The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Calcutta, Jan. 12: Given a free hand, the custodian has a chance to live up to its name and save the Maidan.

The city may lose the Book Fair this year because the government has done little other than lobbying the Centre to get around the army’s efforts to protect the lungs of Calcutta.

As of Friday, Book Fair 2007 will not be held on the Maidan unless the army moves Calcutta High Court to recall a 2006 order and the court obliges.

The high court today dismissed the Publishers and Booksellers Guild’s petition seeking permission to hold this year’s fair on the Maidan, tossing the ball back to the army.

“The issue relating to holding of the Book Fair on the Maidan is a dispute between the custodian of the land and a private body, which wants to use the plot. The court has no jurisdiction to interfere in the matter,” the division bench of Justice B.B. Bhattacharya and Justice K.K. Prasad said.

Soon after the judges read out the verdict in a packed Court No. 17, officials of the guild rushed to Writers’ Buildings for an emergency meeting with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The chief minister had recently said that the Maidan should be the “permanent venue” for the Book Fair. “We will get a clearer picture about it in a day or two,” Bhattacharjee said today, referring to the uncertainty over the venue of the fair following the court order.

An alternative site, off the EM Bypass, had been rejected by the guild, which termed it “too small”. Had the government built a permanent fair site away from the lungs of the city — as is the practice elsewhere — the impasse would not have arisen.

The army had filed an affidavit in 2003 saying that it was against any fairs or events on the Maidan, but later submitted that it would allow the Book Fair, subject to approval from the court. The army’s turnaround came after the Bengal government coaxed the Centre to make an exception.

Today’s verdict — delivered on a “public interest litigation” filed by the guild requesting the court to instruct the army to allow the fair — has struck at the root of the state government’s reasons for lobbying for the fair.

The court made it clear the issue does not involve any “public interest”. “We do not consider the case as a PIL. So the matter is not maintainable,” the judges said, adding that the guild, a profit-making private body, had no authority to file such a petition.

If no public interest is involved, it precludes the need for government intervention.

There is no guarantee that the Bengal government will not pull strings in Delhi again and ensure that the army gives permission.

However, the road ahead of the guild and the government is not as smooth as it used to be. Even if the army gives in, it will have to approach the court for a review of a January 2006 order that allowed the fair “one last time” on the basis of a government undertaking.

If the court lifts the bar and the army gives permission only to the Book Fair, the force will open itself to charges of discrimination and run the risk of being sucked into a quagmire of suits filed by organisers of other events debarred from the Maidan.

The guild can approach the Supreme Court against the division bench order. “We will decide our next course after getting a copy of the order on Monday,” Tridib Chatterjee, the general secretary of the guild, said.

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