Public Properties: India

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Damage to Public Properties

The extent of the problem; the law

Dec 19, 2019: The Times of India

States with most number of cases of damage to public property, 2017
From: Dec 19, 2019: The Times of India

Who pays for the damage when public property goes up in smoke? No one, it seems.

While Supreme Court guidelines exist against the destruction of property, they affix liability on the leader who gave the call to protest. But in many cases of mass mobilisation, there is no identifiable leader/organiser. Even in cases, where mass movements have poster boys, it can be argued in court that they never gave the clarion call unless proven otherwise.

The law

The Prevention of Damage to Public Properties Act, 1984 introduced penal provisions for violent protests with prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years and fines for those found guilty of arson and mob violence during a protest.

However, identification of protesters has remained a challenge and resulted in a low conviction rate – 29.8% – in cases related to destruction of public property.

According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were 14,876 cases of damage to public property pending before various courts in 2017. Haryana, UP and Tamil Nadu led the list with the highest number of such cases — together amounting to 6,300 offences for damage to public property.

Guidelines to bolster law

A committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge K T Thomas to tighten the provisions of Prevention of Damage to Public Properties Act, 1984 and consider making leaders accountable for acts of vandalism during protests had evaluated responses received from state governments and found they seldom resorted to provisions of the 1984 Act to punish those destroying public property and recover the costs from them. Instead, the state governments regularly resorted to stricter provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

The committee was set up in 2007 on instructions of the Supreme Court following violence in several states after Gujjar leaders demanding ST status for the community gave a bandh call. Another committee headed by senior advocate Fali S Nariman was tasked to recommend measures for media coverage of such bandhs.

Soon after, while hearing a case of destruction of public and private property in Andhra Pradesh, the SC issued fresh guidelines.

According to the guidelines, “If a mass destruction to property takes place due to protests or thereof, the High Court may issue suo motu action and set up a machinery to investigate the damage caused and to award compensation. The liability will be on by the perpetrators of the crime and the organisers of such protests would also be liable as determined by the High Court or the Supreme Court.”

In 2018 too, the SC reiterated it. “The person/persons who has/have initiated, promoted, instigated or any way caused to occur any act of violence against cultural programmes or which results in loss of life or damage to public or private property either directly or indirectly, shall be made liable to compensate victims of such violence.”

In 2017, over 30 people were killed, property worth crores destroyed in the Dera Sacha Sauda protests in Haryana

No respite in future

In 2016, in the wake of the violent Jat agitation for reservation in Haryana, the Centre proposed the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Amendment Bill. Many, however, argued that the amendments effectively dilute part of the SC guidelines.

One of the provisions in the amendment grants the leader of a political party relief if he/she can prove that the violence and damage was done “without his knowledge” and despite his exercising “due diligence” to prevent the offence.

The bill also seeks to water down punishment for abetment of such damage by classifying it as a lesser offence than the actual act of damage — allowing leaders of political parties another escape route from the law.

Losses incurred due to protests, 2016-17

2016: Cauvery water dispute violence, estimated loss of Rs 20,000 crore to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu

2016: Jat quota protests cost Rs 34,000 crore loss to northern states

2017: Dera Saccha Sauda violence cost the Haryana exchequer Rs 126 crore

Source: Assocham, news reports

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