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Friday, December 8, 2023

SC stops Shivaji Memorial construction after admitting FCRA-funded NGO’s petition, earlier rejected by HC

A Supreme Court (SC) bench consisting of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice SK Kaul has admitted a special leave petition (SPL) challenging the construction of the Shiv Samark (Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial) in Mumbai, and issued notices to various respondents from the Maharashtra government and the Centre. In oral directions, the SC bench asked the state not to proceed with the construction activity till the matter is heard and to file a counter affidavit in response to the SPL.

The Bombay High Court (HC) had earlier dismissed the same petition and refused to scrap or stay the construction of the proposed statue of Shivaji in the Arabian sea.

In compliance with the SC order, the Maharashtra government PWD instructed the project director of the private company in charge of constructing the memorial to stop construction with immediate effect.

PIL game – HC Dismisses, SC Reopens

The petition was filed by Mumbai-based environmentalist Debi Goenka from Conservation Action Trust (CAT), challenging an earlier Bombay HC order dismissing three PILs against the construction citing high costs to be incurred by a cash-strapped state and environmental concerns. The HC had dismissed those petitions and allowed the construction of the ₹3,600 crore project.

A HC division bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice Girish Kulkarni had said in their November 2 order, “To have a project of this nature is a policy decision taken by the government. The priorities of the public need are matters which lie completely in the domain of the government. We are sure the government has given its appropriate consideration on all the financial issues before taking a policy decision to undertake the project in question.”

The bench further said, “It is clear that the proper financial provision has been made and normal expenditure which would be incurred by the state government on other necessary requirements is not being affected. Also, that the government contemplates a scheme which would be worked out to recoup the cost of the project which may include fees which would be charged from the visitors.”

What is Conservation Action Trust (CAT)?

CAT is an environmental NGO with the following mission statement – “To conserve India’s natural wealth and increase India’s sensitivity towards forests, wildlife and rivers through research, education, public participation and, when necessary, judicial intervention.”

Trustees listed on its website are – Dr. Janki Andharia (a professor of Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai -TISS); Sujit Patwardhan; Debi Goneka; K.J.Joy

But, as ever, things are not always as they seem with PIL-filing NGOs which follow Western liberal interpretation of ideas like social justice, advocacy etc. So we turn to @by2kaafi to understand the funding pattern of CAT:

“Conservation Action Trust is an FCRA-enabled NGO registered in, Ghatkopar, Mumbai with registration # MH/083781121. As per its FCRA returns, it received Rs. 11.1 lakh & Rs 73 lakh from Born Free Foundation-UK in 2016 & 2017 respectively. Rs. 1.15 crore from past foreign funds were lying unspent in its bank on Mar 31, 2018 (these funds came from Sierra Club Foundation, SanFrancisco, USA in 2014-15). Sierra Club Foundation is a big donor to many environmental activist groups in Bharat, but Global Green Grants Funds-USA fuels more anti-development activism in Bharat.”

CAT’s FY 15-16 FCRA return throws up another interesting detail – one of its trustees at the time was a Parsi lawyer Navroz Seervai (Seevrai is currently listed on CAT’s website as one of the pro-bono lawyers who represent the NGO in Bombay High Court). FCRA returns of CAT

In this interview, Seevrai says that he agrees with the majority judgement in the Sabarimala case which ruled that non-entry of women in the 10-50 age group violated the fundamental rights of women protected by Article 14 of the Constitution. The majority judgement also ruled that the Sabarimala tradition was not an ‘essential religious practise’ and neither did the Sri Ayyappa devotees constitute a separate religious denomination, thereby depriving them of freedom to practise religion and manage their own affairs under Article 25 and 26 respectively.

However, before the Sabarimala judgement was delivered, Seevrai had represented Parsis who filed a  petition in HC objecting to the Mumbai Metro passing under their fire temple on the ground that the connection between the sacred fire and the core of the earth was broken by the passing of the Metro.

Whilst arguing the “Zoroastrian Fire Temple-Metro” matter, Navroz Seevrai had emphasised to the Bench that none of the beliefs, tenets, rituals and practices of the Zoroastrian community which were fundamental and essential to the Zoroastrian religion, and in respect of which the petitioners claimed the protection of Article 25, were deleterious or violated Articles 14, 19, 21 of the Constitution. The HC had dismissed the petition and granted permission for Metro tunnel boring under the fire temples. Members of the Zoroastrian community then approached the Supreme Court and were represented by former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, but SC too dismissed their petition.

So a lawyer associated with a foreign-funded NGO that opposes a Hindu heritage project (Shiv Smarak) on environmental grounds, also opposes a key development project (Metro) due to Parsi religious beliefs, but supports a SC judgement which overrides Hindu religious beliefs!

In the complex web & murky world of Indian legal/NGO/PIL activism, such contradictions are not unique. But one thing is constant – it is the Hindus who end up getting the short end of the stick more often than not.

Recommended Reading

PILs by Foreign Funded NGOs: Whose Interest is it Anyway?


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