Now, jail, fine for officials who fail to rein in slums

The fact of slums and shanties, in existence since the founding fathers adopted development dharma as the way forward, is more entrenched in the city than the laws geared toward curbing it. But in a move that amplifies civic accountability, citizens can now pin the blame on officials instated specially to curb the mushrooming of hutments. If they do not, they will be sent to jail and made to cough up a cash penalty.   

Drawing the line: If the officer designated for taking action is found to have failed in acting on
encroachments, he will be deemed to have committed an offence and punished according to the new
provisions. File pic

After the president's nod to a state Act, civic officials will now face a jail term up to three months and a fine up to Rs 20,000 for failure to act against encroachments. With amendments to five different Acts that govern civic bodies across the state, Maharashtra act no II was passed by the state legislature in 2010, and forwarded for presidential assent. After recently getting the go-ahead, the state urban development department issued a notification on March 22 to start the Act's implementation.

Pinning responsibility: Citizens can now pin the blame for encroachments on civic officials. File Pic

As per the amendment to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MMC) Act, 1888, the BMC commissioner will appoint a designated officer or area-wise officers to ensure no new encroachments crop up. Section 475B, newly incorporated in the MMC Act, says that if the designated officer fails to take action against any illegal building or encroachment in his area under Sections 342 and 347 of the act, he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term up to three months or with a fine up to Rs 20,000 or both.

While introducing the amendments to the five Acts, the state had argued that the encroachment on government land and unauthorised construction on private land had become common features in cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. The violations of development control rules and citizens' tendency to develop properties without permission had led to uncontrolled and haphazard growth in the cities, and given birth to overcrowding, traffic congestion, and crippling pressure on public services and utilities like schools, hospitals, water supply and drainages.

The state government had also argued that despite creating special squads and creating machinery to prevention and removal of unauthorised constructions, they cropped up. This proved the failure of the machinery and pointed to negligence on the part of officers. Unfortunately, no municipal law provided punishment to such erring officers yet.

Now, if the officer designated for taking action is found to have failed in acting on encroachments, he will be deemed to have committed an offence and punished according to the new provisions.

Curb fresh encroachment
Legal experts and activists welcomed the law but pressed the need for its graft-free enforcement.
Rishi Agarwal, secretary of Mangroves Society of India, said, "The law would prove efficient in curbing encroachment. There have been fresh encroachments near Dahisar and Mahim Creek areas.

The MCGM will have to develop a close coordination to successfully implement this law. It would be a good idea to make an inventory of the existing encroachments and proceed with the implementation of this law. The only fear is that it should not provide a new scope for corruption."

Julio Ribeiro, former IPS officer, said, "If one such law has been put into action, I'm sure that all encroachments would stop. Though several such laws do exist, the designated officials responsible for preventing encroachments are not prosecuted by the law. The power is with the bureaucracy; so even if politicians promise regularisation of slums, it would not make any difference."

YP Singh, prominent lawyer and activist, said, "Similar laws exist which allow for prosecution of accused officers. The officer having the jurisdiction should ensure that encroachments are curbed. If he does not, then he could be prosecuted under Section 217 of the IPC. It is important to bring this law under the corruption law so that punishment is more stringent."

Nayana Katpalia of Cityspace NGO said, "Eventually, it is up to the will of the government to see that this law functions to its fullest. There is no dearth of laws in this country, but lack of enforcement is a serious problem. This seems to be a good law, but we have to wait and see how effective it is."

-- Naveen Nair

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