"Put down kattapanchayats with iron hand"

The illegal institution will create law and order problems, says High Court

Special Correspondent

CHENNAI: The Madras High Court on Tuesday directed the Chief Secretary to put down the "illegal institution" of kattapanchayats in fishermen hamlets throughout the State. It said that unless the phenomenon was dealt with an iron hand, it would lead to major law and order problems.

Expressing concern over allegations of excommunication of six families, denial of drinking water and electricity to them by kattapanchayatdars of the Nalla Thanneer Odai Kuppam and police inaction, the First Bench, comprising Chief Justice Markandey Katju and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla, said: "If the allegations are correct, then it is an extremely serious matter. If the trend is not curbed immediately, it will lead to a very adverse law and order situation in the State."

The matter relates to an order by the panchayatdars, excommunicating the families of five fishermen and an advocate as they refused to hand over their tsunami relief received from service organisations. While the fishermen's families were imposed a fine of Rs. 1.5 lakhs, the advocate was asked to pay Rs. 50,000. Residents of the hamlet were warned against talking to the families and shops were ordered not to sell any essential commodities to them. The Tiruvottiyur police was initially "indifferent" but later received the complaint against the panchayatdars after advocate K. Gopal, a member of the affected families, filed a public interest litigation petition in the Madras High Court.

In their order, the Judges asked the jurisdictional magistrate to take steps to get the case registered and ensure that it was properly investigated. The magistrate must monitor the progress of the investigation as it was well within his legal limits to do so. The magistrate was also asked to give appropriate directions for the return of Rs. 40,000, which the panchayatdars had "extorted" from the advocate's family as fine.

"Nip them in the bud"

The Judges said: "The petition illustrates a new phenomenon which has arisen in the State, which is now gaining momentum, and which must be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, the kattapanchayats, which are illegal institutions, will mushroom creating a law and order problem."

Private organisations such as the kattapanchayats cannot exercise the sovereign functions, which the state and its authorities alone can exercise under the statute, the Bench said. It expressed disapproval over the excommunication of families, imposition of fines and criminal intimidation by the panchayatdars. "The Chief Secretary must see to it that the goondaism by the kattapanchayats is stopped throughout the State," it added.

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