From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Freedom of Speech
Mains level : Growing vandalism in the wake of right to protest
Despite a law against the destruction of property, incidents of rioting, vandalism, and arson have been common during protests across the country.
Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984
Defining Public Property
Public property under this Act includes “any building, installation or other property used in connection with the production, distribution or supply of water, light, power or energy; any oil installation; any sewage works; any mine or factory; any means of public transportation or of telecommunications, or any building, installation or other property used in connection therewith”.
Penalties against damage
The Act punishes anyone “who commits mischief by doing any act in respect of any public property” with a jail term of up to five years and a fine or both. Provisions of this law can be coupled with those under the Indian Penal Code.
Plugging the loopholes
- The Supreme Court has on several earlier occasions found the law inadequate, and has attempted to fill the gaps through guidelines.
- In 2007, the court took suo motu cognizance of “various instances where there was large scale destruction of public and private properties in the name of agitations, bandhs, hartals and the like”.
- It set up two Committees headed by former apex court judge Justice K T Thomas and senior advocate Fali Nariman to suggest changes to the law.
- In 2009, in the case of In Re: Destruction of Public & Private Properties v State of AP and Ors, the Supreme Court issued guidelines based on the recommendations of the two expert Committees.
I. Thomas Committee recommendations
- The Thomas Committee recommended reversing the burden of proof against protesters.
- Accepting the suggestion, the court said that the prosecution should be required to prove that public property had been damaged in direct action called by an organisation, and that the accused also participated in such direct action.
- From that stage the burden can be shifted to the accused to prove his innocence, the court said.
- It added that the law must be amended to give the court the power to draw a presumption that the accused is guilty of destroying public property, and it would then be open to the accused to rebut such presumption.
- Such a reversal of the burden of proof is applicable in cases of sexual violence, among others. Generally, the law presumes that the accused is innocent until the prosecution proves its case.
II. Nariman Committee’s recommendations
- These recommendations dealt with extracting damages for destruction.
- Accepting the recommendations, the court said the rioters would be made strictly liable for the damage, and compensation would be collected to “make good” the damage.
- “Where persons, whether jointly or otherwise, are part of a protest which turns violent, results in damage to private or public property, they will be deemed to be strictly liable for the damage so caused.
- The damage may be assessed by the ordinary courts or by any special procedure created to enforce the right.
Limited impact yet
- Like the law, the guidelines too, have had a limited impact.
- This is because the identification of protesters remains difficult, especially in cases where there is no leader who gave the call to protest.