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E-Mail this feature to a friend 'Parliamentary democracy should not be tinkered with'

Constitution Review Committee member Justice K Punnaiah speaks to Syed Amin Jafri

    There is no justification to switch over to the presidential system as parliamentary democracy, which forms the bedrock of the Indian Constitution, is functioning very well and need not be tinkered with,' says member of the Constitution Review Committee, Justice K Punnaiah.

"Before thinking about alternative systems, the government must declare that parliamentary democracy has failed. But so far nobody has said the system has failed and there is no reason why we should talk about changing the fundamental structure of the Constitution."

After serving as legislator from his home district of Srikakulam for three terms from 1955, Justice Punnaiah quit politics to join the judicial service and became a district judge in 1964. He left a political career as a Congress legislator because he found the political culture suffocating and incompatible and was the first judge in the state from the scheduled caste community. He was later elevated to the high court bench. The now retired judge served in the Andhra Pradesh high court from 1974 to 1985.

Concurring with President K R Narayanan's view that the Constitution has not failed but the leaders have, Justice Punnaiah, who is presently the chairman of the Andhra Pradesh SC, ST Commission, observed that parliamentary democracy was best suited for India and the system was functioning well in all the states.

"The authors of our Constitution had considered this aspect thoroughly and concluded that the country's interests are best served by parliamentary democracy," he added.

Declaring social justice as his 'pet subject,' Justice Punnaiah -- who made pioneering contributions in the field of education and was chairman of a high powered committee on higher education constituted by the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1994 -- favoured the inclusion of the right to work and livelihood among the fundamental rights to make Article 21 "more effective and meaningful."

"Both the provisions are now part of Directive Principles and they must be included among fundamental rights." This means the government's actions will be open to judicial review and people can move the court in case of any deficiency on the part of the government.

Justice Punnaiah is of the view that fundamental rights should be expanded in the light of the experiences and demands of the people in the last fifty years. Opposed to giving representation to politicians in the Constitution Review Panel, the justice said the Directive Principles of the Constitution can satisfy 'all ideologies.'

Asked about the fears in some political quarters about the 'hidden agenda' of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition behind the Constitution review exercise, he pointed out that the chairman of the Committee, Justice M N Venkatachalaiah, had given his consent only after an assurance from the government that the fundamental structure of the Constitution would not be changed.

"If parliamentary democracy does not constitute the basic structure of the Constitution, what else can?" asked Justice Punnaiah. Though the government was yet to frame the terms of reference for the committee, he indicated that the issues pertaining to Article 356 dealing with the imposition of President's rule in states, Centre-state relations and Anti-Defection Act could be among the constitutional provisions that might come up for review.

Welcoming the inclusion of Justice R S Sarkaria -- who headed the commission that went into the entire gamut of Centre-state relations and made far-reaching recommendations -- in the panel, he hoped that the crucial issue of powers for the states would be addressed more effectively.

"There is a consensus among the states on the need for fiscal autonomy for them and true decentralisation of powers. I am happy and honoured for being on the review panel. It is also an honour for AP and Dalits," the elated judge said.

He said the first sitting of the 11-member committee would be held within a fortnight, but declined to identify the gray areas in the Constitution that might come up for scrutiny.

Justice Punnaiah, who had quit studies to take a plunge into the freedom movement, deplored that it was due to the failure of the implementing authorities that the country was facing a plethora of social problems including atrocities on dalits. "Our acts are very stringent. But the people who are responsible to implement them are callous in their attitude," he lamented.

Quoting from the provisions of the Protection of Civil Rights Act and Prevention of the SC ST Atrocities Act, Justice Punnaiah -- who as a practicing lawyer had endeared himself to the people of Srikakulam district during the 1950s by providing free legal aid to the underprivileged sections -- remarked that despite the existence of deterrent acts, the violence against dalits was on the rise.

Inspired by the message of Mahatma Gandhi, he had joined the Quit India movement in 1942. After Independence, he resumed his academic career and completed a degree in law.

After a brief stint as a lawyer in Srikakulam district court during 1952-53, he took to politics and was first elected to the state assembly in 1955 from the Cheepurupally constituency in Srikakulam district. He has also served as vice-president of the Srikakulam Zilla Parishad in 1958 and was elected to the assembly unopposed in 1962.

"As I could not fit into political culture, I quit from assembly preferring a judicial career."

His politician daughter, K Pratibha Bharathi, is the speaker of the Andhra Pradesh assembly, the first woman in the state to occupy the coveted post.

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