On 29 September, 2009, the Supreme Court ordered that the authorised construction of any religious structure should not be allowed in streets, parks of other public places. The order applied to every state in India. In case of structures built before the date of the court order, state governments were to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Yet in Bengaluru, we still see religious structures popping up on public land. This was because the Karnataka government or BBMP took hardly any action to implement the SC order – structures that came up since September 2009 were not demolished, and no decision was taken on the structures built before this.
In June 2019, the Karnataka High Court eventually filed a suo motu PIL to ensure implementation of the SC order. After repeated push from the High Court, BBMP submitted lists of illegal religious structures multiple times, all of which the court rejected as incomplete.
In the last hearing on January 29, the HC gave BBMP a “last chance” to submit the compliance report. Court will examine this report on February 26.
In a virtual meeting on February 9, BBMP Commissioner Manjunath Prasad directed officers to create an exhaustive survey report. This report is supposed to include the details of every religious structure in the city, whether located in private or government land, or built before or after the 2009 SC judgement.
Manjunath also asked officers to give show-cause notices to the management of illegal structures that came up after the 2009 order. One week time would be given to the managements to respond on why the structures should not be demolished. Manjunath said that BBMP engineers can avail police protection during demolition.
Will the new report be any different?
For the current survey, BBMP Commissioner Manjunath Prasad has directed officers to survey structures located in both government and private land, and to verify documents for each. Manjunath shared with Citizen Matters the format in which the data of the structures would be recorded. Find the sample format here.
As per the format, officials have to enter the ward name, address and approximate area occupied by the structure, specify whether it is located in government land or private property, and whether they were built before or after 2009. Photos of the structure should be geo-tagged.
In case of structures located in private land, officers have to mention if they had been built with permission. For this, they should collect the details of the land owner, and documents showing permission for building the structure from relevant authorities such as BBMP or BDA.
Officials can also mention a plan of action – whether the structure should be removed, relocated or regularised. This is relevant only for structures encroaching government land that were built before 2009, since those built after 2009 will have to be demolished in any case as per the SC order.
“Database will be made public”: BBMP Commissioner
Though the exercise is massive, Manjunath said they had enough manpower for this. “In every ward, the Assistant Engineer and Revenue Officer will go around and do the survey. Since they are very familiar with the area, it will take them only 1-2 days to do this.” Officers have to submit their reports to BBMP today, February 15th.
On February 12, M Ramakrishna, Joint Commissioner (Bommanahalli zone), said 90% of the survey had been completed in the zone already, and that the data would be submitted to the Commissioner on 15th.
Prasad said that the details collected by officers are being entered into a software. “This is so that we can create a database of all religious structures. We will put the database in the public domain also.”
Policy decision to be taken on illegal structures built before 2009
While the format allows officers to indicate whether an encroachment before 2009 can be regularised, removed or relocated, this is eventually a policy decision that should come from the state government, as per Supreme Court’s orders.
Prasad said, “If a structure is on the road or median and is blocking the way, it will have to be removed. But if it is not obstructive, and has been there for a long time, it could be regularised.” He said BBMP has not written to the state government about the issue yet, but will do so once the officials submit the data. “Based on the data, we will make recommendations to the state government,” he said.
Previous hearings don‘t inspire confidence
A timeline of court hearings show how derelict the authorities have been in implementing the SC order. After its order of 2009, in a hearing in February 2010, the SC had again directed States to prevent new illegal structures and to formulate a comprehensive policy on the removal, relocation or regularisation of existing structures. But there was no response either from the Karnataka government or BBMP.
Eight years later, in January 2018, the Supreme Court ordered High Courts to ensure implementation of the order in their respective States. Based on this, Karnataka High Court filed the ongoing suo motu PIL in June 2019.
Following is a brief chronology of proceedings from the High Court PIL, based on copies of court orders available on the HC website:
- Hearing in October 2019: The first status report submitted by BBMP lists structures encroaching public property, but doesn’t state if these were built before or after September 29, 2009. Also, the state-level documents compiled by the state government were incorrectly based on 21 September 2009 as the cut-off date. The submission made by the Deputy Commissioner of Bengaluru Rural district even claimed that no unauthorised religious structures were built in the district either before or after 21 September 2009.
- January 6, 2020: BBMP submits it started the tender process for hiring the equipment needed to demolish illegal structures. BBMP also submitted a pamphlet issued by a corporator, opposing demolition; court clarified that such opposition would not be tolerated.
- February 4, 2020: BBMP again submits status report but with only the year ‘2009’ as the cut-off period, not 29 September 2009. Court rejects the report, and issues show cause notice to BBMP Commissioner on why a contempt petition shouldn’t be filed against him. Court also asks state government to issue directions to BBMP Commissioner on how the SC order should be implemented. BBMP submits that a contractor was appointed to demolish illegal structures within the next two weeks. Based on the request of BBMP, court allows police protection – including armed constables – in case of demolition.
- Hearings in March 2020: BBMP was asked to submit the affidavits of officers who actually carried out the survey.
- 14 December 2020 (once hearings resumed after COVID lockdown): Court questioned BBMP’s submission that only 106 illegal religious structures exist in the city overall, built both before and after the cut-off date. BBMP had not examined if the illegal structures built before the cut-off date should be allowed or relocated. Court also rapped the state government for not disclosing steps taken to implement its directions.
- 18 January 2021: On pursuing the affidavits filed by BBMP Commissioner and Assistant Engineers, the Court said it was clear that none of them had examined the scope and purport of the order, and hence the entire survey was meaningless. Commissioner also submitted that only 17 of the 106 illegal structures identified had been built after the cut-off date. Court called this a “very bold statement”, adding, “We do not think even the Municipal Commissioner will be convinced that the said statement is correct”. Court ordered the Commissioner to be present before it through video conference in the next hearing, and to present a proper action plan.
- 29 January 2021: Before this hearing, BBMP compiled a new list of 1,588 illegal structures, of which over 200 were stated as built after the cut-off date. But court said that BBMP had not submitted its action plan, and it wasn’t clear if BBMP had laid down in writing how the survey would be conducted. Court said a structure may be built in private land yet encroach on government land, and hence officials had to visit every religious structure for verification. BBMP was asked to submit a detailed compliance report on February 26.
Given this poor record, it is to be seen if the hearing on February 26th will indeed mark the start of serious implementation of the Supreme Court order.
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