vacancies, bringing to a head months of simmering tensions between the judiciary and the government.
"You make roads, schools, colleges, hospitals and take up various other projects. But you must, please, also say something about justice delivery to people," India's top judge said.
"I heard the speech of our Prime Minister for an hour and just now a speech by the Union law minister. I assumed they would say something about the judiciary, justice delivery system and the pending appointments of judges.
"However, they did not. I request the government to pay attention to our judiciary, especially the appointment of judges."
Justice Thakur had on Friday castigated the Centre, saying more than half of high court judges' posts were vacant and any further delay in appointments could "shut down" the courts.
He had threatened to break the "logjam" through a never-before judicial order, exposing members of the government to possible contempt if they continued sitting on an apex court collegium's recommendations for judges' appointments and transfers.
Sources said the Centre had been stalling the collegium's recommendations since the top court quashed a legislation that would have given the government a say in judges' appointments and transfers, which it now virtually has to rubber-stamp.
On Friday, a bench headed by the Chief Justice had given attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi time till September 13 to respond on the government's behalf.
Justice Thakur's comments today came in his own I-Day address to the Supreme Court Bar Association, which he delivered after listening to the Prime Minister's speech.
Earlier, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was on the Supreme Court lawns for the event, had spoken in general terms about filling judges' posts instead of committing the government to a timetable.
"Although this occasion is not to talk about appointments, I would only reiterate that our government is led by senior ministers who fought against the Emergency. Our government feels that effective judicial delivery is integral to good governance and appointments are part of it."
Prasad had added: "Appointments of judges will go ahead irrespective of whether a memorandum of procedure is in place or not."
Justice Thakur said, speaking in Hindi: "Under British rule, it took 10 years to deliver a judgment. Today, even 100 years aren't enough because of a shortage of judges. People's aspirations are increasing and a large number of cases are being filed. But there are no judges."
He added: "We appreciate that the government is doing great work for the people. But it should also think about the judicial system. Please pay attention to this side too."
This was the third time in four months that the Chief Justice was publicly chiding the government for the mounting judges' vacancies at a time the courts were groaning under a backlog of 3 crore cases.
On April 24, Justice Thakur had fought back tears while telling the Prime Minister, who was in the audience, that the success of his Make-in-India campaign and economic policies hinged on the "efficacy" of the judicial system.
Addressing a conference of chief ministers and high court chief justices, he had accused the Centre and the states of fighting a "tug-of-war" in shifting responsibility when it came to upgrading judicial infrastructure.
He had said that three decades after the Centre had pledged to increase the judges' strength in the country to 40,357, their number today languished at 7,675.
On Friday, Justice Thakur had accused the government of withholding the appointments of 312 high court judges. Sources had said another 40 transfers had been stalled.
It's the judges-only collegium that recommends all appointments and transfers of high court and Supreme Court judges. The government is allowed one request for reconsideration per recommendation, which must be accepted if the collegium reaffirms it.
After the October verdict, the top court had as a concession asked the Centre to redraft the memorandum of procedure for judges' appointments, fixing eligibility criteria such as age and qualifications subject to the collegium's approval.
Since then, the Centre has been bombarding the collegium with queries such as whether it can reject a judge's appointment on grounds of "national security" and whether it can install a mechanism to hear complaints against judges.
"The government may be working on the draft memorandum of procedure but that did not give them the excuse to freeze appointments," the Chief Justice had said on Friday.
Justice Thakur also spoke on larger national issues today. He said that about 10 crore people lived below the poverty line before Independence but the figure had now reached 40 crore.
Real freedom, he said, would be achieved only when the battle against poverty was won.