Common Cause: A Romance with Public Causes

The balance between Exit, Voice and Loyalty, argues the late great political economist Albert Hirschman, determines the nature of a democracy. Organisations that enable the voiceless to hold those in power accountable are, therefore, more than necessary nuisances; they are essential to the very survival of a democracy.

Common Cause, an organisation founded in 1980, has worked tirelessly since its inception for the rights of ordinary citizens and propriety in governance. Mr. Kamal Kant Jaswal, a career civil servant in the IAS, and the current President of Common Cause, will talk to us about the history and achievements of the organisation, and the lessons we should learn.

Please join us for his talk at 5pm on Friday the 16th of June at Kanada Auditorium, JNCASR. An abstract from the speaker follows.

Abstract

Common Cause was established in 1980 by Mr. Hari Dev Shourie, a retired civil servant, as a forum for ventilating the common problems and grievances of the people. The organisation was soon able to secure relief from the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking in respect of consumer grievances.

Common Cause was then persuaded to take up the case of old pensioners, who had arbitrarily been excluded from the liberalised pension scheme of 1979. In its landmark decision in the very first PIL filed by Common Cause, the Supreme Court held that central government pensioners formed one class and could not be treated differently on the basis of date of retirement. The principle was later extended to pensioners of state governments, local bodies and other government organisations. This PIL benefitted more than 4 million pensioners and was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most impactful litigation of the time.

Subsequently, Common Cause succeeded in securing family pension for the widows of pre-1964 pensioners and the restoration of the commuted value of pension after 15 years of recovery.

Emboldened by its successes in the domain of liberalised pension, Common Cause took up in rapid succession various causes of public import, including property tax, Rent Control Act, malfunctioning blood banks, grievances of consumers of public utilities, establishment of consumer courts, pendency of criminal cases, police reforms, financial accountability of political parties, and probity in public life.

In all, Common Cause filed more than seventy writ petitions, many drafted and argued by Mr. Shourie himself. His social activism won him many laurels and wide acclaim. The government often sought his wise counsel in the formation of public policy.

Mr. Shourie served as Director of Common Cause to his last breath in June 2005. He had been a one-man army; and after his death, the organisation went into a dormant phase lasting until 2007. A determined effort was then made to consolidate the Founder Director’s legacy, transforming in the process an essentially individual initiative into a collegial, research-based, systems-driven and networked organisation.

In the last decade, the focus of Common Cause has been on policy interventions in key areas of governance reforms and on safeguarding the integrity of institutions of governance. It has never shied from speaking truth to power and pursuing its PILs to their logical end, regardless of consequences.

The interventions of Common Cause, often undertaken in concert with like-minded civil society organisations, have been spearheaded by public spirited lawyers like Prashant Bhushan. Among the notable outcomes of the recent PILs are the following.

  • Revocation of the appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner.
  • Enunciation of a new jurisprudence of institutional integrity.
  • Cancellation of 2G telecom licences and spectrum allocations.
  • Cancellation of captive coal mine allocations.
  • Enforcing the accountability of holders of high public office for their sins of omission and commission.
  • Radical reform of the system of attribution of national resources to commercial entities and institution of the system of public auctions, resulting in enormous increases in government revenues.
  • Striking down of certain arbitrary and iniquitous provisions of the Information Technology Act and Representation of the People Act.

A number of PILs, which raise substantive issues of law and equity, is pending in the Supreme Court and the High Courts. Many others are in the pipeline. The instrument of public interest litigation is, however, losing its edge, as the courts are increasingly wary of interfering in the legislative and executive domains.

Under the circumstance, Common Cause has decided to attribute a major part of its resources to projects of research-based policy advocacy concerning critical issues of governance. The most important of these projects relates to the launch of an Annual State of Policing Report across states with a view to imparting an impetus to the stalled movement for police reforms. Policy interventions in the implementation of the Right to Education are also under preparation.

About the Speaker

Kamal Kant Jaswal served in the Uttar Pradesh Cadre of the Indian Administrative Service for over 36 years till October 2004.

Kamal Jaswal holds degrees of Master of Science in Geology from the University of Lucknow, M.Phil. in Economics and Management of Public Enterprises from the University of Paris XI and L.L.B. from the University of Delhi.

During his career in the IAS, Kamal Jaswal held a number of important positions in the field as well as the State and Central secretariats. He also served in the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation as Chief Technical Advisor of a major industrial planning project in the Republic of Mali for three years.

As Secretary to Government of India, Department of Information Technology, he formulated a comprehensive programme for development of the IT infrastructure in the country and piloted the National e-Governance Action Plan. After his retirement from the IAS, he was appointed Member Secretary of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector and played a key role in making it functional.

During his long public career, Kamal Jaswal specialized in the areas of rural development, industrial planning & promotion, public enterprise policy and privatization. In March 2007 he took charge as Director and Chief Executive of Common Cause, a position he held for the next eight years. In 2015 the Common Cause Governing Council unanimously elected him as the Presiden

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