Buildings being razed down at the demolition drive at Sarakki Lake. Pic: Rahul Ravi

It all started a couple of years back. Some NGOs like People's Campaign for Right to Water ( PCRW) and Sarakki Lake Area Improvement Trust (SLAIT) had begun to worry seriously about Sarakki lake. The severe pollution caused by ingress of sewage from nearby houses and apartment blocks, and the shrinking size of the once-pristine standalone lake because of the rampant encroachment by unscrupulous elements was the cause for concern. Construction debris and garbage dumped into the lake reduced the size of Sarakki lake, which covered an area of 86 acres as per the revenue records, to less than 60 acres.

Appeals and representations to local politicians and corporators and other authorities, requesting a full stop to further encroachment and degradation of the lake and rejuvenating it fell flat. There was no option left for the NGOs but to seek judicial intervention to goad the administration into action, to doing their job.

Persistent follow up by SLAIT with the District Administration resulted in the DC ordering a survey of the lake in January 2013. Earlier surveys commissioned by BBMP, BDA or LDA through some private agencies had been questioned. From the various proceedings it appeared that most probably the Revenue officials refused to authenticate the surveys on the ground that the surveyors had been compromised in favour of encroachers including builders. This time the DC ordered the survey to be carried out under the direct supervision of the Director of Survey and Land Records of Karnataka Government.

The mandate was to establish the original boundaries of the lake based on the benchmarks and village maps prepared in early 1900’s. Such a survey was carried out between the months of January to March 2013 and the survey sketch was duly authenticated on April 19th 2013 by then-Tahsildar-Bengaluru (South), Jagadish.

Landmark judgment by the High Court

Meanwhile, PCRW filed a Writ Petition (WP-17464) in the Karnataka High Court in early 2013 and SLAIT joined the PIL as a co-petitioner. The petition was heard by a Divisional Bench presided over by the Honourable Chief Justice himself continuously for over a year. Despite all attempts by District administrations to delay the proceedings, the bench delivered its judgment in August 2014 and disposed of the petition.

During the proceedings before the High Court assurances were made repeatedly to the court by the Tahsildar-Bengaluru South, that the Survey map authenticated by the previous Tahsildar had clearly delineated the original boundaries of the lake and identified about 200 encroachers. There was no scope for any ambiguity on that account.

The judgment of the High Court delivered on August 5th, 2014 was clear in insisting that the District Administration should clear the encroachments after following the due process of law such as notice to encroachers, hearing and disposing of petitions to the contrary, if any and handing over the cleared area to the agency responsible for lake rejuvenation, which in this case was BDA.

Government of Karnataka had given BDA the responsibility of fencing the lake area and taking up rejuvenation work of the lake as per the Supreme Court guidelines and recommendations of Justice N K Patil report of February 2011. However, clearing the encroachments and handing over demarcated area to BDA was clearly the responsibility of District administration.

Strangely, the encroachment clearance deadlines set by the Court were not kept up. It needed persistent efforts and a number of notices for contempt of court by SLAI and the intervention of the Court to galvanise the recalcitrant administration into action.

After this, the entire District Administration led by the Deputy Commissioner Shankar set April 16th 2015 as the date on which encroaching will be cleared if the encroachers had not voluntarily vacated them.

Encroachment clearance - a media hype?

The mayhem that followed during the ensuing fortnight is well-known to all. We were informed that the District Administration presented itself before the Electronic media as being sympathetic to the hardship of the  encroachers, who were made to look like victims, rather than ones who had violated the law and used it to their advantage. A particular media house was preferentially patronised. It was comical for eye-witnesses to see the media persons briefing the District officials and asking them to rehearse the bytes prior to recording the same for eventual broadcast, rather than the other way around.

Print and Electronic media went overboard in presenting every shade of opinion with animated live debates with corporators, MLAs, religious heads etc joining in. Hordes of politicians of all hues and shades descended on the area expressing sympathy and solidarity with the “poor and gullible homeowners” whose properties were razed to the ground by a “insensitive and merciless” administration. Police had a tough time controlling the chaotic traffic around the area.

Groups of onlookers and busybodies jeered and berated the officials supervising the demolitions by accusing them of targeting the helpless poor while letting go the powerful encroachers and builders. Stung by such allegations some officials went overboard and demolished some structures which were never there in the original list. These included a large portion boundary wall separating a big Apartment complex in the lake area though the survey map never indicated any encroachment by the builder. However, the officials won the approbation of the cheering crowd for this gallant act.

When the residents of the apartment complex and the builder's representatives confronted the district administration officials demanding the basis on which the wall was demolished, they were browbeaten with threats of arrests for obstruction etc. They claimed that they have new satellite survey data which establishes encroachment of lake land by the builder and the extent of encroachment was variously cited as 4 feet to even up to 130 feet. Irresponsible statements and TV bytes by officials hinted at the builder having violated building byelaws and buffer zone stipulations etc, though the clauses they were quoting were not applicable to the particular apartment complex whose plans had been approved in 2005 when these rules were not applicable.

Did the district authorities have survey records?

A quote below from a report from Deccan Herald of April 17th 2015 illustrates the confusion in the minds of district officials clearly.

“The land records section of the Bengaluru Urban District seems to have done a major favour to a prominent builder who has encroached upon the Sarakki lake. Highly placed sources in the Bengaluru Urban District said the officials in the land records section have openly favoured the big builder who has built a multi-storey apartment on the edge of the lake.

Deputy Commissioner V Shankar said there are many doubts over the way this particular apartment has been exempted. We will conduct a fresh survey and get it rectified. If there are some foul play to benefit someone, we will not spare guilty official.

The asst commissioner L C Nagaraju said: “I have no doubt in my mind that a good portion of the apartment encroaches the lake, but strangely the map has been drawn in such a fashion that the apartment has been exempted.”

So, above report raises this question: Does want of a fresh survey to establish violations by this particular builder indicate that the district authorities did not have concrete proof that violations existed before proceeding with demolition?

As quoted in the above news item, the Assistant Commissioner had “no doubt in his mind” about the encroachment, but even to this date he awaits a survey map from Land Records department for proving his allegation and identifying extent of encroachment. As a result the residents are not permitted to rebuild the wall as per new boundaries and run the risk of trespassing by unauthorised persons into the complex and infestation of the complex by poisonous reptiles and strays.

The officials were not averse to casting aspersions publicly on their own colleagues in the Government. Interestingly the Deputy Commissioner who relied so heavily on the judgment of his Tahsildar Dayananda had after a few weeks publicly accused him of falsely misleading him in another case, as per another Deccan Herald report.

As expected, there were a spate of writ petitions from the alleged encroachers against the demolition action and in many cases the High Court stayed the eviction operations instructing the district authorities to sort out the issues in a time-bound manner. Now, the authorities not being in a hurry, there is no one from the State attempting to get the stay vacated.

The result of all above is that the encroachment clearance operation has been halted. There are some half demolished structures with debris yet to be removed. Some owners have reconstructed and repainted their properties and no one knows whether they have re-encroached or not. It is business as usual. The cleared areas have been fenced in with stone pillars and barbed wire presumably by erstwhile encroachers and new businesses are springing up in those areas.

The places of religious worship were never touched by the administration claiming that “public sentiments were against demolition” despite Supreme Court’s clear instructions not to spare even such structures. The DC announced that the temples would be handed over to Mujrai department of GoK and large notices were displayed in the beginning in front of such temples which have now gone missing. This action by the State would amount to probably contempt of the order of the Supreme Court.

PCRW contemplates contempt petition against officials
Citizen Matters
spoke to M Eshwarappa, the State Convener for the People’s Campaign for Right to Water. Eshwarappa clarified that PCRW had indeed approached the court to inform them a good part of the judgment had been ignored. He mentioned that the court had asked them to refrain from filing another PIL, since it had already given direction and dismissed the case. He also added that the court had directed them to instead file a contempt of court petition against the respective departments for not following the court’s directive.

Eshwarappa also mentioned that PCRW had followed up with BDA regarding the plan for lake rejuvenation. BDA officials informed them that they had prepared a plan for rejuvenation of the lake, the Tahsildar was yet to present the official handover letter which called out details of the extent of encroachments, how much has been cleared etc, and until they received that, the BDA could not do anything.

Eshwarappa also added that PCRW was considering filing contempt of court case against the respective departments which have not followed the court's judgment.

What should be done in future?

This brings us to the larger question of the role of the stakeholders involved in the farce of encroachment clearance enacted as enumerated below:

District Authorities:

  1. Who gave the discretionary powers to the authorities (in the absence of there being any legal provision to justify their acts) to decide on non removal of the places of worship in contravention of Court orders and Supreme court directives?
  2. Has the administration of these places of worship been really taken over by the concerned Mujrai Depts/ Churches/ Mosques?
  3. Why did District administration expand the ambit of demolition to include those structures which were not mentioned in the court order based on mere suspicion or hearsay? What is their timeline for completing the encroachment clearance, demarcating the boundaries clearly for handing over the area to BDA for complete fencing and further rejuvenation?
  4. Why is the District administration not taking up vacation of various stays granted by the Courts?
  5. Why are the cleared areas allowed to be fenced off by private agencies?
  6. Who will clear the debris and rubble lying in heaps? Who will demolish the remaining portions of half-demolished buildings?
  7. What is the status of identification and punishment to all those officials who collaborated with encroachers? DC had declared that “no one guilty would be spared”. Is it just a hollow declaration?

Media:

  • Why did the media that went to town during the demolition drive suddenly lose interest and does not follow up on the story?

Parties before the High Court:

  1. The Single judge benches of the High Court granted stay on individual writ petitions from alleged encroachers. Why did the DC / State / Stakeholders not make any effort to place evidence / documents and material before the single judge benches? The statement of Tahsildar that all the listed encroachers had been given sufficient time to prove their titles and the final list was drawn based on due diligence, had already been recorded.
  2. Why did the DC / State / Stakeholders seek more time for District officials to re-examine the averments of the alleged encroachers that they had legal rights to the property under dispute, after the matter was settled by the Division Bench?
  3. Why did they not seek a mechanism to monitor the implementation of judgments within the time limits prescribed and take punitive action if the timelines are not honoured?

Why hasn’t there been a contempt of court case yet?

Has the larger objective of saving the lake and rejuvenating which these NGOs set out to achieve been realised? Or is the idea simply given up? What will happen to the lake now? As they had done commendable work, they should not throw their hands up. They could file a contempt of court petition in the court. SLAIT can persist with yet another contempt petition pointing out the areas of non-compliance of court order as highlighted before. They could also bring to the attention of the court that places of religious worship were spared in violation of court orders. Why is no one following up with the Courts to direct Revenue officials and BDA to fence off the area so that lake rejuvenation can proceed as intended originally?

If any lake in Bengaluru had come very close to being rejuvenated due to public action, it was Sarakki Lake. However all the efforts seem to have been wasted. As usual, it is only the poor and helpless who have been at the receiving end in this farce that was enacted and the all the big fish have escaped unscathed.

One can be sure that the eventual demise of Sarakki Lake is not too far into the future.