It was a two-decade old case that finally came to a close, at least partially, in February this year. The 11-acre Meistripalya kere in the heart of Koramangala was at the centre of a legal battle, with residents of the locality fighting to protect this much-needed lung space. An individual with ancestral linkages to the land had claimed it.
It all began with one woman. Laila Ollapally. A Koramangala resident and a practicing advocate. More than a decade ago, Laila chanced upon the Meistripalya tank. It was her determination to protect and preserve open spaces in Koramangala that saw her through when this case went back and forth between the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled that the tank belongs to the state government and should be protected as an open space. “I always knew I would get the lake. I wanted it. I knew I was going to work for that”, she says, smiling. Earlier Laila had also worked closely on a major litigation on providing adequate health care to persons with mental illness.
In an exclusive interview with Citizen Matters, this 55-year-old advocate, wife, mother and grandmother as she describes herself, explains why she took up the Mesitripalya case, the hurdles she faced, the support she received and encourages citizens and lawyers to take up such cases.
How did you come to take up the Meistripalya case?
It was in 1997 when there was an allotment of civic amenity sites in Koramangala. This is what we commonly refer to as the Post Office park. That was where the children would play and use as a playground space. Then the residents got to know that BDA had allotted the park to a college, to an eye hospital, and kalyana mantapa. I am a practicing advocate. Around that time in my life I decided to do some issue-based litigation. So I thought, possibly this is an opportunity, close to my heart, close to where I live, so let me see what I can do.
That’s when I got to see the petitions and didn’t think that their (residents) strategy would work. Their submission at that time was how can the BDA allot this civic amenity site without giving the residents a hearing. According to the law the residents are supposed to be heard. I felt that the submission was not strong enough. We needed to go into the constitutional validity of the allotments.
I did a lot of research and discovered that the original CDP (Comprehensive Development Plan) required or promised that ten per cent would be set aside as parks and playgrounds in every residential layout. The BDA Act requires 15 per cent of every layout to be set aside as parks and playgrounds. Obviously the legislature in its wisdom is doing this. I decided to find out how much lung space Koramangala had at that time. So I researched this issue, I visited parks in Koramangala and came to an understanding that our lung space fell far short of the statutory minimum. Then I prepared a petition.
One of the residents was identified to be the petitioner and we obtained this order.
Subsequently when I pleaded this, BDA filed their objections. They had a list of the parks that existed and only some 3.3 per cent was available. When I went through that list I realised many of the places that they indicate to be a park was not even a park. It was under litigation or it was under something else. So if you really ask me what was available, maybe 1.8 per cent. So this is a violation of our human right. I argued that in court, then the court had the BDA Commissioner come in. The Commissioner at that time was Jayakar Jerome. BDA Commissioner agreed that it falls far short of what it is supposed to be.
Then the court ordered that this should be set aside as park and playground and if any civic amenity site becomes available in Koramangala henceforth, it should be set aside as park or playground as open space, as lung space. So I was armed with this order.
And then I had information that some more land is available in Koramangala as a result of a Supreme Court order. This was regarding 6.25 acres. As I was doing research for the 6.25 acres I got to understand that there is a tank adjacent to the 6.25 acres and that is also pending in the courts. I informed the residents and formed a core team to work with me to file a petition on this. I realised a lot of research has to go into this. We unearthed volumes of documents from the courts, from the departments and with the help of this core team. I had a research assistant working in my office who just studied this along with me, to understand it better, get documents, study the law, all that.
That’s how we got an understanding of this litigation which was pending, which none of us knew anything about. I informed the residents, got them involved and got them to support me in this litigation, financially, running around and gathering support, getting the other residents to sign the petitions.
The residents were initially not comfortable about coming forward with this petition fearing the harassment that can subsequently arise. So we had Citizens Action Group come in as a petitioner and then the residents were more confident, everybody came. A few of the residents took a lot of leadership.
We found out that the petitioners got an order saying that this (land) is a private tank; and then the case went to the High Court and Supreme Court. Supreme Court remanded it back to High Court for reconsideration. So I tried to understand why is it that the lawyers, representing the government and the BDA, were not able to succeed. Because my research clearly indicated that this is a public tank. I spoke to some of those lawyers who were involved in this litigation earlier, government lawyers. And they had a very valid point.
They said, see, the government, the BDA are the opposite side, the defendants. They get these files just a day before the matter comes up in court. So they don’t have the time to prepare. They are all good lawyers. They don’t have the time to prepare, go into these documents. And I know the extent of documentation there was on this. There were thousands and thousands of pages.
What did you do?
So I prepared a synopsis for these lawyers. I briefed them. I also filed an intervening application on behalf of the residents to bring our documents in the file of the court. Then I worked with these other BDA and government advocates. I must say they argued well and we got a favourable order on the tank in the High Court.
Then the matter goes upto the Supreme Court. Again in the Supreme Court I did the same thing. I prepared the synopsis. The residents supported me in taking this synopsis to the BDA and to the Lake Development Authority and state government. And therefore they had all the information. Then we went upto the Supreme Court, there I briefed lawyers again. And we got a favourable order.
So this is why I took up this case. This compelled me to continue the issue, focus on the issue, because I felt a legal background, passion for a topic, can really help achieve results. So that’s why I took this on myself. I have done other issue-based litigations. I took up mental health as a PIL between 2002 and 2007 (in the High Court) which was again a wonderful litigation and we got many orders.
What were the key turning points in the Meistripalya case?
Information. Normally lawyers don’t have the time to do research. I find that to be a big lacuna in a PIL. See, a residents welfare association will come to a lawyer. They themselves will not have information. A private party on the other hand comes with a lot of information because they have suffered, they know the history, they know where it started and where it is.
But RWAs are not able to have that kind of information. These are people who get involved for a period of time, do not know when it started, there’s no continuity. It’s not their personal case. So you need a lawyer who is able to dive into it and unearth information. This is another kind of litigation. It’s not the regular litigation. So I think that is really important. Maybe it is my desire for an issue-based kind of litigation. Because when the focus is the issue and not the litigation, you are looking at it from several perspectives.
Somewhere along the way, was there a moment when you felt that things weren’t going right. Did you feel that you were going to lose the case?
I always knew I would get the lake. I wanted it. I knew I was going to work for that. Especially when I found that the residents were strong and supportive. I knew we would get there. Rajeev Chandrasekhar (Rajya Sabha MP and Convenor of the Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure Development task force) took a lot of interest. These are all people who were there, it was a strong force that was working.
How important is citizen participation in such a case?
It’s a very lonesome battle. You need a client. They are the ones who support you, who cheer you, who are there. You need inputs that Rajeev Chandrasekhar came in with, the inputs that Vijayan Menon (of Koramangala Initiative, the citizens groups that played a pivotal role in this case) with his team came in, it’s very important.
(As I said earlier), many resident groups don’t have the continuity. They can’t come for a few years and then go. This continuity is important to sustain a litigation. So it’s only a lawyer who has that research-orientation, who is able to unearth and unearth and unearth and get to the bottom of it. Residents have the emotion. You have to tap that. Resident groups do not have the money. We had that leadership in Koramangala. They gave the encouragement, they gave the support. They ran around. If you ask me, the planetary positions were right! Everybody stood together.
What kind of inputs did the residents give?
Getting me the documents. Making sure the BDA has the necessary information to fight this case. Making sure the government has the necessary information. ‘It should be set aside as a lake, so pursue that. Get an order from the government to state that this is a lake. Cordon it off. Get a survey done.’ All those things. That’s how you strengthen your case and when you need to strengthen your case, it is the residents who work towards that.
How cooperative are government agencies while giving information in such a case? Did you face any hurdles while contacting the BDA or state government?
My personal experience has been…they have been cooperative. They do have their constraints but they are cooperative.
Do you have a team of lawyers who helped you in this?
Yes, I have formed a team (Advocates Maryanne Thomas, Jayna Kothari, S R Annuradha). We worked together on this. The research comes from my office. I am moving on into mediation.
There’s enough scope for lawyers to do this.
The residents of Koramangala were with you in this case. How does it feel, now that it has all borne fruit?
You know, you can get a court order but unless there are clients who implement it, it doesn’t happen. So I may have got the court order but if it were not for the residents to implement that, it wouldn’t happen. So I’m very happy, I’m delighted that they are taking so much interest, they are making this happen.
For citizens in other parts of the city who are looking to fight such cases, what is the kind of legal assistance they would require?
A lot of legal assistance. It was my intention at one point of time to convert my office into an office for RWAs because that requires another kind of approach to litigation. I would say there is immense scope for lawyers, who live in neighbourhoods, to adopt their neighbourhood and bring about legal awareness and take it up in court, look at it as an issue that is close to their heart and provide the kind of inputs that are required.
What would you tell citizens who want to fight such a case?
Stand together. Have a strong leadership. RWAs should form a strong unit with a strong leadership and find lawyers who can adopt the case as their own, who will guide them effectively, who will have a passion for the topic. Very often PILs are babies abandoned at your doorstep. When I do PILs I often get that feeling. That is very disheartening for the lawyers and then they lose interest because they have many other issues to deal with. They have many other cases to deal with.
You referred to your interests in mediation. Could you please elaborate on the work that you are doing with the Bangalore Mediation Centre?
I am the coordinator of the Bangalore Mediation Centre. I mediate cases. I train mediators. We create awareness to mediation in the country. It’s a wonderful way of resolving conflict. I believe in it and this is another issue that I have picked up, very close to my heart.
What do you do apart from mediation and taking up issue-based litigations? What are your other interests?
I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother. We like travelling. And I like to have fun. I recently travelled to Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Cairns. My husband and I went sky diving in Cairns. I also did snorkelling.
I like reading. I am now reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Shack by William P Young, and The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler.
How has your family supported you through this?
My family has been very supportive in my approach to issue-based litigation. In fact when I took up the Mental Health litigation, a Professor from Oxford came and she was looking at PILs all over the country and she wrote me a letter saying this was the best PIL she has seen in the country.
So that gives me immense pride. Doing an issue-based litigation is a lot of hard work. It’s encountering a lot of hurdles because even the clients don’t fathom what’s going into it. So it’s a challenge at your own resources. There’s no money in it. Money comes out of your pocket. But my husband and my family have taken great pride and pleasure in it. ⊕