Hari Dev Shourie

Consumer rights activist
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The Independent Online

For Hari Dev Shourie, public life truly began after he retired as a senior Indian civil servant, with the launch of Common Cause, the non-governmental organisation that successfully fought for the ordinary person's rights in India, a country that rarely, if at all, acknowledges them.

Over 25 years, Shourie's unceasing and single-handed efforts resulted in decisions that brought additional, price-index-linked monies to the meagre, inflation-hit incomes of widows and pensioners; pressured the Indian government into establishing consumer courts across the country; and persuaded the Supreme Court to order all political parties, renowned for their corruption and venality, to file annual income-tax returns.

In his meticulously researched and forcefully argued petitions and campaigns, this David fearlessly opposed the establishment Goliath by pursuing an inquiry into a former petroleum minister's "misuse" of his official position, by selectively allotting hundreds of profitable petrol-pump and cooking-gas dealerships in the 1980s. The outcome was the cancellation by the Supreme Court of the minister's "discretionary quota" and the public auction of the dealerships.

As part of his nascent consumer movement, Shourie waged crusades to improve the Delhi Rent Control Act, to control the pollution choking Indian cities, to regulate broadcast by cable operators, to iodise salt to prevent the spread of goitre and to prevent a rash of illegal, ugly structures from choking Delhi.

With his aristocratic, almost professorial mien - never rude or impolite, but yet firm and resolute, making his case point by point - he dared to take on even the advocates who frequently paralysed India's normally inefficient courts with periodic strikes. On the basis of his public interest litigation, Shourie got the Supreme Court to declare a strike by lawyers in the mid-1990s illegal, forcing them back to work.

Shourie was born in the agricultural town of Batala in northern Punjab state, into an upper-middle-class Brahmin family. After graduating from the prestigious Government College in Lahore he joined Punjab's provincial civil service.

After a series of rural postings across the state, Shourie became city magistrate of Lahore shortly before independence in 1947 when the sub- continent was divided by the colonial administration into a Muslim Pakistan and India, triggering sectarian rioting and a deluge of migrations across the new frontier. Shourie, like millions of Hindus, opted for India and because of his administrative experience was involved in the rehabilitation of millions of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim refugees as they poured across the border into divided Punjab province. Thereafter, he occupied senior government positions in the provinces, before moving to Delhi, where he retired in 1969 as director-general of India's foreign trade organisation, a body he had helped establish.

In 1980 Shourie set up Common Cause with just two people, a hope and a prayer, seeking radical change in the government functioning which he knew only too well. He prepared all petitions himself, before sending them on to lawyers for a final vetting, filing a record 70 writ petitions before the Supreme Court and the Delhi high court. He prevailed in almost all and, over the years, Common Cause grew into a 5,000-strong voluntary organisation with the sole mantra of helping people who were in no way capable of helping themselves.

Kuldip Singh