Where to fast?
Most of us in Mumbai had hoped for a quiet New Year after an eventful news year. But along came Anna.
In the initial days, the confusion was whether the fast would be in Mumbai or Delhi. Finally, team Anna zeroed in on Mumbai. Now came the confusion over the venue in Mumbai. Azad Maidan, the usual spot was too small for the large crowds. The ground is the designated spot for protests in Mumbai and every group is always granted permission here. Only part of this large ground has been designated by the high court in an earlier order for protests. The court order issued then had also said no overnight occupation of the ground would be allowed. The protests in Mumbai even by team Anna in April and August wound up by 6 pm. The same court order had said the adjoining sports grounds would be kept only for sports but on a few occasions every year when the crowd becomes unmanageable, the spill over would be permitted for a few hours, but even that could not be more than 1000 persons (which was how a recent political rally took place there, barricades were not removed even then). Clearly this was not a viable option for Team Anna.
An application therefore was made to MMRDA that controls exhibition grounds at Bandra Kurla complex. But team Anna was appalled at the high rates. They were asked to pay Rs. 10.8 per square meter per day for the allotted 30000 square meters. With Azad Maidan rendered unviable, IAC decided to move court against what they called exorbitant prices and an obstruction of their democratic right to protest. The writ petition asked for a total waiver of fees saying they were indulging in social activity and not in a commercial activity. The following is how the arguments and the court's observations played out in court.
At the packed hearing Justice Majmudar started first by questioning the activity to be held at the venue. The court questioned why was a parallel agitation being held while the parliament was discussing the bill. At this point IAC argued that it was not an agitation but a gathering of people to inform the parliament of public opinion. To this the judge said that a constitutional body, namely the parliament, was discussing the matter and that elected representatives should be allowed to function. The court even questioned if they were only agitating because the bill was not to their liking.
IAC argued in court that there were people ready to pay the amount and help IAC but IAC did not wish to come across as being sponsored by anyone. IAC argued the government was trying to stop them by making the fast financially impossible for them. They argued they be given the MMRDA grounds at a concessional rate or be given permission to use the other gates of Azad maidan or to be given any other venue for the fast.
The court while considering Azad Maidan mentioned the sensitivity of Mumbai citizens to pollution and law and order issues caused by demonstrations and said there could be people who may not want IAC's form of Satyagraha. The judge also said it was incorrect to say the government was scuttling their attempts to protest, as Azad Maidan was being given for free. The judge questioned why they were insisting on one location when public opinion could be created from anywhere, since they had also booked Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. The court also questioned under what law could the government be directed to give an alternate venue. At one point the court even questioned that if they claim to be such a national level organisation 11 lakhs should not be much to them.
The MMRDA on its part said it had specific categories for various types of organisations. Unless the activity is unlawful, they give out the grounds to anyone for money. The Jagrut Nagrik manch under which IAC had applied for the ground was not a registered organisation and hence it could not be given the rates applicable to NGOs. MMRDA charges 10.8 per square meter per day for commercial activities and Rs. 6.4 per square meter per day for non-commercial activities. MMRDA also said that they could not give them NGO rates just because they claimed to carry out social work, the registration was necessary or else anyone could claim social work and get reduced rates in the future. The government counsel also gave a letter from the deputy director of sports denying any opening up of the area near Azad Maidan saying there was already a school tournament planned at the same time and also it could harm the cricket pitches.
Finally the court decided to dismiss the petition. The MMRDA said it could grant them lower rates if they reapplied under a registered organisation. One wonders why IAC or its office bearers chose to use a yet to be registered organisation, when all its core committee members have registered NGOs that have been working for many years now. There sure are people who have been commenting on the internet that the court has been unfair. But perhaps Anna said it right when he finally admitted going to court over this was a mistake. A preliminary research on basic rules for application to MMRDA and Azad Maidan could have revealed that it was not feasible. It would have saved everyone including the organisers precious time.
Team Anna has now reapplied under Arvind Kejriwal's NGO, if this new application is approved the rates would be Rs. 6.4 per square meter per day, saving them about 4 lakhs in total. The larger issue here is the Jan Lokpal, so maybe the court was right in observing that public opinion can be created from anywhere, especially in this digital era.