[Rajkot Gaming Zone Fire] Gujarat High Court Criticizes State, Civic Authorities Over Unauthorised Gaming Centres, Orders Strict Action

Bhavya Singh

27 May 2024 10:31 AM GMT

  • [Rajkot Gaming Zone Fire] Gujarat High Court Criticizes State, Civic Authorities Over Unauthorised Gaming Centres, Orders Strict Action

    Today, the Gujarat High Court sharply criticized the Rajkot municipal body and the state government after it was revealed that two gaming zones in Rajkot had been operating for over two years without the necessary permits. The hearing was conducted before a division bench comprising Justices Biren Vaishnav and Devan M. Desai. The bench stated, “It is most unfortunate that it is only the...

    Today, the Gujarat High Court sharply criticized the Rajkot municipal body and the state government after it was revealed that two gaming zones in Rajkot had been operating for over two years without the necessary permits.

    The hearing was conducted before a division bench comprising Justices Biren Vaishnav and Devan M. Desai. The bench stated, “It is most unfortunate that it is only the death of innocent children and the young ones have opened the eyes of authorities at a stage when the families of Rajkot have lost their loved ones.”

    The court expressed its frustration, stating, "Have you gone blind? Did you fall asleep? Now we do not trust the local system and the state government," upon learning that the gaming centre had been constructed on unauthorized premises.

    The court's anger intensified when informed that these gaming zones had been functioning for over 24 months without essential permits, including fire safety certificates. The court declared its diminishing trust in the state government, following the Rajkot municipal body's admission that they had not granted approval.

    Advocate Manisha Luv Kumar Shah, representing the state government, acknowledged that two other gaming zones in Ahmedabad were also operating without the necessary permissions. It was further submitted before the court that the state has established a special investigation team, headed by the Additional Director General of CID-Crime and comprising senior officers from the state government.

    Additionally, it was mentioned that an immediate report has been requested, with the interim report from the special investigation team expected to be ready within the next 72 hours, and a detailed final report to be filed within the next 10 days.

    Luvkumar emphasized that this is not an adversarial litigation. She assured that the state has acted with the utmost seriousness on the issue and is committed to continuing its efforts.

    Furthermore, she stated that an FIR had been filed, and the owner of the gaming zone, Mr. Yuvraj, had been arrested, along with the manager. Steps are being taken to ensure the arrest of the remaining owners of the gaming zone, and a lookout notice has been issued.

    She emphasized that gaming zones cannot operate without such certificates, prompting the High Court to retort, "Then this rule was not followed in Rajkot."

    To reassure the court, she mentioned that three gaming zone owners had been arrested and that the process of detaining the others was "ongoing."

    Advocate Amit Panchal, appearing as a party in person, submitted that vide notification dated October 3, 2019, the government of Gujarat made variations to the Comprehensive General Development Control Regulations (CGDCR). He stated that these variations were made under the authority of various Acts such as the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act, 1976, and the Gujarat Municipalities Act, 1963, among others.

    Panchal drew the Court's attention to Regulation 3, which deals with development permission and building use permission. He argued that any development on any building or land must be preceded by a written application to the competent authority. Specifically, he claimed that the TRP Gaming Zone in Rajkot, located on a 3000 sq. meter plot, was established without the necessary permissions, as no application was made.

    Panchal emphasized that proper arrangements must be made for the regular maintenance of fire protection services as outlined in the National Building Code and related regulations. An occupancy certificate should be issued by the designated authority after inspecting the building to ensure compliance with fire protection requirements under the Gujarat Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act and its associated rules and regulations.

    He pointed out that, in the case of the gaming zone where the unfortunate incident occurred, there was neither an occupancy certificate nor an application for such a certificate. Similarly, no fire occupancy certificate was applied for.

    Panchal asserted that a serious view must be taken, holding the municipal commissioner of the respective municipalities accountable, particularly the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, for blatantly violating the directions of the High Court in a pending Public Interest Litigation concerning fire safety measures.

    Mr. Brijesh Trivedi submitted that over the past 24 hours, JCB machines have been deployed at the site to remove evidence, indicating a concerted effort by the authorities to eliminate proof. He further argued that following the visit of the Chief Minister, FIRs were lodged at 3 a.m., which he described as a mere eyewash. Families are still grappling with grief, and some have not yet found their missing relatives.

    Trivedi contended that accountability is needed for two groups of employees: those responsible for initially setting up facilities like gaming zones, and those who allowed these zones to operate for three months under the watch of municipal corporation officers. He emphasized that all unauthorized gaming zones across the state should be shut down according to statutory laws.

    Mr. G.H. Virk, representing the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, submitted a short note indicating that an application was made on May 4, 2024, under the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act, 2022. This application pertained to the unauthorized construction on the land where the TRO gaming zone was developed.

    The court, referencing submissions from the counsel for the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, noted, “blatant inaction on the part of the authorities of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation."

    The court observed, "but for connivance of the authorities within the corporation including its officers, the police department, and the authorities of the roads and building departments at the local level the gaming zone where the tragedy occurred, could not have flourished under the very eyes of the police authorities and the Rajkot Municipal Corporation.”

    Reviewing a note from the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, the court highlighted, “From the note submitted by the Rajkot Municipal Corporation what is apparent is, that the TRP game zone was developed in June 2021. It was approximately three years thereafter that the owners applied on 202.04.2024 under the Gujarat Act for Regularisation."

    The court described the construction as "a fabricated steel frame structure with a boundary of steel patras."

    The court emphasized that the game zone "was conceptualised, set up, and confined to operate under the very nose of the corporation's officials without the requisite permission." It further clarified that the structure "cannot be branded as a 'temporary structure'" based on the definitions of a 'building' and 'temporary structure' reviewed by the court.

    It was stated by the court, “a gaming zone flourished for approximately three years without the necessary permissions purportedly under the guise of a temporary structure prima facie, by obtaining permission only under the provision of section 33(x) the Gujarat Police Act, whereas it also did require the permission under the provisions section 33(w) which deals with licensing or controlling places for public amusement for entertainment, regulating the means of exit at places for public amusement and providing for the maintenance of public's safety.”

    “… judicial notice can be taken of the fact that such a game zone could operate within the vicinity of a local police station without such a permission first which even the police department has a lot to answer,” the court added.

    Highlighting the tragic consequences, the court stated, “What we have narrated above here would indicate that of the trail of tragedies that we have referred to, the villain which has snuffed out innocent lives of the citizens of the state… we need not repeat the past incidents that have occurred as a result of a blatant breach of fire safety norms, which resulted in the filing of the PIL before this Court.”

    The court pointedly questioned the inaction of the authorities in even inspecting the site in light of the regulations to consider whether a so called game zone existed and flourished at the cost of the lives of the children we lost. Adding insult to injury was the non compliance of directions which have been issued by this court from time to time in fire safety PIL. Non compliance of such directions would tantamount to contempt of the court. We do not at this stage intend to get into that question and leave it open at a later stage in this very litigation.

    The Court said that the municipal officers who were in position from the inception of the gaming zone until the date of the incident should be held accountable for the tragedy that occurred.

    However, the court refrained from passing an order of their suspension for dereliction of duty and non-compliance with the court's directions.

    The court directed the incumbent commissioner of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, as well as the officers who held the position from July 2021 until the date of the incident, to file affidavits before the court. The affidavits must explain what actions were taken regarding the following aspects:

    1. Compliance with the GDCR Regulations, including the Fire NOC.

    2. Obtaining certificates on the structural stability of constructions.

    3. Conducting periodical checks to ensure compliance with safety raisers in accordance with the Fire Safety Act.

    4. Collecting licenses under various acts.

    The court further directed the commissioners of the Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and Surat municipal corporations to file affidavits explaining the actions they have taken to ensure compliance with the court's orders in the fire safety PIL. They must also detail whether periodic checks were conducted from the time such game zones were established until the incident occurred, and propose future actions for strict fire safety measures.

    The court also demanded an explanation as to why they should not be proceeded against for disobedience of the court's directions reiterated in the PIL concerning fire safety.

    Additionally, the court directed the commissioners to provide a list of gaming zones and recreational centers in their jurisdictions, indicating whether these establishments are in compliance or non-compliance with regulations.

    Instructions have been issued across the state to halt all gaming zones pending further investigation and inquiries.

    The court directed the Commissioner of Police, Rajkot, to explain what permissions were sought for and granted to TRP Gaming, and whether such permissions were given under the provisions of Section 33(w) of the Act.

    The affidavits are to be filed on or before June 3, 2024. The matter is now listed for further hearing on June 6, 2024.

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