Religious structures taking over public spaces, is an issue that has been to court and back several times, writes Pushkal Shivam

A walk on Chennai’s roads can reveal the different ways in which religious faiths manifest themselves. Places of worship often take over footpaths, and bring with them a surrounding mini-economy.

Invariably, the price is paid by the pedestrian.

“The roads here are already narrow. When temples take over pavements, pedestrians are left with no choice but to walk on the road. But since it is a very sensitive issue, people don’t pursue it,” said a resident of Saidapet, an area that has a large number of religious structures encroaching on pavements.

Religious structures taking over public spaces, is an issue that has been to court and back several times.

This year, on July 5, a bench of Justices R.M. Lodha and S.J. Mukhopadhaya passed an order directing all states and union territories to frame “appropriate policy/rules for removal and/or relocation of unauthorized religious structures on public land” within four weeks, if they haven’t already.

Earlier this year, the same bench had directed all States to not grant permission for the installation of statues or construction of any structure on roads, pavements, sideways and other places of public utility.

Interestingly, only Bihar figures in this order as a state that has already framed rules in this regard: “Bihar unauthorized religious structures, construction, survey and its regularization, relocation and removal rules, 2013”.

According to an affidavit filed at the Supreme Court by the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu in 2010 in connection with the case, the State does have a policy for the removal of unauthorised religious structures on public lands. As per this affidavit, Tamil Nadu has 77,453 unauthorized religious structures on public lands.

“The Supreme Court is attempting to breathe life into the letter of the law by asking governments to take action against encroachments by religious structures. It remains to be seen how this order is implemented,” said N. L. Rajah, an advocate at the Madras High Court.

However, “for an overarching paradigm shift to take place we need willingness, on the part of the government, to act on the SC order,” he said.   

There is no dearth of examples in Chennai. RTI activist R. Natarajan offers one: “A shrine on poramboke land near the Saidapet bus stop on Anna Salai is a concrete example of how vested interests protect these structures. Pedestrians suffer as they are forced to walk on the road.”

People who manage the affairs of the shrine, derive significant monetary benefits and wield political clout, he added.

“It is estimated that there are nearly 300 religious structures in Chennai that encroach on pavements. They cause troubles to pedestrians as well as motorists. People bribe the local police to organise religious festivals and other activities around such structures that obstruct traffic,” says K. R. ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy, a social activist.

How is it that the police permit festivals and other activities around these structures? A senior police officer said that when permission was granted for local festivals around such structures, law and order was the consideration, not whether the religious structure were legal or not.

“For small-scale festivals or processions, permission is sought from the local police. If the case is sensitive, it comes to senior police officers,” he said.

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