SWEET WATER ZONE OF PURI PUTS THE STATE GOVERNMENT IN A SWEAT

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

“This Court directs the Public Health Engineering Department to take over possession of the ……. plots of land …….. from Puri Municipality and keep the same under its control and custody and to ensure that no construction takes place on those plots of land”. This is what the High Court of Orissa has ordered in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) pending before it for a decade, on 7 November 2007.

The plots forming the crux of the case are eleven plots of land, comprising a total area of 448 acres in Balukhanda locality of Puri Municipality.

This patch of land can be termed as Mother Nature’s magic lab where she has transformed the salty roars of the Mahodadhi (the sea that distinguishes Orissa coast) into sweet water, a precious deposit of the like of which is not seen elsewhere.

From time immemorial, people of Puri had preserved this rare wealth and not allowed anybody to tamper with this patch of land. Therefore the land was lying vacant.

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But with enforcement of the Constitution of India, which controls every citizenry action, but which, under overwhelming presence of the propertied class in the Constituent Assembly having made the right to property a Fundamental Right, has provided congeniality to a satanic human motive like avarice and with that an environment to all the citizens for becoming selfish, our society has fallen into such a sorry state that this rare natural wealth has been tampered with by persons in power to the total disadvantage of the present and future generations of our people in Puri.

This unfortunate assault on the Nature’s magic lab in Balukhand started at the behest of Biju loyalists, as evidenced in, to cite an instance, its leasing out to private and institutional persons during the tenure of Maheswar Mohanty as Municipal Chairman and non-correction of the wrong even when he continues as the Speaker of Orissa Legislative Assembly and Naveen as Chief Minister.

No wonder the government remained nonchalant to the necessity of actively participating in the PIL to make the matter clear. In a veiled stricture on the Government, the High Court has noted in its judgment on 7 Nov. 2007 that though the PIL was pending for more than a decade, the State had not preferred its version to the Court till “today”, i.e. till the day of delivery of the judgment.

The Municipality under the grip of Naveen’s men did not bother either. The Court notes, “No body appears for Puri Municipality. There was also no appearance on behalf of the said Municipality on 31. 10. 2007. No prayer for adjournment has been made on its behalf. This case was filed in 1996. As such, this Court cannot wait any further”.

Why the government of Orissa as well as the Puri Municipality run by Biju Janata Dal was so reluctant to actively participate in the case?

Answer lies in Biju’s last tenure as Chief Minister.

After he had grabbed power as the Chief minister on 5 March 1990, a new era of breech of peoples’ trust had spread its wings all over the State and corrupt fellows and commission agents had had the State under their grip and in tune with that, in the city of Puri, a plan was formulated to usurp these plots of land.

Orissa State Housing Board was used for the purpose. It applied for the land to build up model colonies with modern amenities while agreeing to use of its infrastructure by private individuals occupying land on lease directly from the Municipality.

Endorsing the application, the Municipality moved the State government in the Housing & Urban Development department for permission, as during J.B.Pattanaik’s tenure, on 6 May 1982 there was an order for placement of the said land under the control of the Public Health Engineering Organization of the said department for use in supply of drinking water, which was neither implemented nor withdrawn.

Protégés of Biju, who were eager to grab the land, were of the belief that there should be no difficulty for the Department to grant the permission sought for, as the 1982 order has been abandoned and the land continued to be in its control.

As per clerical practice in the Secretariat, which usually gets endorsed by the designated officer without buzzing in the chamber of the Secretary, the Public Health Engineering Chief was asked to examine the proposal of the Municipality. He, in his tern, forwarded the same to the Director of Environment (DE).

To the chagrin of higher ups, the DE, unaware as he was of the hidden motive of the power circle, commented on 7 October 1993 that the “area being over the sweet water reserve zone, the proposed housing scheme over the said area may adversely affect the sweet water reserve zone”. Chief Engineer of Public Health endorsed the opinion of the DE, which was crystal clear, to the Secretary of the Department. Then it was very difficult for bureaucracy to comply with the request of the Municipality. The Secretary of Housing & Urban Development communicated refusal to the Municipality with advice that an alternative site for the housing project may be suggested.

But the Municipality did not stop. It executed the lease with Orissa State Housing Board on 8 April 1994 vide Registration number 1234. It was absolutely illegal. The land belonged to the Government. The Government had specifically put the land under the control of Public Health Engineering Organization to save the sweet water zone from any factor of pollution and misutilisation. Hence the Municipality had no locus standi to lease out the land to the Housing Board. But so tremendous was the urge for grabbing the land that the Municipality ignored the advice of the Secretary of the UD department and executed the deed with the Board.

Mr. Uma Ballav Rath, an ex-member of Orissa Legislative Assembly and an active sentinel of the collective interest of the people of Puri District, foreseeing the danger to the world famous city of universal brotherhood, where the Mahodadhi (the sea of Orissa wrongfully named as Bay of Bengal) as well as the Sri Mandira of Sri Jagannath receive reverence of lakhs of visitors everyday, filed the PIL as the last resort.

The PIL pending, general public, apprehensive of the debacle the deal would cause to their health and environment, raised their objection in such a pitch in their own manner that the Housing Board could not dare to take over physical possession of the land.

A high level meeting was held on 15 Feb. 2000 to tackle the situation. And, the Housing Board opted to withdraw against refund of the money it had paid to the Municipality towards cost of the land “from the entertainment tax payable to the Puri Municipality”.

But despite this, as the High Court has preferred to note, “Puri Municipality has possibly granted some leases to others in respect of the aforesaid vacant area for construction of residential houses on the said area”.

Besides political fellows, others to whom the Municipality granted leases, as per Annexure 3 are IAS officers and their relatives, IPS officers and their relatives and senior OAS officers working at that time in Puri Collectorate.

Going by records at hand, the High Court has nullified every allocation from the 448 acres patch of land and asked the Public Health Engineering Organization to take over possession of all the eleven plots that form crux of the PIL.

“Such exercise must be completed within four weeks from today upon notice to Puri Municipality”, it has stipulated.

“This Court directs that the entire area of 448 acres should be kept free from any construction”, says the verdict.

As regards the existing construction, if any, by any lessee, the Court has directed that the lease shall stand cancelled and for demolition of constructions, after such cancellation, would be compensated in accordance with Law.

With this judgment the state government is in a sweat. And, bound to be.

The persons who have acquired the lease from the Puri Municipality are wrong in the eyes of the Law in as much as the Municipality not being the rightful owner of the land should not have been accepted by them as the lesser. But now, under the Court verdict, if their houses would be demolished (and bound to be) they are to get compensation as deemed proper under the Law. This may metamorphose into a legal conundrum.

On the other hand, Government organizations like the Housing Board had sold houses to persons who had responded to their advertisements and now when they will be evicted from their legitimately acquired residences, there is nothing unusual if they seek relief in the apex Court.

So what would happen to the implementation of the verdict of the High Court that has stipulated that the taking over of the entire 448 Acres of the sweet water Zone “must be completed by Public Health Engineering Department within a period of four weeks from today, i.e. from 7 November 2007”?

The Sweet Water Zone is so rare and so valuable that no further foul play on it using Law as a weapon should be encouraged.

Hence, the State has only one option. It must treat the people who are to face cancellation of lease and demolition of house as displaced people and extend them the required help without loss of time.

In this case, for the fault of people like Maheswar Mohanty the State Exchequer will be punished. But, it is not that that should not be. The people of the State as a whole deserve this financial loss, as collectively we all are responsible for making the packs of undeserving people our leaders.

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