In a Lok Adalat hearing on 19th November 2008, at the High Court of Karnataka, Justice K L Manjunath pointedly asked Yellapa Reddy, chairman of the committee overseeing Bengaluru’s road widening project to listen to the petitioners’ complaints on widespread tree cutting. The Adalat took exception to Reddy’s standpoint which appeared to one of merely representing local government officials’ views instead of striking a balance between citizens and officials.
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As reported earlier in Citizen Matters, a writ petition was filed by NGOs Environment Support Group and CIVIC a few months ago against the tree cutting undertaken by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Following that, on the court’s direction, the BBMP had constituted a nine-member ‘Sustainable Development Empowered Technical Advisory Committee’ in July 2008, under the chairmanship of Yellapa Reddy, a retired officer of the Indian Forest Service (IFS).
The court had ruled that the committee take public opinion into account and pass orders on the advice of the experts. It had also directed the BBMP and other agencies working on infrastructural development to consult the committee.
A Lok Adalat is a mediation court setup by High Court Legal Services Committee for amicably settling disputes by way of compromise. A Lok Adalat hearing involves a sitting or retired judge and one or more conciliators, who can be an advocate or social worker or expert. On Wednesday, this Adalat met to resolve the ongoing dispute between the petitioners of the original litigation and the committee.
Justice K L Manjunath, of the Karnataka High Court and Dr H C Sharat Chandra, Chairman, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board were adjudicating. The petitioner’s advocate noted their primary complaint: that the committee did not allow the petitioners to attend any of their meetings and their grievances or suggestions were not considered.
When the committee advocate was asked to respond, he repeatedly mentioned that the petitioners are never stopped and “they can attend the meetings as observers.” The Adalat retorted that the petitioners were not mere observers but participants. This was one of the major clauses of the high court ruling to form this committee.
Yellapa Reddy, Chairman of the Empowered Committee, came to the hearing with several members of the committee. Arguing his case, he accused the petitioners of forcing him to take action against M R Suresh, the tree officer of BBMP. As Reddy tried justifying the tree felling done by the BBMP, the Adalat warned him on talking on behalf of the authorities and advised him to take a balanced view. He was asked to listen to the petitioners and the respondents without any bias. This was a key moment in a saga that has gone on for several months.
More issues were raised by the petitioners, including the ‘illegality’ of tree felling, irregularities in following the procedures of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act and so on. But as the Adalat does not have the powers to pass rulings, it concentrated on solving the disputes. “The Adalat is like a conciliator and cannot deliver judgments”, said Justice Manjunath.
However, in response to the grievances, the Adalat insisted that Reddy fix a date and time for the next committee meeting in front of the court. Justice Manjunath also asked the committee to ensure participation of the petitioners, and was told that failure to do so would be considered contempt of court.
Reddy finally announced that the next committee meeting would be held on Monday 24th November, and that he would ensure petitioners’ participation. BDA Commissioner, H Siddiah was also present at the hearing. ⊕