The fate of a five-storey, 40-room hotel, built illegally “by throwing into the air the statutory provisions of law” in connivance with officials of multiple government agencies, on forest land meant for a bus stand complex to ease traffic congestion in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, came full circle after 14 years at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
A three-judge bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud ordered immediate demolition of the illegal hotel, holding that the “circumstances highlight not only conduct oblivious of the environmental consequences of their actions but an active disdain for them in favour of commercial benefits”.
The case, in fact, goes back two decades when, between 1997 and 2001, the Centre allowed 0.573 hectare of forest land on the Dharamshala road to be diverted for construction of a parking lot and a bus stand complex in Mcleodganj, a popular tourist destination in Kangra district.
Instead, the Himachal Pradesh Bus Stand Management and Development Authority (HPBSM&DA) decided to construct a ground plus four-storey pulling down Mcleodganj hotel that broke all laws shopping and hotel complex on BOT (Build Operate Transfer) basis with a private construction company in 2003. The state also stood guarantee for a bank loan of Rs 8 crore availed by the private developer.
Then, in brazen violation of law, the state government sanctioned mutation of the forest land in favour of Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) in 2006. Construction was at an advanced stage, when in 2007, following a legal challenge, the state sought post facto clearance from the Union Environment Ministry for changing the land use. The application was rejected the same year. But the construction continued.
In 2008, an inquiry report by the SC-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) concluded that “there has been absolute anarchy in the matter of construction” as HPBSM&DA under the chairmanship of GS Bali, then Transport, Tourism and Civil Aviation minister of Himachal Pradesh, openly favoured the private contractor by giving tacit approval for the construction of four additional floors in the bus stand complex besides allowing construction of an additional 1,600 sq mt of commercial area at the ground floor.
Besides the transport department, other state government agencies played their part in this “absolute anarchy”:
Revenue: Sanctioned mutation of forest land without an NOC from the forest department.
Forest: Did not issue any notices to the violators or filed any complaints in the court of law as per the statutory provision.
Town and Country Planning: Issued three stop-work notices during 2007-2008 but never filed any complaint against unauthorised construction in the court of law as per the statutory provision.
Electricity: Did not disconnect power supply misused by the private builder for commercial activities for seven years.
Dharamshala municipal committee: No action against construction without an approved site plan.
To find “a way out of this terrible muddle created by the deep vested interests and at the same time ensuring that those who have connived in the serious lapse are not allowed to go scot-free”, the CEC report recommended that the structure be “pulled down” within three months to create a parking lot as originally approved. It also proposed an inquiry to “send a clear signal to the building mafia”.
As HPBSM&DA and the builder insisted that they were not heard properly, the case hung fire till 2015 when the SC referred it to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which upheld the CEC report. Terming the construction “illegal, unauthorised and contrary to law” besides “being an eyesore in the lap of nature” in a 2016 judgment, the tribunal ordered the demolition of the hotel and an inquiry by the Chief Secretary, besides imposing penalties on the builder and the state departments concerned.
Immediately, both HPBSM&DA and the builder challenged the NGT order before the SC which stayed the demolition, and asked the District and Sessions Judge, Kangra, to hold an inquiry.
In his report submitted in 2018, the District and Sessions Judge concluded that “the officials/officers of all the departments were hands in gloves” with the private company to allow the illegal construction work during 2005-2009. “Concerned disciplinary authority/authorities of the state government be directed to take deterrent action against the defaulting officers/officials,” the report recommended.
Finally, the SC on Tuesday upheld the NGT judgment for immediate demolition and fixing accountability. “That officials of statutory bodies of the State Government have connived at the violation of law is a reflection on the nature of governance by those who are expected to act within the bounds of law,” the three-judge bench said in the order.