India - the world's largest democracy - has been ruled for many years by a series of weak coalition governments. The real power, however, belongs to the Indian Supreme Court's 23 justices.
The fragmented political system has forced the high court to assume many duties that a reasonably effective government would ordinarily perform. As a result, the justices have been ob-liged to issue many extraordinary rulings to accomplish even the most mundane activities. Still, the situation highlights India's advantage over rival developing nations: a so- phisticated, functioning rule of law.
Not very long ago, Justice Kuldip Singh could be heard berating the West Bengal advocate general about garbage. In this case, a claim was filed - not by angry citizens or an environmental group as would happen in the United States - but by a local bar association. The lawyers' group had petitioned the court to force the state to clean up Calcutta, which, at 200 square miles and 12 million citizens, currently is one of the world's most crowded and polluted areas.
Justice Singh was furious be-cause West Bengal had seemingly ignored a court order to prepare a waste disposal plan for a specific building project. However, he al-lowed two weeks for the local building commissioner to prepare and bring to court a detailed disposal plan for the building's trash.
"We are very strong and long-armed," Justice Singh said, re-sponding to the West Bengal advocate general who tried in vain to wiggle out of the decree. A moment later, the judge was immersed in the next case.
Twice a month, Justice Singh and a colleague preside over an ongoing hearing on pollution matters where the country's biggest polluters and lax enforcement officials must appear. The hearings stem from several pending public interest lawsuits that seek to compel federal and state governments to enforce environmental protection laws.
Skeptical of the government's competence, the court has sent members of its own research staff to sample and monitor pollution levels throughout the country. Moreover, the court has leap-frogged regulators, setting its own version of air pollution standards for major cities and ordering lead-free gas for new cars.
Although routine civil cases can take years to reach trial, the justices give priority to handling ur-gent public matters. For example, the court has ordered special in-vestigations of the Indian cabinet ministers' role in the allotment of scarce public housing and the links between businesses and political bribery.
Handling all of these high profile cases has its costs: Some 2 million cases are backlogged in the lower courts, while the Supreme Court has more than 50,000 matters pending on its docket. "We're reaching the saturation point," said Nariman. "The courts cannot as-sume to run a government."
However, the courts are likely to remain active. Political analysts predict that the electorate will be badly split among many different parties, producing divided governments, narrow majorities, many compromises and few attempts at reform.
Such activism counteracts In-dia's executive and legislative branches' failures, said several justices. Rising public frustration leaves the court "with little choice but to act," said Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi earlier this year. When "corrective" measures are no longer needed, the court's "aggressive role will end," he promised.