The High Court’s recent decision to give ‘itself’ a seven-storey annexe building in Cubbon Park has not gone down well with heritage and environment activists in the city. In an online petition on Change.org, the activists have pleaded to the High Court to revisit its decision and to conserve the lung space of Bengalureans. The petition, started two days ago, has already garnered over 4300 signatures.
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In a writ petition filed in 2014, High Court Registrar Rajendra Badamikar had sought the court’s permission to demolish the Old Election Commissioner’s Office in the park, and to build an annexe to the HC in its place. The petitioner had also sought permission to cut and remove 17 trees in the proposed construction area.
State government already approved the proposal for the new building’s construction this September. State’s advocate submitted in court that as per PWD’s revised plan, the 17 trees wouldn’t have to be cut and that the plinth area of the upcoming building would be same as that of the current building.
Justice P S Dinesh Kumar disposed off the petition this October 17th. His judgement held that cutting trees was not necessary, but that the petitioner could go ahead with the demolition of 19th century heritage building and construction of the HC annexe.
Activists point to the ease at which heritage structures are demolished in the city. They are also worried about the pace at which new constructions or land use change is permitted in Cubbon Park, despite laws against this.
Court had put stop to construction in 2001
Interestingly, in 2001, it was a High Court division bench that put a complete stop to construction in Cubbon park. While deciding on the case of G K Govinda Rao vs State of Karnataka, the court had categorically directed the state government not to take up any new construction in Cubbon park.
However, this judgement provided for an exception – that construction could be allowed in the park after the High Court’s clearance. It’s this provision that the HC Registrar used, to get permission for the new building. Now, with the court order, a building complex occupying 4924 sq m, with two basements and seven floors, can come up in the site, as per the PWD plan.
An activist says, on condition of anonymity, that the present situation seems to be a classic case of “fence eating the crops”. “Here the High Court petitions the High Court to build a High Court annexe. It’s like someone saying – Do what I say, don’t do what I do,” the activist says.
“Encroachment is written all over the face of the park, with over 20 associations such as the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA) using adjoining spaces for parking and the like,” Convener of Heritage Beku campaign, Priya Chetty-Rajagopal says.
“At this rate, nothing much will remain of Cubbon Park probably 20 years down the line. Probably we may have to show the statue of Sir John Meade and a tree, and tell our grandchildren that ‘this’ is Cubbon park,” says Bimal Desai, who has been championing the ‘Save Cubbon Park’ campaign for the last 20 years.
The activists say if government agencies had granted permission for the building, they would have been prepared for the decision since these agencies treat the park as their own property. But there is a sense of pain among people because this order came from the courts.
“We have the highest respect for the court, and they have done a phenomenal job all these years protecting our environment and heritage. So we know that the present judgment is an anomaly and will be corrected,” Priya says.
Law to protect parks watered down
In fact, construction within parks was banned way back in 1975. Section (4) of the Karnataka Government Park (Preservation) Act, 1975, bans the construction of buildings within all parks under the state government. It does not allow alienation of park land for other purposes either.
But over time, the government has diluted the ban through amendments. And these amendments have affected parks and heritage structures in Bengaluru the most.
For example, in 2010, an amendment was made to the Act to give ‘permission’ to the state government to alienate:
- 1223 sq m land at the Indira Gandhi Musical Fountain Park for road widening by BBMP
- 1135.18 sq m land at Lalbagh gardens so that BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd) could build the elevated RV Road Metro station
- 2126.71 sq m land in Cubbon Park, between Vidhana Soudha and HC
- Another 11,160 sq m land in Cubbon Park around Vidhana Soudha, HC and GPO (General Post Office)
Protests starting next week
Heritage Beku group says they can easily escalate the case to a division bench, pleading to overturn the single bench ruling. Or they can approach the Supreme Court via a SLP (Special Leave Petition), asking for a stay order.
“However, Cubbon park is a supremely emotive issue for all. For many, this has become a rallying call, and thousands are coming forward to address the matter. This Sunday, we will have a conversation with walkers, cyclists, yoga practitioners etc in the park, gather what everyone has to say about the upcoming complex and then develop a plan to take the matter forward,” Priya says.
She says that starting next week, Heritage Beku members plan to stand in front of the HC everyday from 6-7 am, holding a placard ‘Cubbon Park Ulisi’, along with other organisations.
Bimal Desai adds this not just about Cubbon park, and that the government must stop denotification of any park. “Ten years later, lawyers will increase, visitors to the court will increase. Then again court will go forward to claim more land out of Cubbon park. Instead, why not make a 50 or 100-year plan, and relocate the entire court establishment out of Cubbon Park instead of strangulating the lung space of the city,” he asks.