Supreme Court gives notice to Maharashtra State Government, MSRDC and KMC for filing their reply in the IRB road toll collection issue

Justice MadanLokur and Justice U.U. Lalit, presiding over a petition filed by activists pleading for the cancelling of toll collected by Ideal Road Builders (IRB), directed the Maharashtra State Government, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) and the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation (KMC) to file their reply and make submissions of their own in the matter.

The petitions were filed by activists SubhashWani and ShivajiraoParulekar before the Supreme Court in appeal against the judgment of the Bombay High Court delivered on October 14, 2013 dismissing the activists’ case.  The Honourable High Court had allowed the Ideal Road Builders to carry on with the toll collection that had been initiated in January 2014, even though there had been several protests against the project.

AbhayNevgi, representing the activist petitioners argued that the contract for the development of approximately 49-km of roads in the interior of the city, signed between the state government and the respondent road developer company is patently illegal. His reasoning was based on the fact that close to 3 lakh squares of real estate (land) was transferred for a meagre amount of Rs. 1 for a nearly perpetual time period of 99 years. According to Mr.Nevgi, the wrongdoing was evident by the fact that the cost of land was not evaluated before it was transferred to the IRB, in contravention of the norms, in such cases.

Further, Mr.Nevgi pointed out that Kolhapur Municipal Corporation was duty bound to undertake the development of internal roads in the city; the inherent logic and legal reasoning behind the argument being that the civic corporation (KMC) levies taxes on the city residents for developing the city road network. Hence, the contract, the resultant project and the simultaneous toll collection would be illegal and against public policy. Though the IRB argued against the petition’s admittance, the Court rejected its plea much to the liking of the petitioners.

Ideal Road Builders, being represented by Senior Advocates Fali S Nariman and ShivajiJadhav, insisted that since the project (begun in 2008) has already been completed, the issue is a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion even if arguendo it were to be declared illegal. Consequently, there would be no point in admitting the petitions or going through with the proceedings. However, the petitioners also pointed out that the road project in question had also been under a lot of pressure due to protests and had been temporarily halted several times because of them.

Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation and the Kolhapur Municipal Corporations were party to the contract with the IRB and hence have also been added as parties to the cases as they are privy to the matter and the contract. The bench of Justices MadanLokur and U. U. Lalit have posted the case for the final hearing in March. Even as the case nears its conclusion, the exact date for the final hearing is yet to be announced. The decision in the matter would have a lasting impact on this overcooked and long deliberated issue of toll collection in the country. An adverse decision in the case may be a cause of concern for road developers in the country mired in such matters, which has been serious source of discomfort for the government as well as for the people and activists affected by it.

by Siddhartha Singh.