Encroachment of public land or right to live?
Civic officials maintain that they have been taking action against encroachments on a “routine” basis and are mandated to do so by the Municipal Corporation Act.
The recent anti-encroachment drive in northwest Delhi’s violence-hit Jahangirpuri has become the latest flashpoint between political parties in the national capital. The matter also reached the Supreme Court, which ordered a saty on the drive. Civic officials claim that before this, they were pulled up by various city courts for not removing encroachments from public places. But since the entire exercise is now being looked at from a “political” point of view, it becomes important to review the grey areas within the rules and mandates.
Municipal corporations, which order removal of encroachments from public land under their jurisdiction, have been carrying out these drives with much more “seriousness” since the creation of a Special Task Force (STF) by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). The STF, which has all civic agencies under it, meets every fortnight to review complaints and action taken.
Civic officials maintain that they have been taking action against encroachments on a “routine” basis and are mandated to do so by the Municipal Corporation Act as well as under the provisions of the STF. “We have been pulled up by city courts on various occasions for not taking action against encroachers. The drive in Jahangirpuri was already planned and had been carried out in B and C blocks on April 11. Because of the riot-like situation over there, we received additional police protection on that day,” said a senior official.
Mandate of the STF
“It has been noticed that there are some violations of building bye-laws and provisions of the Master Plan for Delhi-2021 relating to construction activities and land use. Besides, the problem of illegal constructions and encroachments including on public lands, parking spaces, roads, pavements has also come to notice. It seems there is a lack of coordination among various agencies. In view of the above, a Special Task Force (STF) to address the aforementioned issues and to oversee the enforcement of provisions of MPD-2021 and the Unified Building Bye-laws for Delhi is being created,” reads the gazette notification of the STF issued by the Delhi Development Authority.
What the Delhi Municipal Act says
Asked about allegations of due procedure not being followed such as prior notices not served, North civic body commissioner Sanjay Goel said, “We are not required by the law to give any prior notices for removing temporary encroachments from public land anywhere, as the Delhi Municipal (DMC) Act gives us the power to do so under sections 321/322/323/325 with prior intimation to local police. Who do we give the notice to? These are illegal structures that come up each time after they are removed. These shops are not registered with the civic body and they have come up encroaching on public land.”
The Supreme Court’s order
While the civic bodies maintain that prior notices are not required for removing temporary encroachments, the Supreme Court in its recent orders stated that serving notices is a must. Taking a look at the Supreme Court order in the MC Mehta case dated April 24, 2018, wherein an STF was set up to look into the issue of unauthorised construction, encroachments, violation of building bye-laws, it is seen that the apex court had said show-cause notice for removal of encroachments was necessary. It also said authorities must give time to the encroachers to remove these, before taking action.
The top court had also said, “Municipal Authorities, New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and DDA are lax in the performance of their duty with respect to unauthorised construction and encroachment on public/govt land. The public at large is violating the orders i.e. Building Bye Laws and Master Plan etc”. However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on Thursday (while arguing in the Jahangirpuri matter a day after the demolition drive) citing sections 321 and 322 of DMC Act said that the “action undertaken by the municipal authorities was valid.”
A shop-owner’s version
Some of the residents in Jahangirpuri, whose shops were demolished, approached the apex court saying they have valid documents. Ganesh Gupta, one of the shop-owners, said his kiosk had been allotted by Delhi Development Authority in 1977 and he had all documents to prove this. “DDA allotted this shop to my father and then I took over. I told the MCD officials that I have the papers. But they didn’t listen. I have four children. My shop was the only means through which I could earn for my family,” Gupta said.
He has filed a petition in Supreme Court through advocate Anas Tanwir. “This wasn’t the first time that this was happening. MCD officials have come earlier also, but after Gupta would showed them the documents, they went back. But this time, they went ahead with the demolition,” said Tanwir.
Tanwir added that Gupta has suffered a loss of `3-4 lakh and they are demanding compensation. “We are seeking compensation and also, whenever such a drive is conducted in the future, the MCD should appoint an officer with his name in the documents who can be made responsible to look after the legalities.”
Advocate Shahrukh Alam, who had filed a petition in Delhi High Court against the drive, said it was completely illegal. “It happened in the aftermath of the violence, when a lot of people had left their homes. Why did the MCD choose a time when everyone is scared? Why did it choose that particular time?” he said. Alam mentioned the matter before a bench of Acting Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Navin Alam, who dismissed the petition after the Supreme Court ordered status quo on the demolition drive.
Others to follow suit
The South and East municipal corporations, too, are gearing up to intensify their anti-encroachment drives. The move came after Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta wrote to the mayors of the two corporations to carry out such drives to ensure there are no “illegal occupants” encroaching public land. Gupta had written a similar letter to the North civic body mayor as well, a day before the demolition drive in Jahangirpuri.
Officials in the South and East civic bodies said they had already been carrying out routine drives, but were on Friday told during a meeting called by the mayors to “intensify” the drive. “Some areas like Okhla, Madanpur Khadar, Jasola, Sarita Vihar and Shaheen Bagh have been identified. We have asked officials to create a roadmap for encroachment removal from all such areas where public land has been occupied illegally,” said Mukesh Suryan, mayor of South Corporation. Shaheen Bagh and Okhla were the major protest sites during agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and early 2020. Both areas house a sizeable Muslim population.
East civic body mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal said he held a review meeting with the deputy commissioners on Friday to increase the pace of encroachment removal drives. He added that the drives are not to target any particular community or party. “We are identifying the areas, some of which include Gandhi Nagar, Seelampur, Jaffrabad, Trilokpuri and Laxmi Nagar. Also, we will make announcements on loudspeakers in the area a day before the drive so that people don’t rush and can plan in advance.”
Executive wing’s call
Explaining the process of conducting a drive, he said it’s the executive wing of the civic body that takes the final decision. An assistant commissioner-level officer in the respective zone coordinates these drives. For removal of temporary encroachments, an action plan is prepared by the assistant commissioner and letters are sent to road-owning agencies along with a requisition for adequate police force. “The letters requesting police force are sent 4- 7 days before the scheduled drive. We also have to hire bulldozers and mini trucks, as the civic bodies don’t have these resources at their disposal,” Aggarwal said. In case of removal of permanent structures, a show-cause notice is issued asking the owners to produce the papers within three days and the overall process takes around 15-20 days, he added. While the MCD demolished “illegal constructions” and took away fruit carts of vendors belonging to lower income groups, the area where riots erupted is perennially ignored by the civic body when it comes to cleanliness and sanitation, said locals.
No civic maintenance
When The Morning Standard visited the area, it was found that drains were overflowing, the passage to cross the drain and enter the colony was missing and a plywood board was kept stepping on which people entered B block. “Even the parks of the area have been converted into dump yards. Our children play in one part and in the other part, garbage is disposed of. When it becomes too much, the garbage is taken to the main road and dumped there. The MCD has left us on our own,” said Tabrez Khan, a teacher, who runs a small institute in the area where he provides coaching to underprivileged children.
Civic officials said they are aware of some of the problems. “We need to clean the drains ahead of the monsoon, but since most of the times these are covered by encroachments, there is limited access to take up the work,” said a senior official, who keeps a track of encroachment-removal complaints in the civic body.