If the authorities care for Delhi’s future, they must heed the SC
The Supreme Court on Monday could not help but express its anguish over what it called “a complete breakdown” of law and order in Delhi because of frequent traders’ strikes against the ongoing sealing drive in some of the city’s popular markets. The situation has become a “free for all” and the “rule of law was meaningless if you [the government] was condoning illegality”, the apex court observed on Tuesday.
The frustration of the judges with Delhi’s civic authorities is absolutely justified. It has been over a decade since the apex court started efforts to rid Delhi of the unchecked bending of rules and illegal, unsafe buildings. The first such sealing drive against shops and businesses operating from illegal premises was ordered by the court in 2006.
The ongoing action against a fresh crop of illegal shops and offices followed the court’s decision last December to revive its monitoring committee that had sealed thousands of illegal commercial establishments a decade ago. In 2006, the authorities sidestepped the court-ordered drive by bringing in legislation. This time, it is trying to stall the sealing drive by tweaking the Master Plan 2021.
The route to arbitrarily regularise may bring relief to traders who will get to run their businesses out of poorly provisioned buildings and markets. It may protect a powerful vote bank. But it has pushed the city into a terrible civic mess. The SC bench says the government was putting at risk the lives of 186 lakh people to protect 15 lakh traders.
Today, safety is the biggest concern in most commercial areas of Delhi. Describing the Khan Market restaurants as “a disaster waiting to happen”, the Delhi High Court in 2016 had blamed “the public-private partnership of municipal and police authorities, flat and restaurant owners”. The same unchecked commercialisation has paralysed other markets in the city. Delhi is just plain lucky that it hasn’t been hit by a tragedy like the Kamala Mills fire that killed14 restaurant guests in Mumbai last December.
For any conscientious government, such tragedies should serve as a wake-up call. If Delhi’s authorities really care for its citizenry and the future of the city, they should rise above petty political motivations, listen to the Supreme Court, and do their jobs. Strengthening the enforcement mechanism required to keep a check on illegal constructions and stopping the misuse of municipal laws will be a good place to start.