Mamata at Writers’ Buildings on Thursday. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta, May 31: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today said her government would consider framing a law to make it obligatory for those who damage public property during bandhs to pay for it.
“If the state government frames such a legislation, it will prevent damage to government properties, particularly buses and trams during bandhs called by political parties,” Mamata said at Writers’ Buildings on a day the BJP called a Bharat bandh to protest the rise in petrol prices. (See Metro)
In a state where would-be political icons had built careers on tram-burning, such a law will be a radical departure from the past.
However, if Mamata pursues the plan, she will be able to claim that she has managed to create an environment different from that nurtured by the Left.
Mamata can do so with minimum political risk as she had changed course before coming to power and shunned shutdowns for the past few years. The chief minister is also looking for a chance to send a positive signal to industry and repair her government’s image.
“Mamata’s politics has some CPM elements but one cannot deny that she has stopped calling bandhs. Now, if she can bring legislation to recover the cost of damage to public property during protests, it will be true paribartan (change),” said a city-based political observer.
“The legislation will not result in any political cost (to her) as she has already stopped calling bandhs. If she brings this legislation, she will reap dividends as it will send out a positive signal from Bengal,” he added.
The move will also help Mamata mitigate the memory of her MLAs vandalising Assembly property on November 30, 2006, during protests over Tata Motors’s small-car plant in Singur.
Mamata said the idea for the legislation came to her mind following the damage to 22 state-run buses during the BJP-sponsored bandh today. “Those who will damage buses or trams, they will have to pay for that. If they say they were asked to carry out the activities by their political party, the party would be held responsible. I will seek legal opinion in this regard,” she added.
Mamata later accused the CPM of joining hands with the BJP to create disturbance in the state today. “Commuters were waiting for buses on the roads when CPM supporters damaged the buses. This cannot go on forever. Now we will act tough. The law will take its own course,” she said.
A central law to claim damages from bandh vandals goes by the name Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act, 1984. It prescribes a minimum punishment of six months and a maximum of up to five years.
Legal expert Gitanath Ganguli told The Telegraph that a Supreme Court ruling would help Mamata. In February 2011, a three-judge bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, had ruled that those affected by bandhs could move the nearest high court to claim damages.
The Shiv Sena and the BJP had to pay Rs 20 lakh each for enforcing a violent bandh in Mumbai to protest against the 2003 terror explosions after an NGO moved the high court. The court declared that the bandh violated citizens’ fundamental right to work, move freely and earn a livelihood. The Sena and the BJP challenged the fine in the Supreme Court but lost the case and had to pay up.
According to Ganguli, as there are clear guidelines from the apex court, any government can enact a law on the matter.
“With an undisputed majority in the Assembly, Mamata can easily enact a law and change the rules of the protest game in the state,” said a city-based industrialist.
The BJP, which called today’s bandh, criticised Mamata’s plan. “The chief minister, who as an Opposition leader used to call bandhs at the drop of a hat, is today proposing a law to claim damages from bandh sponsors. This is totally unacceptable,” said former state BJP president Tathagata Roy.
State Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya suggested an all-party meeting to discuss the matter.
The CPM refused to attach “any importance” to the chief minister’s proposal. CPM central committee member and MP Shyamal Chakraborty said this evening: “Most of our chief minister’s proposals don’t make sense. This is why we refuse to attach any importance to it.”