The Bombay High Court contemplated issuing a direction that Indian Premier League matches be shifted out of Maharashtra, and the reaction from certain quarters made it sound like the court was trying to pour scorn on the cricket-mad population of the country.
Some commentators have even gone to the extent of stating that the court's action amounts to 'intolerable' judicial adventurism.
On Thursday, the court gave a temporary decision to allow the first IPL match to be played in Mumbai on 9 April, which might soften some of the criticism. However, the manner in which this controversy has played out has made sure that the most critical issues have been drowned out by the din of the 'debate'.
The court hasn't, at this stage, given the Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government or the IPL organisers a free pass. Nor have the judges shown a lack of concern for those suffering from the unprecedented drought and water crisis which has engulfed Maharashtra. The government has to submit a detailed reply to the court on 12 April.
Petition was directed against govt
The petition filed by the Loksatta Foundation and some water rights activists was not directed at the BCCI or the IPL, although the BCCI was made a party.It was essentially directedagainst the government, which has shown persistent and gross ineptitude in dealing with the water crisis and mitigating the population's suffering.
The first issue is about the caste and class aspects of the problem. It is universally proven that water shortage crises affect the poor, women, and other marginalised sections of society the most adversely. And in the city of Mumbai, where inequalities reign supreme, to even allude that a 'burgeoning population' is to blame reeks of class bias and sheer contempt for the poor.
Mumbai witnessed a long period of water riots in the 1970s, which had a crippling effect on the lives of the city's slum inhabitants. Only the tireless efforts of socialist feminist activist Mrinal Gore, who earned the sobriquet of 'Paaniwaali Bai', brought about at least a semblance of equity to people's access to clean, safe water and sanitation.
If one looks at Latur district, where people are being compelled to leave home in droves because of thirst, then isn't supplying 60 lakh litres of water for keeping cricket pitches in shape for a commercial enterprise an instance of wasteful criminality, almost tantamount to inhumanity?
Profligacy versus prudence
When there is a pressing environmental and human crisis, this question assumes a lot of importance. Why should the affluent and, thereby, privileged be allowed to squander ofmunicipality-supplied water when human beings less 'fortunate' than themselves are suffering debilitating effects on their lives?
Sure, the IPL generates a good deal of revenue, but the BCCI doesn't share a penny of it with the government. Moreover, in the Zee Telefilms Ltd & Anr v Union of India case (2005) case, the Supreme Court held that the BCCI is not 'State' within the scope and ambit of the Constitution's Article 12, hence it can brazenly and blatantly get away, legally, without giving a toss for Indian citizens' fundamental rights.
So why should the BCCI not pay for organising tankers to supply water to those areas which are the worst-hit?
Also, why hasn't a single question on the defunct and decrepit Maharashtra Water Resources Authority been addressed, even though it was raised in the present petition? That authority is in charge of governing the regulation of water allocation in the state.
There are also the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority (Allocation and Monitoring of Entitlements, Disputed and Appeals and Other Mattters) Rules, 2013, which have been implemented more in the exception than the rule.
Where is the empathy?
This raises a very fundamental question. What should have been the role of the Bombay High Court? Why did it take it a day to rule that 'cricket' interests should prevail over what should be an essential Fundamental Human Right?
Just because a ton of money has been invested in organising the matches, and a big private corporate revenue would be at stake if the matches were stalled, should the court embark upon such a course of action?
Isn't its act similar to that of the NGT's (National Green Tribunal) recent step, which allowed Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to hold his grandiose programme just because a lot of money had been invested in it, even though it caused irreparable damage to Delhi-NCR's environment?
Suggestion for their Lordships
So what corrective measures can the court undertake? A caveat here: the court hasn't dismissed the case altogether, but its decision to allow the inaugural match to be played amounts to a fait accomplish- that is, the organisers using gallons of water at the cost of human rights, have already won half the game.
Here's a humble suggestion for their Lordships.
In a series of rulings, starting from that in the Vellore Citizens' Welfare Forum case (1996), they have been pleased to rule that citizens have a fundamental right to be protected from being subjected to availing of unclean and unpolluted water. But, that is a negative right, in the sense that it only prohibits the State from endangering citizens' rights.
What the high court ought to do is to declare that the right to access to water is a positive Fundamental Right, just as the Supreme Court did in the landmark PUCL (People's Union of Civil Liberties vs Union of India) case of 2001, in which it ruled that it is incumbent upon the State to provide sustainable quantities of food and rations to its people.
Water can't be conjured out of a hat
In an opinion piece on Catch,a reputed sports writer has written that if some of the IPL stakeholders can dig deep for oil, why can't they dig for water?
This argument betrays a woefully low knowledge and awareness of the ground realities. If there is a depleted groundwater level, and a drought of epic proportions, no one can conjure water in the manner a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The authorities and agencies can implement sustainable water management and distribution policies, but that's about it.
While individuals wax eloquent on the popularity quotient and dubious virtues of a 'sport', plenty of human lives are in severe jeopardy. This bears more than ample testimony to the dire straits India is in.