Institutions must respect law

Cubbon Park

Strangely, in the case of Cubbon Park, both the court and the state government seem to share the responsibility in contributing to the degradation of the environment.

The proposed construction of a seven-storeyed building after demolishing an existing one-storeyed structure in Cubbon Park has unsurprisingly generated a huge controversy. The iconic park in the centre of the city has served as a much-needed lung space, apart from lending charm to the landscape of Karnataka’s capital.

The pace of urbanisation in India has undoubtedly increased the demand for built space to meet the growing needs of economic and social development. At the same time, it is essential to provide adequate open spaces in order to ensure a balance in the urban ecosystem. Failing to do so will lead to deterioration of the city environment, with an adverse impact on the health of the people.

Laws and regulations are meant to maintain a certain order in human activities. Unfortunately, in countries like India, laws are violated with impunity. This is all too visible in cities, particularly in the case of traffic and construction of buildings.

The ‘Master Plan’ of a city is intended to guide its future development and also make provision to protect its ecology and environment. The Revised Master Plan (RMP) of Bengaluru-2015, which is currently in force, has referred to the “decline in the number of lakes and inadequate maintenance of parks, which are the symbols of Bangalore” and has emphasised the importance of preserving the natural environment: “Recognising the need to revive the same, the strategic outlook of the Master Plan is to ensure that Bangalore retains its position as a ‘Green City’ by creating urban spaces and adopting a systematic approach to the creation and maintenance of lakes, parks and green spaces”.

Under the zoning regulations of RMP-2015 and the draft RMP-2031, Cubbon Park falls under the land use categorised as ‘parks and open spaces.’ Thus, no fresh construction can come up in this park. The order of October 17, 2019, of the Karnataka High Court granting permission for construction of the High Court annexe, is, therefore, in violation of the city’s Master Plan. Although the order specifies that the construction is to be put up “as per revised plan without cutting any tree”, it is contrary to the law. The core issue here is not cutting of trees but the construction itself which will occupy 4,924 square metres of built space and two basements for parking which is bound to increase traffic congestion in the central area of the city, which is already over-congested.

Apart from the question of law, it is also a matter of public interest. It is the duty of the court not only to uphold the rule of law but also to protect the public interest. The large number of PILs filed is a reflection of people’s faith in the judiciary to safeguard the interests of the citizens at large. The protection of the shrinking parks and public spaces in any city, especially so in a place like Cubbon Park, already dotted with numerous buildings, is therefore, of utmost importance.

The Karnataka High Court has in the past been a champion of environmental protection. It, therefore, comes as a great surprise that it should resort to protecting its own interest while ignoring public interest in this particular case. The executive has often been accused of falling prey to such a tendency and the judiciary has been known to act as a bulwark against the arbitrary acts of the former. At the behest of the court’s orders, a number of encroachments along stormwater drains in Bengaluru are being removed and BBMP has issued notices for demolition of several illegal buildings.

The unauthorised construction of buildings at Maradu in Kerala attracted the ire of the Supreme Court, which ordered their demolition. Commenting on the lackadaisical attitude of the government authorities in taking action, the court observed in its order of September 23: “It appears that the authorities, rather than preventing the violations, are trying to mobilise the public opinion and the time has come to hold them responsible for their active connivance in such activities of degrading the environment and violating the coastal zone regulations.”

Strangely, in the case of Cubbon Park, both the court and the state government seem to share the responsibility in contributing to the degradation of the environment. Indeed, the latter authority has meekly given in to the dictates of the former, and it is the citizens who have raised their voice and registered their protest.

It is relevant to refer to the trend of constructing new buildings by the government on the ground of expansion of its activities. The question needs to be asked whether it is necessary to build the additional space that may be required within the city itself, particularly in its central area. Rational urban planning points to the need for decongesting the city by locating new activities and even relocating existing activities outside the metropolis. The establishment of two benches of the Karnataka High Court in Dharwad and Gulbarga is a step in this direction. It also serves the interests of the people by saving them the trouble of travelling to the capital city. There is perhaps a case for setting up another bench in Mangaluru to cater to the needs of the people in the coastal region and if need be, one more in Mysore, instead of building an annexe in a park.

It is also necessary for the government to give up the craze for construction of grand buildings at a huge cost to the public exchequer. Vikasa Soudha, adjacent to Vidhana Soudha, and mini Vidhana Soudhas in all districts are examples of extravagance in construction. The authorities would do well to adopt modern construction technologies and architectural designs to achieve economy, elegance and optimisation of space.

The citizens of Bengaluru fervently hope that the wise judges of the High Court of Karnataka will voluntarily give up the proposal for an annexe in the precious park with a legacy of 150 years and look for alternatives. The court also has a moral obligation in this regard as it is the highest authority in whom the citizens repose confidence. The premier institutions set up under the Constitution must set an example in respecting the law. As the Bible puts it so succinctly, “If the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

(The writer is former chief secretary, Karnataka government)

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