'Justice' Chittibabu conducting a trial (Photo by: Satish Chapparike)
Chintappale, which rests at the corner of Vishkapattanam district in Seemandra, on the fringes of Alluri Sita Rama Raju Reserve Forest, is like any other Indian village or a mandal headquarter. Some old government buildings, dusty roads, crowded marketplace, garbage heap, sagging faces of poor tribals... welcome visitors. Of course the threat of Naxalites is there as well! Days, months, years, decades and centuries have passed, but the fight for justice is still going on here. During the colonial times, the British called Sita Rama Raju's aides guerrillas, and now the state has branded Naxalites as anti-national elements.
To taste the smell of blood and sweat, we went deep into the war zone, up to Chitrakonda near Orissa border, the dreaded Naxalite capital of India. After crisscrossing the red corridor on that rainy day, we were on our way back to Narsipatnam. Maki Reddy Ramana-garu, our companion, guide, friend and philosopher in that war-torn zone, told us, "Here is a man who is fighting a different type of war. He runs a consumer forum and he delivers instant justice in his court room."
Once upon time, Maki Reddy himself had ruled this entire area as a hardcore Naxalite leader. He was an ardent follower of Mao and believed that it was possible to bring equality and ensure social justice with armed struggle. After almost three decades of struggle and living the life of a Maoist guerrilla, he eventually lost faith in the violent movement and surrendered to the then Andhra Pradesh government. After the surrender, he started working for a Vishakapattanam-based NGO Samatha. So, given his credentials and commitment to the cause, I could not ignore my comrade's words in his den. On the other hand, I was amazed by the details which he shared with me about the 'High Court' of Chintapalle, which I visited without wasting any time.
Next to a dusty bus stand on the main road, under the shadow of a tree, there was a zinc-sheet-roofed courtroom. When I saw the sorry state of that structure, I felt there was hardly anything interesting out there. But after an hour or so, my mind and heart told me this could be a mind-boggling story.
It all started in 1992. P Chittibabu, a tenth-pass tribal youth from Chintapalle went for training in Hyderabad's Nehru Yuva Kendra. The subject was consumer rights. Nothing significant happened after he completed the training and returned home. His life was as usual and he used to sort out small consumer disputes. But Chittibabu's tryst with destiny began on a dusty day in 1997 when Sagina Ramachandra Rao, an elderly person from Pippala Dodda, approached him.
Rao had deposited Rs 75,000 in the Indian Bank's Pedavalsa branch. On returning to the bank after a few months' gap, he was shocked to see a balance of just Rs 9,000 in his account. The remaining amount had vanished without his own knowledge! Even the manager of the bank was shocked to learn about the disappearance of the money. He had taken charge of the branch only a few days back and had never dealt with Rao's account. After an internal investigation into what possibly could have happened, it came to light that the previous manager, Prakash, had defrauded Rao of his money by forging his documents. A distraught Rao was facing the most difficult time of his life; he badly needed money for his daughter's marriage that has already been fixed. How would he get back the money? The aged man ran from pillar to post, police stations to politicians' bungalows. Plenty of promises, but no money!
Devastated, Rao one day stepped into Chittibabu's office. The young consumer rights activist grabbed the opportunity. With the support of bank officials and friends, Chittibabu chased the manager, Prakash, and threatened him with legal action. Prakash immediately appeared in Chittibabu's court. The hearing was conducted in the presence of senior bank officers and locals before pronouncing the judgment. The entire process was completed in four days and Chittibabu ordered Prakash to pay Rs 81,900 including interest to Rao. The speed and firmness with which the justice was delivered became a news that spread like a wildfire. Since then, the thin tribal man has delivered justice to the needy in more than 350 major and interesting cases. In almost all cases, the judgment is pronounced in a matter of 3-4 days of filing the complaint.
'Justice' Chittibabu in front of Court Hut (Photo By: Satish Chapparike)
In the court of 'Justice' Chittibabu, those caught on the wrong foot are not spared and never go scot-free. And, justice is guaranteed for those who are the victims. People in and around Chintapalle believe him to be the core and respectfully obey his order.
In another interesting case, a consumer by the name C H Joseph fought for just Rs 4 which he got back. One day, Joseph had boarded a bus in Pentapadu to go to RV Nagar. The ticket price was Rs 6 and he gave a Rs 10 note to the conductor. While issuing the ticket, the conductor told Joseph to "collect the change later". But when he demanded the change before alighting from the bus, the nasty conductor didn't give the money and pushed Joseph down and the bus sped away. Helped by others, Joseph noted the bus number and filed a complaint in Chittibabu's court. The 'justice' himself went to Narasipattana government bus depot and lodged a written complaint with the depot manager. A date for hearing the case was fixed. Depot manager, conductor and all concerned parties were present. Chittibabu's judgment was simple and clear--the conductor should pay Joseph Rs 80 including other expenses incurred by the latter, on the spot. A completely cornered conductor had to pay the price. Later his department also suspended him.
"Are all the cases you tackle are so simple? Don't you think you are taking too much of risk?" Chittibabu laughed at my curiosity and questions. "I have even faced life threats sometimes. But, I don't fear for my life. I am doing my duty and I am not taking a single paisa from either the victim or the culprit. I am just doing a service to the society and I don't bother about my life," he said with a resolute voice.
Life threat? Yes. When Chittibabu was handling the 'Memorial Finance Company' case, he lived with a threat to his life. P Venkatraman, an agent of the company in question, had collected Rs 50,000 each from ten farmers as deposit. But, the farmers were not issued any bond or documentary proof in return for their deposited money. The company and its agent played truant with the poor farmers, the depositors, for almost two years. Unable to get their money back, the farmers finally approached Chittibabu. Immediately, he took them to a police station and got them to file a complaint. With the help of police and others, he caught hold of Venkatraman and dragged him into his court. More than five hundred people had gathered outside Chittibabu's courtroom that day. After arguments and counter-arguments, it ended with a judgment that made it mandatory for the company to return the farmers' money with interest on the spot.
Chittibabu's consumer forum has 200 permanent members. Almost all of them are farmers with small land holdings. Whenever they face consumer-related problem they rush to Chittibabu's court. He never takes a single paisa. No sitting fees or court fees. But justice is guaranteed. People believe in him and he has retained their trust as the one who delivers justice to all the needy, free of cost for the last 20 years. To a question on how long he would continue to do 'legal service', he smilingly said, "As long as I live."