As Supreme Court’s vacation bench rejects pleas against excavation around Puri temple, pending petitions before Orissa High Court come under a cloud

The Vacation Bench appears to have preempted the Orissa High Court from substantial adjudication of the petitions, pending before it, on merits. 

EARLIER today, the Supreme Court deprecated the practice of filing ‘frivolous’ petitions under the garb of public interest litigation (‘PIL) that “are nothing but abuse of process of law”. It opined that such frivolous petitions encroach upon valuable judicial time that could have otherwise been utilized for considering genuine issues.

A bench comprising Justices B.R. Gavai and Hima Kohli made these observations while dismissing an appeal against an interim order of the Orissa High Court refusing to halt construction activities around the Puri Jagannath Temple.

“It is high time that such so­-called public interest litigations are nipped in the bud so that the developmental activities in the larger public interest are not stalled”, the bench remarked, even as it imposed costs of one lakh rupees on each petitioner, to be paid to the state government within four weeks.

Ardhendu Kumar Das and Sumanta Kumar Ghadei, who moved to the Supreme Court, were not the original petitioners before the Orissa High Court. They approached the Supreme Court with permission to file Special Leave Petitions against the high court’s interim order. Das claimed to be an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath, and Ghadei claimed himself to be a social activist.

Finding no merit in the appeal, the Supreme Court referred to its earlier order in Mrinalini Padhi versus Union of India & Ors. (2019), in which it had found that the redevelopment plan around the temple is mainly to decongest the area for the benefit of pilgrims and to make the city of Puri a world heritage city.

“It could thus be seen that the three¬Judge Bench of this Court has emphasized the necessity to have separate toilets for males and females. This Court further directed that the toilets be provided with modern amenities and should be kept absolutely clean. This Court also directed that the number of toilets shall be adequate having regard to the average footfall in the Temple. This Court further emphasized the necessity to have cloakrooms and directed the Temple administration to take steps in that regard”, the bench ruled.

Referring to the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, the court observed that the legislature was aware that repairs and reconstruction of existing structures or buildings, or construction of essential facilities like public latrines, urinals, water supply and electricity distribution for pilgrims and residents are basic necessities, and as such, should be permitted even in the prohibited area of the temple complex.

If it is not so interpreted, then Section 20C of the Act would be rendered otiose. It need not be emphasized that an interpretation which leads a particular provision to be redundant or meaningless has to be avoided, the bench ruled.

The bench said if the petitioners had any genuine concern, the same was already taken care of by the high court as it recorded the statement of the Advocate General for Odisha that both the Archaeological Survey of India (‘ASI’) and the state government would work together to ensure that no archaeological remains are missed out or damaged.

“In spite of that, the matter was mentioned for obtaining urgent orders before the Vacation Bench on Monday, i.e., 30th May, 2022. Since the matter was not listed on Tuesday, i.e., 31st May, 2022, it was again mentioned on the said date. Again, a hue and cry was made as if heavens are going to fall if the petitions were not listed. As such, the petitions were listed on Thursday, i.e., 2nd June, 2022. We have heard the learned counsel for the parties at length”, the bench said, while noting that public interest litigation filed before the high court, rather than being in public interest, is detrimental to the public interest at large.

Considering that the petitions before the Supreme Court were against the interim order of the Orissa High Court, the bench’s observations against the PILs pending before the high court appear to be unusual. The Supreme Court’s judgment describing the petitions pending before the high court as frivolous and detrimental to the public interest at large, may have the effect of preempting the outcome of the petitions before the high court, which is yet to hear them on merits.

Therefore, today’s judgment in the Puri Heritage Corridor case is likely to generate a debate on whether the Supreme Court was correct in concluding that its 2019 judgment in Mrinalini Padhi would apply to the facts of this case. The Supreme Court’s dismissal of the petitions is of concern, especially because the ASI’s affidavit filed on May 9 before the high court had claimed that there was a possibility that the archaeological remains at the heritage site could be destroyed due to the excavation work. The state government is yet to file its detailed response to ASI’s affidavit, and the next date of hearing before the high court is June 22.

The vacation bench’s dismissal of the case, on the face of it, appears clearly premature.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s full judgment.