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Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act

Topics Covered:

Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act

What to study?

For Prelims: What is Public Property Act?

For Mains: Concerns over damages to public properties, need for review of the law and the relevant guidelines.

Context: Despite a law against the destruction of property, incidents of rioting, vandalism, and arson have been common during protests across the country.

And the Supreme Court has recently expressed displeasure over rioting and destruction of public property.

For Prelims:

What the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 says?

It 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.

What is a 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”.

Value addition for Mains:

Need for review:

The Supreme Court has on several earlier occasions found the law inadequate, and has attempted to fill the gaps through guidelines.

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”, and 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.

2009 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.

SC guidelines based on Thomas Committee recommendations:

  • Reverse the burden of proof against protesters.
  • Prosecution should be required to prove that public property had been damaged in direct action called by an organisation, and the accused also participated in such direct action. From that stage the burden can be shifted to the accused to prove his innocence.
  • 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.

Based on Nariman Committee’s recommendations:

  • 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, the persons who have caused the damage, or were part of the protest or who have organized it will be deemed to be strictly liable for the damage so caused, which may be assessed by the ordinary courts or by any special procedure created to enforce the right.
  • High Courts should order suo motu action, and set up a machinery to investigate the damage caused and award compensation wherever mass destruction to property takes place due to protests.

Impact of guidelines:

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.

In its verdict in Koshy Jacob vs Union Of India, the court reiterated that the law needed to be updated — but it did not grant the petitioner any compensation since the organisers of the protest were not before the court.

Sources: Indian Express.