Thanks to the media-shyness of the judiciary, many cases, in which judicial pronouncements and decisions lay down principled and lawful guidelines for the government agencies to follow in all matters, never see the light of the day as the case files remain buried in the dusty confines of the courts? record rooms. Way back in 2004, an NGO, Common-Cause, under the dynamic stewardship of its the then Director the late H.D. Shouri filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court contending that installation, maintenance, repair and replacement of water metres is the duty and the sole responsibility exclusively of the service provider in this case the government-owned Delhi Jal Board. However, millions of Delhi consumers aren'tany wiser about their right and the government-owned Delhi Jal Board continues to arm-twist the consumers to install, maintain and replace, as the case may be, the water metres privately at their own cost and responsibility otherwise they have to shell out consumptive charges at a presumptive average which is much higher than the actual average for the immediately preceding last one year consumption recorded by the DJB-installed metre.
For the obvious reasons, given the choice, not a single consumer out of several millions would like to go for private installation of metre at his own cost and responsibility. While a DJB-installed metre lasts for many years, the life-span of a privately-installed metre does not usually average more than a year. More often than not it is pronounced ?faulty? or ?defective? much earlier and the poor consumer ends up paying highly inflated bills raised on the basis of presumptive average consumption until he chooses to again fall prey to the vicious circle of installation-replacement-installation of the privately-installed metre at frequent intervals which is far more bothersome and costly affair than paying the inflated bills. Though in all such cases the DJB logically and also legally should raise bills at the actual average for the preceding last one year consumption as recorded by its own metre when that was operating as decided in yet another such case?R.C. Maheshwari vs. DJB?Judgment delivered by the District Forum, Janakpuri on 15-01-02 and upheld by the Hon?ble Delhi State Consumer Commission who while upholding the learned Lower Court'sdecision, dismissed the appeal of the DJB as unnecessary (vide their orders dated 14-02-2006 and 06-07-2006; appeal case no. 257/02). The case assumes significance and importance not only for its landmark decision but also for a noteworthy observation made in it by the Commission headed by Justice J.D.Kapoor, President. Delivering the judgment which was to be referred to the reporters also as per the Court'sdirection, the Commission inter-alia, laid down the guidelines to be observed in all such cases also. In most unmistakable terms Justice Kapoor observed, ?Any amount received in excess or towards metre by the service provider have to be refunded and cannot be allowed even by any provision of law to be adjusted towards future bills. Retention of such amount or its adjustment towards future bills has to be followed by payment of interest.? The landmark judgment apart, the case generates an interesting debate on the tariff-plan and billing of the domestic supply of water as distinct from the billing of its industrial and commercial supply. In the case of the former, the water is consumed by the ultimate consumer to whom the commodity is gifted by the Mother Nature in great abundance and as freely as its two other life-sustaining gifts?air and sunshine?and the service-providing agencies have no role, whatsoever, to play in its production and as such have no authority to commodify it. While they are entitled to levy the service charges at the flat rates for the treatment of water and bringing it to homes through piped supply for domestic use, they cannot levy consumptive charge. The life-sustaining gift of the Nature belongs to all the living beings. Its ownership indisputably vests with the people and the owner cannot be charged for consuming a commodity that belongs to him. The consumptive charge is, therefore, levy-able only in case of commercial or industrial use of water and certainly not on its domestic supply. The establishment cannot take an alibi in citing ?scarcity?. The culprits responsible for creating this interminably torturous ?scarcity amidst plenty? syndrome are gross mismanagement, rampant corruption, unplanned development and urbanization, burgeoning population and so forth; certainly not the people. However, the fiduciary responsibility of the government to protect and keep the water bodies and resources clean and in excellent condition all the time is not waived.
The service-providing government agencies are very well aware of the fact that their services are miles behind the normal expectations of and otherwise much-tolerant and docile Indian consumer let alone the international standards. This awareness of the deplorable quality of their services makes them scary even before any measure for consumer-empowerment is hinted, let alone initiated. No wonder, they don'twant government to make them more accountable to consumers and resist any such move tooth and nail. Not only this, the establishment itself does not want expeditious disposal of such cases where a consumer is pitted against a government service-providing agency and they have many tricks up their sleeves to keep the consumer courts under a handicap. Even very simple cases go on dragging much after the judgment vindicating a consumer'sstand is delivered as it takes another long stretching legal battle before a common consumer can think of getting even a small slice of the reliefs granted. The gainful interaction between judiciary and media is likely to go a long way in alleviating the sufferings of hapless nobodies in their quest for justice.
(The author can be contacted at C-1A/42 B, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110058)