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TAKING a serious view of the destruction of public property across the country during agitations, the Supreme Court constituted high-powered committees to suggest measures against violent agitationists and the alleged role of TV channels in precipitating such incidents. The apex court also sought responses from the Centre, states and UTs on the issue of preventing such damage and recovering penalties from the offenders.

A bench comprising Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice P P Naolekar, however, clarified that the directions should not be seen either as infringement on a citizen’s right to protest or the functional freedom enjoyed by the media under Article 19 of the Constitution. The court passed the directions after perusal of the affidavits filed by the states of Delhi, UP, Haryana and Rajasthan on the recent Gurjar violence—arising out of the issue of the community’s inclusion in the Schedule Tribe category—which claimed over 30 lives.

Noting that though the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act (DPPA) was enacted in 1984, the court said “hardly 24 cases have been registered in the country during the past 27 years” which indicated that it was not being enforced strictly by the government. Referring to the complaints of the Delhi and Haryana police chiefs that the violence during the protest escalated due to adverse media coverage, the court said “we do not prima facie agree with the stand.”

However, the court also said there should not be any occasion for a grievance that violence has escalated due to any irresponsible coverage by the media. Hence, the court said it was appointing two committees to examine all the facets of the issue.

The first committee shall examine the modalities to be adopted to make the PDPPA (Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act) more effective and also suggest suitable changes and alterations which can make the statute more meaningful. It would be headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice K T Thomas and include former CBI director K Raghavan, senior advocate K Parasaran and officers of the ministries of home affairs and law and justice, who are not below the rank of additional secretaries.

The second committee to examine measures for recovering damages from offenders indulging in destruction of public and private property would be headed by prominent legal expert Fali S Nariman and include ‘editors-in-chief’ of The Times of India, The Indian Express and NDTV chief Prannoy Roy, besides additional secretary level officers of the I&B ministry and home affairs.

Solicitor-general G E Vahanvati would be the convenor of both the committees while amicus curaie (court officer) and senior counsel Rajeev Dhawan will be a member in the two committees.

According to the court, if any person wants to assist the committees s/he shall approach Mr. Dhawan or Mr. Vahanvati for the purpose. The court which issued notices to the Centre and the states on frequent destruction of public and private property by agitators, asked them to file details of the cases tried so far under the Act.

The bench asked the states to file within three weeks their views and suggestions on the Act to make the statute more “meaningful and effective.” The two committees would submit their reports to the apex court before November 15, 2007, the bench said.

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