A 2019 government order (GO) that had allowed the lease of government land, including water bodies, to a private cement company, recently drew the ire of Madras High Court (N Sathyanarayanan, Sub-Collector, Ariyalur District v. Kalaiselvi and ors.).
In declining to grant relief to two IAS officers facing contempt of court proceedings after this GO was issued, the High Court had this to say on the GO itself:
“…this Court is constrained to record its anguish, in that, by passing (the 2019 GO) … and handing over prime waterbodies to a private entrepreneur for exploitation, whom does the Government want to spite: the Single Judge or the Division Bench or the Supreme Court or its own conscience? It is tantamount to saying, we are the Zamindars of India and we can lease out the Himalayas and the Western Ghats!“
A Bench of Justices PN Prakash and V Sivagnanam, however, clarified that the single judge hearing the contempt case against the two IAS officers may proceed with the matter without being influenced by this observation.
The matter dates back to 2009, when the Chettinad Cement Corporation Ltd. sought to occupy certain government land and also sought permission for the same. However, the company was later found illegally occupying the poramboke land, prompting the Sub Collector, Ariyalur to pass an order in 2015, directing Chettinad Cement to vacate the Government poramboke land.
A challenge to this 2015 order was dismissed both by the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court. The concerned State authorities were directed to clear the government land of all encroachments. In 2019, a group of residents from Ariyalur District filed a contempt case alleging that the District Administration had not acted to remove the encroachments, thereby violating the Court’s orders. The State filed a counter stating that they are initiating action to evict the encroachments.
While this case was pending, the State passed a GO in 2019 to lease government land to Chettinad Cement for a 30-year period from 2009. In view of this development, the single judge hearing the contempt case eventually framed charges against IAS officers Atulya Misra and Gagandeep Singh Bedi.
The move was challenged by the two IAS officers before the Division Bench, which ruled last week that the appeals were not maintainable at present.
“… mere framing of charges will not be a ground for challenge under Section 19 of the Act, in as much as the learned Single Judge may even accept the explanation and exonerate the alleged contemnor. Therefore, we hold that the present Contempt Appeals are not maintainable”, the Court said.
The appeals were, therefore, dismissed.