The Bombay High Court on Wednesday came down heavily on suburban district collector Nidhi Chaudhari for taking “entirely different approach” and “subverting court orders” while demolishing fishermen community’s crematorium at Erangal in Malad without giving them a hearing.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Madhav Jamdar noted that the action was contrary to the approach taken by her when asked by the court to demolish unauthorised structures around the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport which are in line of landing and takeoff of aircraft. The collector had then claimed that hearing needs to be given to the owners of all the unauthorised structures before taking any action.
“When orders are passed by this court directing demolition of structures (near airport), she (collector) takes a different approach. We did not take her to task (then)…” said CJ Datta.
“She can’t be so naive that she can’t tell the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority(MCZMA) that action cannot be taken (against crematorium) without hearing the fishermen community. This is subverting the court order,” added the CJ.
The court passed the remarks while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) raising concerns over unauthorised construction of a Hindu crematorium on the beach by the fishing community.
The fishermen claimed that they have been using the crematorium prior 1991 and started its reconstruction recently since it was damaged during cyclone Taukte last year.
Following a complaint, the MCZMA held that the structure was unauthorised and asked the collector to demolish it. The structure was then demolished without a hearing.
To this, CJ Datta asked: “Was it not your duty to point out to MCZMA that this is not correct? What we expect the district collector to do, is take action in accordance with law. But how could MCZMA find that the structure had to be demolished as it was a violation of law?”
Following the earlier HC order, BMC counsel Anil Sakhare produced the death register of the Erangal crematorium which showed that the first cremation took place on December 25, 1990. Later, two other cremations took place in February and March 1991, which were prior to the CRZ notification coming into force.
“This shows there was a crematorium (prior to 1991)…. the impression given is that it is a new construction,” said CJ Datta.
In 2021, the HC had directed the MCZMA to take necessary action “in accordance with law” while hearing the PIL. The court was informed that the MCZMA, without giving a hearing to the fishermen community passed an order to demolish the structure.
Expressing distress that the action was taken following HC order of 2021, the court said the crematorium will have to be rebuilt.
“We are at fault. The court is at fault. In this case we feel our order should not be taken as a precedent,” said CJ Datta adding, “There may not be any discussion whether the crematorium has to be reconstructed or not. It has to be reconstructed.”