The Bombay High Court has observed that construction of illegal shrines on pathways and streets is in no way integral part of any religion, so as to be protected under Article 25 of the Constitution.
The court also slammed the authorities for their non-compliance with the government resolution directing demotion of illegal shrines. The authorities have been given an extension till year end to carry out the directives.
The lackadaisical attitude of the authorities in complying with earlier order invited ire of the bench and it stated: “It is surprising to see that not even one-fourth of the structures have been demolished. There is complete failure on the part of the State in complying with its own resolution, also there is no assurance from the government about a time frame within which it would comply with the government resolution.”
The High Court bench, while hearing a PIL filed by an NGO Society for Fast Justice with respect to non-adherence to the government resolution and court order in this respect, issued strict time-bound orders for removal of illegal structures.
The court had passed several interim orders and government regulations called for demolition of all illegally built shrines, especially those built after September 2009, causing obstruction in normal commute. However the orders passed were never enforced in letter and spirit.
The bench headed by Justice Abhay Oka stated that ‘by no stretch of imagination, the right conferred by Article 25 will extend to celebrating such festivals and functions on streets and footways unless offering prayers or worship at a particular place is proved to be an essential part of a particular religion by reason of a particular significance of that place. Hence, ordinarily, no one can claim fundamental right under Article 25 to conduct a religious function or festival on a street of footpath / footway.’
The court made reference to the Supreme Court ruling in Sodan Singh and others vs. NDMC, wherein the Supreme Court expressly stated that one can create any unreasonable obstruction on the road, which may cause inconvenience to other person having a similar right to pass.
The court held that structures that cause inconvenience to public violates article 21 of the Constitution.
The court also held that the power of the Commissioner of Municipal Corporations or other Municipal authorities of permitting erection of temporary booths and pandals for religious festivals is only an enabling power. It cannot be exercised where it is likely to obstruct vehicular or pedestrian movement. It was also clarified that any such permission does not include licence to carry out digging on the road or foot-path, using public address systems or putting up hoardings and banners for advertisement.
These would require specific permission from the authorities concerned. Even in case of legally constructed structures, a copy of permission should be prominently displayed lest it too shall be demolished.
The court also slammed the municipal authorities for adopting a ‘straight jacket formula’ while granting permission of such pandals without giving concern to the practical viability. Permitting erections of pandals with particular length and width within permissible limits without considering its effect on free flow of traffic and pedestrian movement is illegal.
The district collectors of all districts in the state have been directed to constitute a team of revenue officials not below the rank of Tahsildars for each Municipal Corporation area to regularly visit the area within 7 days prior to commencement of any major religious festival and also during the festivals to ascertain no illegal structures have erupted in the due course.
It has been ordered that a grievance redressal mechanism must be brought in place to deal with matters connected and nominate officers in each ward to deal with the complaints and adequate publicity would be given though media and circulars in official premises to create awareness about its existence. The court also assured the the Municipal Commissioners or the Municipal Staff of police protection for implementation of the court order.
A compliance report has been sought by the court which has to be presented on November 30, 2016. The court has also asked the government to submit action taken report on case wherein a tehsildaar was obstructed by a Shiv Sena leader in Aurangabad for demolishing illegal religious structures.
As per media reports, there are 482 unauthorised religious shrines which the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation will be demolishing in few weeks from now. According to statistics put out by the municipal corporation, Byculla, Dadar and Andheri (west) have the maximum number of illegal religious structures located in the city.
Read the Judgment here.
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