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Sukhna Lake declared ‘legal person’: HC imposes Rs 200-crore fine on Punjab, Haryana

The amount has to be deposited with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change within a period of three months, and will then be used for restoration of the lake’s eco-sensitive zone.

Written by Sofi Ahsan | Chandigarh | Updated: March 3, 2020 6:04:39 am
Sukhna lake, Sukhna Lake pollution, Sukhna Lake catchment areas, chandigarh city news, punjab and haryana high court Sukhna catchment area in Chandigarh. (Express photo/Jaipal Singh/File)

In an unprecedented order, the Punjab and Haryana High Court Monday imposed a cost of Rs 100 crore each on Punjab and Haryana governments as “exemplary/punitive/special damages” for “allowing with impunity” construction in catchment area of the Sukhna Lake falling in their jurisdiction. The amount has to be deposited with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change within a period of three months, and will then be used for restoration of the lake’s eco-sensitive zone. The court also declared constructions in the catchment area “as delineated in the map prepared by the Survey of India on 21.9.2004” as illegal, and ordered their demolition within three months.

The division bench of Justices Rajiv Sharma and Harinder Singh Sidhu directed the central ministry to frame a statutory scheme under the Environment Protection Act to utilise the funds to be deposited by Punjab and Haryana for restoration of Sukhna Lake. According to the HC order, the scheme has to be framed in three months, and the restoration work has to be completed within a period of one year thereafter on urgent basis.

Stating that all the citizens of Chandigarh are declared as “loco parentis” (in the place of a parent) to save Sukhna Lake from extinction, the court also declared Sukhna Lake as “legal entity/legal person” for preservation with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.

Ordering a clean-up of the catchment zone, the court decared the constructions — commercial, residential and or other structures — raised in the catchment area of Sukhna Lake falling in the areas of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh as “illegal and unauthorised”.

The court order read: “The illegal/unauthorised constructions raised in the catchment area as delineated by the Survey of India Map dated 21.9.2004 falling in the areas of states of Punjab and Haryana and UT Chandigarh are ordered to be demolished within a period of three months from today.”

The division bench further directed the states and UT Chandigarh to provide alternative sites for rehabilitation — post-demolition of unauthorised houses — in close proximity of Chandigarh to the owners whose building maps (in catchment area) were approved for construction.

“The states of Punjab, Haryana and UT Chandigarh shall also pay compensation of Rs 25 lakh uniformly to these owners, who had got their building maps approved but constructed the houses in the catchment area of Sukhna Lake,” the order reads further.

Punjab, Haryana and UT Administration have also been directed by the court to constitute high-powered committees within a period of four weeks from Monday to fix accountability of the officers/officials, who have permitted such large scale unauthorised construction, more particularly in the catchment area.

“The respective SITs would complete their task within a period of three months and after fixing the responsibilities of serving/retired officers/officials commence disciplinary proceedings against them for permitting unauthorised construction in violation of law,” the order reads.

Sukhna Lake’s catchment area falls both in Punjab and Haryana, but the rain-fed lake itself is located within Chandigarh. The lake was constructed in 1958 and is spread over 3 sq km. An area of 2 km to 2.75 km around the lake has been declared as eco-sensitive zone by the Chandigarh Administration. All activities in this area fall under provisions of the Environment Protection Act.

It was in 2009 that the High Court had taken suo motu note of the issues faced by the lake. In March 2011, the High Court banned all the constructions in the area falling within the lake’s catchment area. A Survey of India map, dated September 21, 2004, was used for identifying and demarcating the catchment area.

In 2013, the Punjab government had asked the central government to reduce the eco-sensitive area to 100 metres on its side, but it was rejected.

In its verdict Monday, the High Court said that the “defaulters” throughout knew about existence of the 2004 map, but despite that construction activity was carried out in the catchment area with impunity. The court in the order also rejected the Punjab government’s contention that the eco-sensitive zone should be restricted to 100 metres only and said that is the prime duty of the state of Punjab is to protect the ecology and environment around Sukhna Lake to save it from extinction.

The court pointed out that Punjab and Haryana kept on assuring it that no unauthorised construction would be undertaken, adding that the same continues unabated leading to a grim situation. In 2018, a Court Commissioner report before court said constructions have continued in the catchment area despite the HC ban.

“The state has connived with the defaulters by providing them with the electricity and water connections. It is expected from the functionaries discharging sovereign/legal functions to be on the right side of law. The states cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. The weak administration had permitted mushrooming of unauthorised constructions in a very fragile eco-sensitive areas/catchment area causing irreparable damage to the ecology,” the judgment reads.

The court said that the acts of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh have caused permanent damage to the catchment area of Sukhna Lake and it was expected from state agencies to foresee that the permanent structures in a catchment area would impede the flow of water in Sukhna Lake.

“The state government has also failed to take precautionary measures to save the catchment area. The damage caused to the catchment area is enormous. The state is bound to pay exemplary/penal damages under the doctrine of ‘Polluter Pays’. The officers/officials of the states of Punjab and Haryana instead of protecting/conserving/saving the catchment area have permitted raising of permanent structures in this area. Since immense damage has been caused to the catchment area of Sukhna Lake at least Rs 200 crore would be required to restore the catchment area,” the order reads.

The court also said that while Chandigarh had declared an eco-sensitive zone on its end, Punjab and Haryana have not taken any decision till date to constitute eco-sensitive zones in their respective areas around Sukhna Lake leading to further degradation of environment and ecology.

The court directed Chandigarh to issue a final notification declaring Sukhna Lake as Wetland under the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 within a period of three months from Monday. Punjab and Haryana governments have also been told to do the same in the same time period.

“The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is directed to notify at least 1 km area from the boundary of Sukhna Lake Wildlife Sanctuary as eco-sensitive zone falling in the areas of the states of Punjab & Haryana within a period of three months,” the order reads further.

Observing that the state functionaries could not be oblivious of the large scale construction activities which were going on in the catchment area and its surrounding areas in negation of law, the court termed “against public interest” Haryana government’s act of preparing Master Plan 2021 called as “Mansa Devi Complex” and to extend it to the areas which are covered by the Survey of India Map, 2004.

Regarding Punjab’s Nayagaon Master Plan, the court said, “How could the state of Punjab notify Naya Gaon Master Plan-2021 knowing fully well that the area covered in the Master Plan/zones impinged upon the catchment area of Map prepared by the Survey of India on 21.9.2004 especially when the higher functionaries of the state had attended the meetings at the time of preparation of the map and all their objections being considered in this regard.”

Quashing the “Naya Gaon Master Plan 2021” and the development plan called as Shri Mata Mansa Devi Urban Complex for the areas falling under the 2004 Survey of India map, the court has said new construction is completely banned in the catchment areas falling in the states of Punjab, Haryana and UT Chandigarh as well as in the Sukhna Wetland and Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary.

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