I am perturbed by the acts of vandalism and the resulting damage caused to public property. Destruction of public property has become a popular medium for airing grievances. Incidents of train burning in the past year have left me wondering how long such acts of vandalism will be tolerated and when the perpetrators will be punished. Burning of trains is now a standard procedure during bandhs, hartals, agitations or political demonstrations. So much is the absence of fear that protesters set trains on fire over every other issue. The losses each year run into hundreds of crores and yet the government remains a silent spectator.
But why do people resort to burning of trains? People think that if a major means of transport like a train is burned, the disruption caused and the subsequent pandemonium will attract the attention of the media and the government, and thereby their grievances will get redressed. It is also used by the protesters as a pressure tactic. Destruction of public property is now taken to denote the impact and success of any agitation or political demonstration. Lack of respect for public property is another reason for such acts of arson
These acts of arson attract the provisions of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, a law enacted to curtail the growing menace. But the Act is seldom enforced. Under Section 4, punishment for causing damage to public property by fire can be imprisonment up to a maximum of 10 years. Owing to non-enforcement, the statute has failed to achieve its objective.
Despite the rise in the number of bandhs, hartals and agitations, and the incidence of damage to public property, there have been negligible convictions in court. Authorities have been unable to punish vandals owing to a poor understanding of their duty and the lack of efficient staff to pursue the investigative and administrative work associated with such incidents. The State governments seldom resort to the 1984 Act to punish the guilty and recover the cost from them.
The State governments have regularly resorted to less stringent provisions of the Indian Penal Code, instead of the specific law, to bring the offenders to book.
Perturbed at the offending individuals or political outfits going scot-free, the Supreme Court has stressed that damages should be recovered from the party concerned or whosoever indulges in such acts. The 1984 Act also needs to be amended suitably to recover the damages from the perpetrators. The Act provides only for criminal liability.
Why not civil liability?
However, the government can consider imposing a civil liability, as in that case there will be a lower standard of proof required (in criminal cases, a standard of proof is ‘beyond reasonable doubt,' whereas in civil cases it is on ‘balance of probabilities'). Further, common sense demands that one who wilfully causes damage to public property should be made liable to compensate for the damage.
If individuals are difficult to trace, then the political party, group or organisation should be made vicariously liable to pay. Such an action would certainly send out a strong message.