State, judiciary must respond to call to protect parks

Sun rays braking the mist and reach earth, it is wonderful morning at Sri Chamarajendra Park (Cubbon Park) in Bengaluru on Sunday. Photo by S K Dinesh

In 2012, the High Court of Karnataka began to hear a batch of public interest litigations, arguing for an effective and efficient system of tackling the solid waste management (SWM) conundrum.

One of the PILs was by the Environment Support Group, which argued that the garbage mess is an outcome of governance failures and such vexatious issues can only be addressed if public involvement in decision making, as guaranteed through the ward committees, was made systemic to the BBMP’s process.

Following detailed arguments and review, the high court accepted the contention and directed the state government to immediately constitute ward committees and to provide them oversight powers over SWM. This way, the promise of public involvement in municipal decision-making, guaranteed in the Constitutional 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992, would be fulfilled.

There was a problem though. The state had amended the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act in 1997 to institute ward committees. But these committees had never functioned, even if set up a couple of times, as the rules had not been framed to assist their functioning. If the high court directives had to be implemented, then ward committee rules needed to be framed. The rules were finally framed in 2018 under the threat of contempt action from the high court, and the ward committees started functioning from December that year.

Section 13 I (k) of the KMC Act requires ward committees to ‘ensure maintenance of parks, open spaces and greening of area in the ward’. This means, any change in the nature of any park within the ward’s jurisdiction must be undertaken only with the due consent of the ward committee, which is required to meet at least once a month, as per the law.

The Cubbon Park comes within the jurisdiction of ward 110. It follows then that if the registrar general of the high court wanted to build an annexe to the court, s/he should first have sought the permission of the ward committee. But, at the time of mooting the annexe proposal in 2014, ward committees were not functional.

But when the final arguments were advanced, based on which the October 17, 2019 order of Justice S Dinesh Kumar was issued, approving the proposal without felling any trees, the question arises if the registrar general produced an approval from the ward committee.

This author inquired with the ward office 110 to learn that the question of approval did not arise, as no application from the registrar general, seeking to change the nature of use of Cubbon Park, which the seven-storey structure will cause, was made.

This is a rare opportunity for the registrar general to demonstrate the seriousness with which his office is intent on complying with a law that requires public involvement in municipal decision-making. That is what ward committees are for, fundamentally.

Karnataka is in the forefront in passing progressive laws, be they in protecting forests, grasslands, parks, trees and other natural habitats. But when powerful institutions violate these laws, it sends a signal to others to take legal compliance lightly.

Bengaluru has not added a Cubbon Park or Lalbagh in over a century. On the contrary, tens of parks, lakes and open spaces have been encroached upon and destroyed. Truly world class cities do not merely take pride in retaining the spatial extent of their parks and open spaces, but also in securing the ecological, aesthetic and cultural characters.

Central Park in New York, Royal National City park of Stockholm, Griffith park of Los Angeles, Hyde Park in London or Lodhi Gardens and Hauz Khas of Delhi are all examples of extraordinary sensitivity in building character of those cities, and mostly in an inclusive way.

When Bengalureans desperately require more open spaces that extended tranquillity and ecological richness, and that by carving out more parks and sylvan open spaces, the proposal to densify built activity, with its concomitant adverse impacts, as is the case with the proposed annexe, is not merely retrograde, but demonstrative of contempt for law and public opinion.

(Bhargavi S Rao, independent researcher and consultant, works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance)

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