In the recent past, there have been quite a few instances where the courts have intervened with respect to civic projects. The recent one was when the Karnataka High Court directed civic agencies to widen the Hulimavu-Begur road- a case where the BBMP and a real estate company were at loggerheads. In another case, the Karnataka High Court directed the BBMP to get rid of encroachments on footpaths – this order was passed in response to a petition filed by an individual to make footpaths accessible to pedestrians. Yet another case was when the High Court ruled mixed land use as earmarked in the RMP 2015 illegal. The list seems endless.
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There are three questions that haunt me with regard to the intervention of courts
1) What do such interventions mean?
2) Are such interventions good or bad?
3) Do different government agencies take court diktats seriously?
The answers to these questions are fuzzy and ever-evolving.
Apathy is the root cause
With regards to the first question, what economists might tell us is that projects held up due to constant legal contestations might render them inefficient and create hurdles for business. Constant legal wrangling could also denote a absence of an effective grievance redressal mechanism (formal or informal) which may have ensured that issues regarding a particular project get resolved at the planning or operational stage itself, without having to escalate it to a higher level. For instance, would it have been possible for the BDA/BBMP to have an open discussion about mixed land use with different groups before formalising it and not merely as lip service but as part of the process before arriving at some conclusion about mixed land use?
Legal contestations could also indicate inherent flaws/contradictions in laws or legal rulings themselves which are then most likely to be flagged by groups/individuals that have an interest in certain positions – one such case is the Karnataka High Court ruling to remove encroachments on footpaths v/s the Supreme Court ruling on street vendor rights. Another recent case was when the BBMP accused the BDA of issuing Occupancy Certificates, when in fact that was the job of the BBMP – it is quite possible that the matter might end up in court.
On the second question, whether legal interventions are good or bad, there is no straight answer and appears to be context-specific. In the recent past, there have been cases where the courts have pronounced verdicts which seem to go some way in protecting the environment, be it in on lakes, pollution control and so on. However, courts have also been quite emphatic on other civic projects (e.g. ruling in favour of certain road-widening projects which are seen as beneficial to the larger public good). There have also been cases where slum dwellers who have been evicted from their homes have approached the courts and yet to get succour.
No action unless threatened
On the third question of whether civic agencies take courts seriously, there seems to be a trend of postponing any kind of action till the threat of contempt is at one’s door. The case of repeatedly delaying the setting of ward committees till the High Court intervened is one such case.
More recently, the case of the High Court ruling that Akrama Sakrama would not be allowed to take effect till the Bangalore Metropolitan Planning Committee was set up is yet another example that demonstrates that the government agencies will not act unless they are threatened. And yet, it appears that once the least amount of work has been completed and that has been reported back to the courts, government agencies tend to get back to their lethargy. Thus the question of how effective legal recourse is remains to be seen.
At the end of the day, I’m not quite sure whether the increasing trend of resolving all matters sundry through the courts is an effective one, specifically from a governance point of view. If anything, it denotes ineffective governance. If governance structures do not have mechanism whereby parties can resolve issues collectively, and if all matters related to governance are going to land up in the High Court or Supreme Court, we are certainly headed towards policy paralysis. And yet, in some ways, for many aggrieved groups, courts seem to be the only hope. We do live in interesting times.