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Another “Surgical Strike”?

Another “Surgical Strike”?
A demolition drive to remove encroachments in Sector 19, Chandigarh/Photo: Twitter/ZeePunjab

Above: A demolition drive to remove encroachments in Sector 19, Chandigarh/Photo: Twitter/ZeePunjab

A judge of the Punjab & Haryana High Court has cracked down on illegal structures affecting parking spaces and obstructing the smooth flow of traffic in his sector

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

The Union Territory of Chandigarh, joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, is governed by the centre through the Punjab governor, who is also designated the administrator of the UT with a senior IAS officer as his adviser. The two states also have a common high court—the Punjab and Haryana High Court—which keeps a hawk’s eye on developments in Chandigarh. The High Court often pulls up senior officials of the UT, and issues directions on issues and subjects which are in the domain of the UT administration. Some of the major issues addressed by it in the recent past include traffic management in Chandigarh, functioning of the international airport and removal of encroachments from public land. Senior officers of the administration are frequently asked to present themselves in courts, and receive a dressing down for their “failures”. The officers have also been warned of stints in jail if they do not perform their duties.

Such is the fear of getting pulled up by the High Court and being shamed in the local media, which reports all such directives with due prominence, that the officers leave no stone unturned to avoid getting on the wrong side of courts, even though in private conversations they rue the “undue interference by courts”.

In one such recent case, a judge of the High Court came down heavily on the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation for failing to address civic problems. He said the corporation officials must carry out a “surgical strike” against issues being faced by residents and not hold meetings to just have coffee.

Speaking to officials who had been summoned to the Court, a single-judge bench of Justice Amit Rawal said they were “blindfolded and sleeping like Kumbhkaran”. “You need to go to Burail jail. That’s the only way,” said the judge, while commenting on their inaction against encroachments in the city. “I cannot sit as a mute spectator and let Chandigarh be ruined like this,” said Justice Rawal. “Why should the court monitor such issues? We are here for other purposes like justice. It has been years since any (officer) has been convicted (for non-compliance) of court orders. Let it begin from my court.”

In the latest instance of such activism, another judge, Justice Amol Rattan Singh, took the administration to task for not clearing public spaces of encroachments which cause parking woes and obstruct the smooth flow of traffic. The judge particularly pointed to the encroachments on public land adjoining residential spaces.

The fact is that many residents have fenced vacant public areas adjoining their houses, and planted flowers, shrubs and even trees “to enhance beauty of the area” and prevent garbage from piling up. Most residents spend a lot of money and employ gardeners to maintain these areas.

While dealing with the problems of encroachment and lack of parking space, Justice Singh directed that the encroachments be cleared forthwith. During the course of the hearing, he said almost everybody had encroached upon the space outside their house and that the requirement for green spaces could not be used as a reason to take away space reserved for parking. Even as he asked the authorities to not let off anyone including senior officers, who may have done the same by use of metal fences outside their houses, he said that the space between houses and roads was nobody’s property. He said that even though green parks built outside houses looked pleasing to the eye, they severely restricted parking space.

He elaborated further, saying that his house was in Sector 19 and there was a “nice” garden in front of his house but “it was unacceptable if it was causing parking problems”. He directed that vehicles parked on pedestrian pathways be towed away or proceeded against by way of registration of a criminal case under Section 336 (an act endangering the life or personal safety of others) of the IPC.

Justice Singh also suggested that a pilot project be undertaken in the sector he lives in. He also imposed strict deadlines so that an anti-encroachment drive could be carried out in the rest of the city.

Administration officers took this as a cue and went on the rampage, demolishing green encroachments in the sector. They conducted no survey, issued no notice or warning and didn’t wait to draw up a strategy. Instead, they bulldozed everything they considered an encroachment. Fences were flattened, plants crushed and trees uprooted as the campaign began.

The residents were up in arms and came out on the streets with banners, saying they were being discriminated against by the authorities. They said the worst encroachers were government officers who had been allotted government houses and had encroached upon large pieces of land. They also said that no notice was given to them and the types of encroachments were not defined. They also asserted that had they not developed the land, it would have remained barren with garbage spilling over. They also pleaded that they had been enhancing the greenery of the city, and the gardens were neither obstructing the flow of traffic nor causing parking issues.

Even as officials showed them the orders given by one of their “sector-mates”, the residents decided to challenge the orders before a higher bench. The Residents Welfare Association of the sector moved a double bench of the High Court, which has stayed the demolition exercise till the next hearing in April. In the meantime, the bench has asked the officials to draw up a plan on removal of encroachments.

It’s a temporary relief for the residents of the sector and for others who had been watching the developments closely. The Court will need to take a call on whether developing vacant areas and planting greenery amounts to encroachment or beautification.