Calcutta, Jan. 29: The custodians and just about everybody else had surrendered but the law did not.
Under assault from every government arm that was meant to protect it, the Maidan today found a new defender in Calcutta High Court.
A division bench barred the Book Fair from the green sprawl, upholding the rule of law in the face of the state government’s intrigues and handing a group of concerned citizens victory in their fight to save the city’s lungs.
Two days before Book Fair 2007 was to start, acting Chief Justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya and Justice K.K. Prasad ruled that holding it on the Maidan would violate the country’s environment laws.
Fair organiser Publishers and Booksellers Guild is now banished from the ground. But before it leaves, the guild — stopped midway in its preparations by the court on January 25 — must restore the Maidan to its original condition and hand it over to the army within seven days.
Guild members, left stunned by the court order, can move the Supreme Court, whose registry is closed tomorrow for Muharram.
There’s a chance, however, that with the fair scheduled to start on Wednesday, the apex court may consider it an emergency and fix a hearing at a judge’s residence. But huddled at their Amherst Street office this evening, guild members didn’t sound too optimistic.
“It’s evident the Book Fair will not start the day after tomorrow. We’ll try our best to hold this year’s Book Fair, but we cannot comment on the date and the venue at this moment,” said guild general secretary Tridib Chatterjee.
Book lovers, however, may not have been denied had the state government made use of the past one year to start building an alternative venue.
But the state chose to go back on its promise to the court last year that the 2006 fair would be the “last one” on the Maidan. Instead, it banked on bluster and string-pulling in Delhi to make the army, the greens’ custodian, swallow its objections.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a staunch advocate of the Book Fair-on-the-Maidan line, was down with viral fever today and unavailable for comment.
With Bhattacharjee having thrown his weight behind the guild — a profit-making body — the police, civic body, fire services, pollution control board and public works department had fallen over each other to fast-track permission for the 12-day event.
“The state government agencies had given reckless permissions in hot haste… flouting general norms (and) environmental rules,” the court said. It added that the army decision, prompted by a defence ministry nod, too, went against the law.
As the judges heard Sabyasachi Roy Choudhury’s PIL, they came down heavily on the PCB. “(It knew) fully well that hundreds of people might suffer from various ailments due to rise in RPM (respirable particulate matter) levels in the air,” the court said.
The rise in RPM — the fine dust that is inhaled and damages the lungs — during Maidan Book Fairs has been an issue since 2001. A PCB study that year found a dangerously high count, 1,136 micrograms per cubic metre, at the fair venue. Anything above 100 is a threat to public health.
“The PCB had directed the guild to sprinkle water on the ground to bring down the RPM level. Next year, the RPM level came down to 372,” mayor and PCB counsel Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya pleaded.
But he had to admit that the board did not monitor air pollution on the Maidan during later Book Fairs.