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Court cracks vehicle-ban whip

Calcutta High Court on Thursday said the state government had “either failed to understand” its order to explain the steps taken to phase out old, polluting vehicles “or was deliberately avoiding it”.

“Very unfortunate,” the division bench of Justice K.J. Sengupta and Justice Asim Kumar Mondal said. “If the (transport) secretary fails to submit his report within the (next) stipulated period, this court will have to take action.”

The government counsel’s submission that a notice would be issued soon to discontinue renewal of permits of commercial vehicles aged 15 years or more from this year failed to divert the topic. “We wanted to know from the (transport) secretary what steps the government has taken since 2009 to phase out old commercial vehicles. Where is the answer to our queries?” the bench said.

The counsel then tried to convince the court that “perhaps” the secretary had not received the order. “There must have been some sort of miscommunication,” he said, at which Justice Sengupta displayed a document to prove the order had been communicated to the state on time.

“You cannot say that (there was miscommunication),” the judge said. “Is your government trying to avoid the court?”

At one point, Justice Sengupta cut the government counsel short to ask: “Where is he (transport secretary B.P. Gopalika)? Here in Calcutta or in north Bengal, riding a Volvo?”

The state’s top bureaucrats are trailing the chief minister, who is on a trip to north Bengal, aboard a Volvo bus.

The bench gave the transport secretary seven days (latest by September 6) to file a report mentioning the number of commercial vehicles 15 years and older that were still plying in the Calcutta metropolitan area and the steps taken by the government so far to shunt them out.

Environment activist Subhas Datta had raised questions about the government’s intentions during the previous hearing on July 9, saying little had been done since 2009 to phase out polluting vehicles.

The division bench had then asked the transport secretary to file a report stating the number of 15-plus commercial vehicles plying in the Calcutta metropolitan area. The bench also wanted to know what steps the government had taken against such vehicles plying in violation of the high court’s order.

The metropolitan area comprises the city and parts of adjoining Howrah and the two 24-Parganas.

On behalf of Gopalika, a sealed report was placed before the division bench on Thursday. Justice Sengupta read out the report, in which the transport secretary apparently mentioned the government’s decision not to renew the permits of commercial vehicles more than 15 years old.

Green activist Datta said: “See how many old vehicles are still plying in the city and causing health hazards. Actually, the government did nothing after 2009. In August 2009, some of the old vehicles were phased out. But it should be a continuous process. What action has the government taken against the commercial vehicles that crossed the 15-year limit in 2010, 2011 or 2012?”

Datta said more than 35,000 vehicles were flouting the ban. He also highlighted the continued presence of illegal autorickshaws in the city.

“The transport minister (Madan Mitra) recently admitted that over 25,000 unauthorised autos are plying in the city. In its order dated July 17, 2008, the high court had asked the government to identify the unauthorised autos and throw them out of the metropolitan area. But till date, the government has not taken any step. All the while, it has been saying that commuters will be harassed if they take action against autos,” Datta said.

In its 2008 order, the high court had asked the state to phase out all two-stroke autos and replace those with four-stroke ones that run on LPG.

Justice Sengupta said: “Autos are also commercial vehicles. They also come under the purview of the court order. Autos more then 15 years old must also be phased out.”

The bench signed off with a signal to activist Datta. “Raise it (the topic) again next week,” it said.