Sucheta Dalal :Bombay High Court slams police in Abdulali attack case
Sucheta Dalal

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Bombay High Court slams police in Abdulali attack case  

March 18, 2010

The Bombay High Court has ordered the Mahad police to file details of the action taken against the attackers, who on Tuesday attacked noted environmentalist Sumaira Abdulali and a team of journalists and local activists.


Ms Abdulali has been fighting against the illegal sand mining in and around Bankot Creek in Raigad district. The 41-km-long Bankot Creek that passes through Raigad and Ratnagiri districts is Maharashtra’s equivalent of the Sunderbans. However, due to illegal sand mining, the creek is being choked, endangering a rich habitat of crocodiles, migratory birds and virgin mangroves.


On Wednesday, the High Court had asked the Maharashtra government to submit a report about the action taken by it within 24 hours. In today’s hearing, the state government pointed out that the activist (Ms Abdulali) had not asked for police escort in advance before visiting the site and after a receiving a complaint of attack, a police team escorted them back to Mumbai.


However, this reply angered Justice FI Rebello who asked whether this action was enough. He also questioned the law and order situation in the state, asking why does one need police protection to visit public places like Bankot Creek.


Ishwar Nankani, counsel for Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists (MITRA), pointed out that the accused had been continuously present at the police station for several hours and had even filed a counter-complaint against the activists for trespassing and rash driving, which would not have been possible without their physical presence.


The High Court has ordered the state government to file an affidavit giving a detailed report on the action taken in the said attack by next Thursday. Ms Abdulali has also been asked to file an affidavit stating details of the entire incident, including the presence of the accused at the police station.


Earlier, in her complaint to the Mahad police, Ms Abdulali said that she along with members of a news media house had visited the 41-km-long Bankot Creek, around 150km away from Mumbai. She had seen 14 dredgers operating in the space of that region from a distance of about one km and had taken photographs.


She, along with the media team, recorded the same in a video camera and left the place. On the way back when the group was returning after surveying the area, the team was confronted by at least five people in a sports utility vehicle (SUV). After an argument in which one of the persons claimed to be "the owner" of the creek, the activists and the media team left the place.


However, the activist's car was intercepted repeatedly in a Bollywood-style car chase over the lonely ghat road and attacked later on the way back to Mumbai. A truck rammed their three vehicles on a bridge, apparently with intent to knock the car into the river below, while the two SUVs giving chase from behind blocked the road on both sides for vehicles carrying the activists and the media team.


"They hit our car and tried to push it in the river. It was an attempt to murder," said Ms Abdulali narrating the incident. Even after the police arrived, the accused smashed the windows of the cars in the presence of the police, and continued their verbal threats.


The traffic police reached the place after some time, but the attackers continued threatening the group, shouting abuses and claiming that they had "bought" the creek for Rs280 million and nobody could stop them from sand-dredging there.


The police later escorted the two vehicles to Mahad police station where a complaint of criminal intimidation, rioting and attempt to murder was lodged. The alleged attacker has in turn accused the activist and the team of trespassing and rash driving.


Activist Sumaira Abdulali has been working relentlessly against the illegal activity of sand mining in Maharashtra. The Bankot Creek is clearly a coastal regulation zone (CRZ) with the presence of mangroves all along its banks. According to the activist, the state government has given licenses to dredge sand there, supposedly for clearing the waterways for navigation. However, there is no boat traffic on this stretch nor is anyone except barge operators carrying sand allowed to enter the area which the license-holders claim has been 'bought' by them.


"Sand mining is extensively controlled by politicians in the state and all terms of licenses are routinely violated including quantity of sand dredged, timings of dredging operations and number of dredgers permitted to operate in a given area. Sand is also routinely dredged from beaches. Any opposition to illegal sand dredging is met with threats and violence and there appears to be a nexus between politicians and (the) administration to protect the illegal activity, forming a 'mafia'," added the activist.


Ms Abdulali's Awaaz Foundation has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) where, as directed by the Bombay High Court, Prof Shyam Asolekar of IIT Bombay has prepared a comprehensive report on alternatives to sand dredging and more environmentally-friendly methods of dredging sand and an eco-cess on natural sand. The report was prepared after consultations with all stakeholders. The Bombay High Court has also prohibited any sand mining activity in CRZ areas.
Amritha Pillay

-- Sucheta Dalal