Over two decades after a four-acre plot was allotted for building a new court complex, the new combined court complex building in Udhagamandalam (Ooty) was inaugurated in October last year. The new complex houses eight court buildings, lawyer chambers, two rooms for paralegals, rooms for the judges’ drivers, a vulnerable victims’ room, a convention hall, and, for some unknown reason, a plush ‘bedroom’ with a queen-size bed and a chaise longue. While this complex might seem complex and modern, the only thing that the new building lacks is the space for fitting in a restroom for the 60-odd women lawyers who work there. In fact, the women lawyers of Ooty have never had access to a women’s toilet in the court complex, old or new, for as long as they have been practicing. And now, even the hopes to have an adequate access to washroom in the new court complex have come crumbling down for these women lawyers, who have been leading a fight against the misogynistic and ignorant law fraternity and law administration itself.
It is year 2023, and yet, women, who have to suffer through menstruation on a monthly basis, are scientifically prone to getting urinary incontinence, might be pregnant or breast-feeding, are still fighting to get equal access to washroom, which forms a very intricate part of living with dignity. In the report provided by the Bar and Bench, some of these women lawyers have been members of the Bar for more than 20 years. And through this time, they have been forced to “controlling” their water intake, “holding their pee for hours,” or resorting to make a quick dash in between matters to the houses of friends and colleagues who live closer to the court to use their toilets.
It is imperative to note here that around Rs. 39 crores have been spent on the construction of this new building complex, and yet there is still no place for women toilets. The women lawyers stated that they had been promised that there would be provided with all these facilities in the new construction of the building, and yet the reality was far away from it.
The age old battle to get access to washrooms
As stated by Bar and Bench, the agitation for building of toilets for women has been ongoing since the year 1990 or even before that. The women lawyers stated that initially the male members of the local Bar Association would also make representations to the Principal District Judge and the Madras HC Registrar on behalf of the women lawyers, urging for adequate infrastructure facilities for themselves and for the women lawyers.
However, after a representation made in open court to the then District Judge Dr P Murugan, and another one made before then Madras HC Acting Chief Justice T Raja, where those who had gone to make the request were forced to apologise for the agitations, failed to yield any result, the women were left to fend for themselves.
On January 26 this year, the women lawyers had even gone on a hunger strike, which they were forced to call off owing threats of “suspension and other consequences.” Pursuant to this, on March 8 this year, when the whole of India was indulging in putting up social media posts on International Women’s Day and the current government was busy glorifying the “women empowerment initiatives taken by them, these women lawyers broke away from the unisex Nilgiris Bar Association, and got registered as the Nilgiris Women Lawyers’ Association. The Association decided to continue their two-decade long agitation to demand for a women’s toilet, and a room where they can sit, eat lunch, or change in and out of their gowns.
Even after allotment, washrooms sealed
On February 17 Justices VM Velumani and J Sathyanarayana Prasad of the Madras High Court visited the new complex. Justice Velumani surveyed the entire building and spotted an empty room that she immediately asked to be allocated to the women lawyers for their exclusive use. The room also had an attached toilet. However, three days later, that room and the washroom were sealed with some of the lawyers’ belongings still inside.
As per the information provided by the Bar and Bench report, the said room was sealed off as the Principal District Judge said that it was the Records Room and was to be taken back. The judge had also provided that the said room had been sealed following a High Court order. When the women lawyers requested the judge to at least open washroom, he said that whatever we had to say, we must only say to the High Court.
Women lawyers moved the Supreme Court against sealing of washrooms in court complex
Seeing no way out, the women lawyers then had to approach the Supreme Court of India. On April 29, however, a Bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha disposed of their petition, taking note of the submission made by Senior Advocate Guru Krishnakumar on behalf of the Madras HC that necessary steps had been taken in the case. The Court gave liberty to the Association to approach the district judge or the Registrar General of the High Court for redressal of any subsisting grievances, as provided by the Bar and Bench.
The women lawyers then said that the day after the Supreme Court hearing, the district judge got two rooms meant for lawyers chambers painted and allocated it for the women. At the end of the corridor along the rooms are three cubicles, two with western commodes and another with an Indian toilet. The women were told they could use the Indian toilet while the other two toilet cubicles will be used by the general public. The two rooms, as per the women, are just about 2×10 square feet in area and the toilets are “so tiny” that one cannot walk in straight and come out without having to squeeze oneself, which is in violation of the norms provided by the Public Works Department, specifying that an average person requires at least 20 square feet worth of space to be able to comfortably sit and stand.
One of the women lawyers stated that “We are 60 women lawyers so as per the PWD norms, we need 1200 to 1300 square feet worth of space at least. So, we are really confused now. We went to the Supreme Court but have been sent back to the High Court. Again we have to start from scratch. Today we are 60. Tomorrow we might become 100, then 120. Are we expected to run to the courts every year asking for larger space?”, as provided by the Bar and Bench.
Access to toilets – a basic right
While we read the story of women, who are being denied one of the most basic rights, it is important to note that on most days, the women lawyers begin work at the court at 10:30 am, and can go on till 6-7 pm. Having to deal with the lack of this basic amenity, which can also have a dire impact on their physical health, is no less than harassment. In a country where women already feel unsafe and face myriad number of hurdles while choosing the legal profession, which is male dominated in India, this denial of basic and fundamental rights of dignity is shameful.
As per the report by the Bar and Bench, the women had stated that a board bearing the Association’s title was installed above the two rooms they had been promised since the Supreme Court hearing. However, on May 22 this year, following an inspection by Madras High Court’s Justice N Satish Kumar, even that board was removed.
These women, who are themselves part of the law fraternity, have been fighting their own community since 25 years, and yet haven’t been able to get any justice. Is the judiciary does not care about the sufferings of the women in their own profession, why should the public trust them to care about their woes?
Notably, after the hearing, based on liberty to approach a district court for any grievances, the women lawyers made a representation before the new District Judge, Abdul Khader. However, the meeting with the new judge has not led to any solution. The two rooms and the toilet they were previously offered along have now been locked again.