Mumbai: Bombay High Court fumes over illegal constructions

Expressing dissatisfaction over non-compliance by the Maharashtra government in constituting a 'supervisory cell' to keep a check on the menace of illegal constructions in the state, the Bombay High Court on Wednesday slammed the authorities and warned of strict action if the state fails to comply with orders.

The HC said apart from the Principal Secretary of the state's urban development department, it would also hold commissioners of all the municipal corporations in the state for failing to keep a check on the illegal constructions.

A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni warned it would summon the commissioners of all the civic bodies in the state if they fail to furnish a detailed affidavit spelling out the exact number of illegal constructions in their respective jurisdictions.

The bench was hearing a suo motu PIL it had initially taken up in January following the tragic incident of building collapse in neighbouring Bhiwandi. The judges had in January ordered all the municipal corporations and councils to furnish an affidavit stating the exact number of illegal constructions in their jurisdiction.

When the matter came up for hearing on Wednesday, the judges noted that none of the civic bodies including Mumbai and Thane have filed an affidavit. "Is there so much illegal construction that you (civic bodies) are unable to collect data even in two months?" Justice Kulkarni questioned the battery of lawyers appearing for various local bodies.

The judges noted that there are ample powers conferred upon the civic authorities under the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act and yet the authorities take recourse under the Maharashtra Regional Town Planning (MRTP) Act to act against the illegal constructions. "How in a civilised society is this acceptable? We fail to understand how the civic commissioners do not act as per law?" CJ Datta observed.

"It's high time now. the civic commissioners will have to personally explain to us why laws aren't being followed in their areas. We have seen that not a single civic authority has filed an affidavit... this shows the attitude and the fact that even the civic commissioners aren't willing to assist this court," CJ Datta added.

During the course of the hearing, the bench noted that the Maharashtra government in its recent affidavit did not specify if it has constituted a 'supervisory' cell to keep a check on such constructions. The bench noted that the order to constitute such a cell was passed by another bench of the HC in October 2018 and yet the state did not comply with the orders. The judges, accordingly, summoned Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni to appear before them.

"The orders (for the cell) are of 2018 and we are now in 2021, where is the cell?" CJ questioned AG Kumbhakoni.

At this, the advocate general responded that the state authorities have conducted three meetings from October 2018 till January 2019, however, he could not explain as to why there was no further development in the matter. "We want an explanation of why our order wasn't implemented... Right from 2018...Tell us why shouldn't the urban development principal secretary be held accountable," CJ asked.

Further, Justice Kulkarni noted that there were news articles on rampant illegal constructions during the lockdown period. "Had the cell been constituted, we believe there would have been a different picture," the judges said.

"The question here is of accountability at every level... There is no value to human life it seems...Illegal constructions are coming up and even collapsing... Innocent citizens are dying. You then go and announce compensation," Justice Kulkarni said. The matter would next be heard on April 7.

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