Bhubaneswar: The recent decision of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) to impose fees for protests at designated dharna places has run into controversy with various organisations deciding to lodge protests against the move in the coming days.
With the winter session of the Assembly going on in full swing in the state, the designated dharna places are already crowded with protesters and some of them expressed helplessness over the BMC decision, wondering how to fork out money when they themselves are starved of funds.
“We are protesting at dharna locations as we are not getting sufficient salary for survival. In fact, most of us are working under gram panchayats with a monthly salary of `100. So, if people like us are charged for raising our voices of protest, where would we go to register our demands,” asked Subrat Kumar Raula, a Class IV gram panchayat employee protesting at a dharna location. Many leading activists view the BMC decision as undemocratic and arbitrary.
“This is a very unfortunate and draconian decision, affecting the democratic rights of citizens. If the government wants to generate revenue, it should seek public opinion before taking such a step,” said Pradip Pradhan, leading RTI activist.
“As per Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), anybody can peacefully protest and any kind of move to hamper or disrupt the protester is a human rights violation. The decision of BMC is a serious human rights violation. In fact, we are going to celebrate 70 years of UDHR and this decision is just a mockery of UDHR,” said Manoj Jena, core member of National Human Rights Commission. In fact, the High Court this year had also criticized the administration’s efforts to curb citizens’ right to protest.
For instance, March 20, 2017 the High Court in a writ petition (W.P(C) No. 4370, 2017) filed by All Orissa Home Guards’ Association (AOHGA), clarified that police must respect the citizens’ right to a peaceful protest.
Significantly, AOHGA filed an application before DCP, Bhubaneswar March 15, for a dharna at Lower PMG March 17. But, the DCP office didn’t respond, prompting the association to approach the court.
The court, through its order (W.P. (C) No. 4370, March 20, 2017), made it clear that if no action is taken by the authorities concerned within three days or 72 hours, whichever is later from the date or time of receipt of the application, it will be deemed that the permission has been granted.
Therefore, legal experts are of the view that the civic body would be paid back in their own coin. “In a democratic country, citizens have the right to protest and it’s the administration’s duty to protect it. So, the decision to impose fees on protesters violates citizens’ rights,” said High Court advocate Gyanendra Kumar Tripathy.
With the Secretariat on one side and railway station (Master Canteen) on the other, processions and sit-ins at the venue do inconvenience pedestrians and train passengers. But the police conceded that since the city doesn’t have another major dharna location, the BMC decision would complicate matters as an assembly at any other place would severely disrupt traffic movement in the Capital.
Interestingly, top BMC officials who had earlier tried to justify the decision on grounds of using the fees for sanitation purpose are now staying away from the controversial issue.
Even city planners opined that the corporation should have taken alternative decisions.
“Rather than imposing fines for protests, BMC should have taken efforts to stop littering and vending at this location. Similarly, steps should be taken for ensuring traffic movement in one lane. Currently, protests are being allowed on the whole road,” said Piyush Rout, an urban planner.
Significantly, according to the BMC’s Finance Department statement, (http://bmc.gov.in/Finance.aspx) the annual income of the corporation excluding the grant from State and Centre is about 200 crore. Therefore, the moot question is why the corporation is not approaching the state government if it is starved of funds needed to ensure cleanliness of the dharna locations. It was learnt that the BMC may do a rethink on its decision, given the voices of opposition being raised from various quarters.
Jose K Joseph, OP