The Madras High Court on Thursday stayed the construction of a multi-storey building to house an integrated Collectorate complex for Kallakurichi district, carved out in 2019 by bifurcating Villupuram district. The complex was to be built on around five acres of land, out of a larger tract of 14.09 hectares, belonging to the Nagareswarar or Ardhanareswarar temple in Veeracholapuram.
Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu passed the interim stay order on a contempt of court petition filed by activist Rangarajan Narasimhan, who said the court had in April permitted the State to commence only preliminary work but the government has begun construction itself, without obtaining statutory clearances.
In the contempt plea moved in June, the petitioner said the government had neither obtained environmental clearance nor approval from the Directorate of Town and Country Planning (DTCP).
He said construction was under way in full swing at the site, in violation of the lockdown restrictions imposed by the government.
Filing his reply by way of an affidavit on Thursday, Public Works Department Secretary Sandeep Saxena told the court that the application for plan approval was submitted on April 29, but there had been a delay in obtaining approval due to the pandemic. The approval application was scrutinised only after June 13 and the DTCP issued the technical clearance on August 9.
An application for environmental clearance too was submitted on May 21, and the processing fee of ₹5 lakh was also paid to the Member Secretary of the State-level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority on June 3, but it took time to obtain clearance because the relevant committees could not meet due to COVID-19, and the clearance was finally given on August 17, the court was told.
Replying to the allegation of construction having been undertaken in violation of lockdown norms, Mr. Saxena said ongoing works, with workers staying on the construction premises, was permitted between May 10 and June 7. “The labourers engaged in the Kallakurichi Collectorate site are migrant workers from the northern States, and they are accommodated in labour sheds,” he added.
He also informed the court of a valuer, appointed by it, having visited the property on July 2 and submitted a report regarding the market value. Asserting that the construction work had stopped since June, the Secretary said the delay was causing additional financial commitment to the government, which had to shell out ₹4.61 lakh a month for the temporary Collectorate and other departments now functioning in rented buildings.
After taking the affidavit on file, the Bench wrote, “However, since there is an order which requires the construction not to be proceeded with, till permission to be accorded by this court, further construction of the project will remain stayed. It is essential that the issue, as to whether the relevant land may be used for the project, is decided first.”
The judges also directed the High Court Registry to list on August 26 the contempt petition as well as the main writ petition, in which the litigant had questioned the government’s decision to take 14.09 hectares of temple land on lease for constructing an integrated Collectorate complex, a district court complex and an office for the SP.
Since the petitioner had objected to taking the valuable temple land for a monthly rent of ₹1.3 lakh, by depositing three years of rent amounting to ₹46.80 lakh, in advance, the court had, this April, appointed a valuer to ascertain its market value. The judges then had also recorded the government’s submission that it would renovate the dilapidated temple at a cost of ₹2.7 crore.