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Current Affairs

Law to protect against destruction of public property during protests

Date: 17 December 2019 Tags: Judiciary & Judgments

Issue

A Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde has expressed displeasure over rioting and destruction of public property during protets.

 

Background

Despite a law against the destruction of property, incidents of rioting, vandalism, and arson have been common during protests across the country.

 

Details

  • The Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 punishes anyone who commits mischief by doing any act in respect of any public property, with a jail term of up to five years and a fine or both. Provisions of this law can be coupled with those under the Indian Penal Code.

  • Public property under this Act includes “any building, installation or other property used in connection with the production, distribution or supply of water, light, power or energy; any oil installation; any sewage works; any mine or factory; any means of public transportation or of telecommunications, or any building, installation or other property used in connection therewith”. But they are found to be inadequate.

  • In 2007, the court took suo motu cognizance of various instances where there was large scale destruction of public and private properties in the name of agitations, bandhs, hartals and the like, and set up two Committees headed by former apex court judge Justice K T Thomas and senior advocate Fali Nariman to suggest changes to the law.

  • The Thomas Committee recommended reversing the burden of proof against protesters. Accepting the suggestion, the court said that the prosecution should be required to prove that public property had been damaged in direct action called by an organisation, and that the accused also participated in such direct action.

  • It added that the law must be amended to give the court the power to draw a presumption that the accused is guilty of destroying public property, and it would then be open to the accused to rebut such presumption.

  • Such a reversal of the burden of proof is applicable in cases of sexual violence, among others. Generally, the law presumes that the accused is innocent until the prosecution proves its case.

  • The Nariman Committee’s recommendations dealt with extracting damages for destruction. Accepting the recommendations, the court said the rioters would be made strictly liable for the damage, and compensation would be collected to “make good” the damage.

  • Apart from holding rioters liable and imposing costs, the court also issued guidelines including directing High Courts to order suo motu action, and to set up a machinery to investigate the damage caused and award compensation wherever mass destruction to property takes place due to protests.

  • Like the law, the guidelines too, have had a limited impact. This is because the identification of protesters remains difficult, especially in cases where there is no leader who gave the call to protest.