Right to protest has been coming under attack under one or other pretext. Earlier public order was the way in which our right to protest was curtailed by imposing IPC Section 144 on large parts of the Delhi city to prevent gathering of more than five persons. People were also confined to a small physical area, limiting the means and impact of resistance. Now, public health concerns are being invoked to throttle people’s right to protest. The recent National Green Tribunal (NGT) Order against the Application No. 63 of 2016, filed by the residents of Jantar Mantar area invoking the jurisdiction of the Tribunal under sections 14, 15 & 18 of the NGT Act, 2010, uses noise pollution and unsanitary conditions in the Jantar Mantar protest site to remove protesters from the site and disallow protests in future in the area.

Jantar Mantar is being used as a site to raise issues of rights and justice, not only for residents of Delhi but in fact, being the capital of the country, people from different parts of the country travel to reach here and put forth their demands. It is not that the Central Government or the Parliament immediately pay attention to issues being raised. Hence, people often sacrifice their daily routine and livelihood to remain at the site of protest until they are heard.

Though, earlier people could protest at Boat Club, India Gate and near several other government offices and even the Parliament, but since 1995 our right to protest has more or less been confined to half a kilometer stretch of Jantar Mantar. If there’s crowding and it contributes to pollution, we contend, it is a result of this restriction as well as delay in heeding the appeals of protestors.

The recent NGT order divests the protestors of the only space available to hold protests. By depriving them of the site of protest it strips them from their visibility and prevents them from being seen and heard. Hence the order facilitates perpetuating the binary between those protesting at the sites and the concerned authorities, as the said road houses not only residents of members of parliament but also state guest house of Kerala, office of Delhi metro corporation and offices of political parties.

PUDR is mindful of the harmful impact of prolonged noise pollution, but as the NGT order itself mentions entire Delhi suffers from prolonged and high noise pollution. As for ambient air quality the whole city suffers from poor air quality. Noise as well as air pollution affect the working class bastis and slums most. But the Application and subsequent Order projects as if the noise created at Jantar Mantar is most in Delhi.The application by the residents also create a false image when they say that ‘large number of protestors’ reside in the area ‘round the clock’. Why hasn’t NGT taken any steps to be mindful of the right to live a pollution free and hygienic life of millions of other residents of Delhi? True the matter before the NGT was a Complaint by residents of Jantar Mantar. However, the Order itself reveals that except for 60 residents of this area the entre stretch is commercial or institutional, even if the Delhi Master Plan 2021 has declared it to be Residential for some obscure reason.

What is disconcerting is also that NGT blames protestors for creating unsanitary conditions whereas PUDR believes that NDMC and Police should be held responsible for failing to provide adequate facilities. Indeed if the fault lay with Police why the protestors should be penalised and virtually shifted to sites away from Central Government offices and public defeating the very idea of protest to draw attention to issues and concerns. PUDR is also not unaware of the right of the residents to decline to listen. However, upholding the right of one group to ‘decline to listen’ cannot be at the expense of others right voice their grievance, individually or collectively. Instead of balancing the right to protest with resident’s right to decline to listen the Order tilts in favour of curbing our right to protest.

Finally, the Order of NGT projects the protestors as some nuisance creators who have no other purpose in life but to capture the Jantar Mantar area and create disturbance to other civilians. NGT is inconsiderate to the fact that these protestors are also citizens of the country who want their issues to be heard and addressed by the State. NGT is forgetting the treatment meted out to the protesters in our country very often – lathi charge, water cannoned, pelted by rubber bullets, pellet guns, and even frequent arrests.

It is worth recalling that there was a time when Delhites could hold their protest at Boat Club, India Gate and even close to Parliament House. If public order and public health issues are now invoked to remove protestors to spots isolated from public or areas far removed from central government offices then it becomes possible to scuttle protests and curb our rights for all practical purpose.

PUDR wants Boat Club and India Gate to be restored as sites of protest and also allow Jantar Mantar be continued to be used by smaller groups of protestors. This will ease the pressure on Jantar Mantar and as result bring down pollution. Delhi Police and NDMC must be held responsible for providing inadequate facilities.

Anushka Singh, Cijo Joy
Secretaries, PUDR
11th October 2017