HT SPOTLIGHT Illegal religious structures: Encroached, faithfully

  • Monica Sharma, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Apr 14, 2016 09:38 IST
At the municipal park in Dhanas, women routinely hold a ‘kirtan’ (prayer) next to some Hindu idols. (Keshav Singh/HT)

The model is religiously simple even in Chandigarh — a small idol, portrait or a holy book is placed under a tree, a small patch of land is cleared for the faithful to sit and pray, a charity box holds pride of place, and the box in due time expands into a full-fledged shrine. No matter if the land belongs to the government and can be used for other purposes; or even if the shrine ends up in the middle of the road as a traffic hazard, expansion hardly stops. Any action or demolition can lead to protests and potential communal violence.

Chandigarh temple demolition: ‘Protest prayer’ blocks highway for 3 days

The demolition of a temple which was part of an erstwhile slum in Sector 50, and the resultant protest — a highway patch was blocked for three days by setting up a ‘prayer tent’ right on it — brought the focus again on to the many such shrines in the city. A legal fight was still on, and the UT administration acted strict only for the police to later don kid-gloves. This is a classic case of how such structures come up unchecked, pass several stages of expansion, and then became too big — physically and politically — to simply be razed citing the law.

Tehsildar (enforcement), UT estate office, Amarinder Singh Manais acknowledged that while the administration was acting against encroachers, “such new shrines also come up”.

At present, the UT has at least 40 such structures encroaching no less than 16 acres, primarily on the outskirts and villages such as Kaimbwala, Dhanas, Mauli Jagran, Maloya, Karsan and Ram Darbar. The administration is currently involved in at least 18 legal battles concerning such illegal religious structures.

Officials underlined how when slum colonies mushroom in a specific area, the dwellers come up with religious places too that later become sensitive issues, such as the one in Sector 50 from where the slum Colony Number 5 was removed some years ago.

Many of that slum’s dwellers got rehabilitation flats in Dhanas where new structures of all religious hues co-exist in their illegality. In and around a government park there, people have placed two idols for temples; a mosque has been set up at a distance, while a church is under-construction and a shed set up with a cross on it for now.

What the law says

The law says that religious structures can come up only on plots specifically earmarked for them. As per the Punjab New Capital Periphery Act 1952, even if the land is in the name of the owner or the property is registered with the UT estate office, the owner cannot come up with a religious structure. The land in the periphery is allotted for agriculture purposes and can only have a hut and a kitchenette besides a toilet.

Recent removals

Besides the temple-cum-ashram in Sector 50 and two other structures razed this month, the administration removed four illegal temples and a mazaar (tomb) in Maloya in March.

Such is the speed of new ones coming up that there are 40 such shrines even when the administration has been removing at least one illegal structure, religious or otherwise, every month for the past five years on an average. Last December, a Guga Madi shrine was removed in a colony in Hallomajra, a mazaar in Palsora; and even when Colony Number 5 was removed around two years ago, a temple, a mazaar and a gurdwara were razed. Mazaars were recently removed from Sectors 53 and 56 too.

With GMADA blessings, 32 buildings regularised in Mohali

A mazaar has covered almost half the road and acts as a major traffic hazard at Phase 7, Industrial Area, in SAS Nagar. (Gurminder Singh/HT)

Records show that the town has been on a regularisation drive for religious structures since 2011 with 32 such buildings getting the nod from the Greater Mohali Area Development Authority (GMADA). The town then had 38 such religious structures squatting upon 25 acre of prime land valued at around Rs 200 crore. The cases of structures that are yet to be regularised are under consideration.

As per the 2011 decision, religious bodies were to pay a nominal fee to get the encroachment ‘regularised’ and the land was to be leased out for 99 years.

GMADA had decided to charge Rs 6 per square yard per year on encroached land (up to 1,000 square yards) and Rs 12 per square yard per year (on land above 1,000 square yards). Five years hence, the managements of these buildings are demanding that the land be offered on free-hold.

“Most temples and gurdwaras were set up more than two decades ago when there was no system of allocating land for shrines. People’s sentiments are attached with these places. The government should fulfil its promise of regularisation,” said Joginder Singh Sandhu, president of Gurdwara Co-ordination Committee.

“The construction should be checked when it starts. The Punjab government has assured us that the buildings would be regularised,” said JP Singh in-charge, Dharma Pracharak Committee.

Secretary of Radhe Krishan Mandir in Phase 2 Sham Lal said, “Religious institutes were offered regularisation for Rs 1. The land was to be given on free-hold. MP Prem Singh Chandumajra has assured us that the issued would be resolved. Notices to managements of religious structures have stopped.”

‘Regularisation mocks at law’

“Regularising encroachments mocks at the law. Since 2003, I have been complaining to authorities to stop encroachments in the name of religion. Officials fail to check it and then regularise such buildings,” said Jarnail Singh Kranti, a member of Tarksheel Society.

Old illegality persists in Panchkula

The fortified illegal temple at the rear of Sector 10 in Panchkula was demolished twice. (Sant Arora/HT)

The Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) and the municipal corporation authorities do not maintain any data, but sources said there were at least 29 encroachments in the town in 2010. Of these, 17 were upon HUDA land by religious bodies. By 2011, most such structures were demolished and a few were regularised. A visit to the periphery of the district and illegal colonies by the HT team revealed that religious structures have been standing here for over 40 years.

In Panchkula’s Sector 10, former Congress MLA late DK Bansal had again set up an idol under a banyan tree at the rear of the sector’s main market in 2014, even after HUDA demolished it twice. Only, the temple was reconstructed.

In Panchkula’s Rajiv Colony that is itself illegal, two temples occupy prime space. The Balmiki Ashiana Temple was set up in 1990 and pulls in colony residents. Shiva Singh, a member of the temple’s executive body, said, “HUDA has asked us to provide details of the land.” However, the president of the temple committee Sultan claimed that the temple was registered with HUDA.

A mere 200 metre away is the Shiv Mahanandeshvar Temple said to be set up 40 years ago by three-four people. The temple is sacred for the family of Badhai Singh, the ‘founder’ of the structure. Singh, who is now handicapped, told HT, “The law cannot overrule faith. Hence, the temple continues to stand with no interference from HUDA.”

HUDA estate officer Manish Lohan claimed, “Action will be taken as per law.”

(with inputs from Shailee Dogra and Aneesha Bedi)

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