The National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on protests at Jantar Mantar Road has justifiably raised apprehensions and concerns about the shrinking spaces for democratic dissent in the country’s capital. Some permanent residents of this part of central Delhi had pleaded to the NGT that the protests cause noise pollution and inconvenience to the residents. The NGT has found merit in their plea and has asked the authorities to shift the protestors to an alternate site — the Ramlila Maidan — within four weeks. The NGT ruling must be challenged. And until a final resolution in the case, individual citizens and groups who have converged there from different parts of the country in order to make their issues and causes seen and heard, must be allowed to do so.
The NGT ban has come primarily on three grounds: One, Jantar Mantar is not an authorised site for protests — there is no executive order that demarcates it as such; two, Jantar Mantar Road is marked as a residential area in the Delhi Master Plan and hence cannot be allowed to be used for other purposes; three, the protestors and agitators cause pollution, particularly noise pollution, because of unregulated use of loudspeakers and amplifiers, public address systems, drums etc. Issues of littering, sanitation, and even of cow protection groups bringing cows and carts to the area have been mentioned in the NGT order as justification for the ban. However, what the NGT has clearly overlooked in its zeal to sanitise the area is that master plans and zoning laws are open-ended documents — they must necessarily incorporate room for changes that urban areas undergo over time. Cities have an organic life of their own; it is restrictive and even absurd to insist that they be bound and confined by the imperfections of masterplans conceived long ago. The Jantar Mantar area became the preferred site for those protesting against government policy and injustice when authorities banned them from the Boat Club lawns citing security reasons.
Jantar Mantar turned out to be a hospitable site for dissent since it is easily accessible to citizens while being close to Parliament, unlike the Ramlila Maidan, an open ground in a chaotic and congested locality of the city. Since then, many defining moments of citizens’ action of our time — for instance, the Anna Hazare fast against corruption and more recently the rallies and meetings demanding justice for Rohith Vemula and sit-ins against lynchings and in defence of free speech — have taken place at Jantar Mantar. These have underlined India’s democratic culture, reminding institutions and legislators of the anxieties and rights of the citizens they are supposed to address and serve.
The NGT ban must be urgently reconsidered. Laws must be interpreted in a reasonable manner, not in ways that stifle free expression by citizens against a state that may become unresponsive or overbearing.