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The Curse of NGT Judgment – Undoing of Urban Planning

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Impact of NGT Orders on Shimla City's Development

Shimla– An old ‘common law’ proverb from the British era says “A man’s house is his castle, et Domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge]”. This principle, which needs to be strengthened in a free country, is sadly in shambles and perhaps held more truth in the colonial times than it holds now. The level of insecurity a man has with respect to the ownership or for making improvements in his living space/house or building is increasing day by day because of unreasoned judgments of Courts or illogical executive dictates.

In these series of articles (1,2 & 3), the impact of various laws and judgments which have essentially worked for depriving the common citizens in the State of H.P, of their ‘Right to Property” will be critically examined.

This article is aimed at academically discussing and pointing out the perversity and manifest errors in the ‘NGT Judgement’ which was passed on November 16, 2017. The judgment banned all construction activities in the green and core areas and also within 3 meters from national highways. It also restricted the number of stories to two-and-a-half in other areas where construction was permitted to up to 4 to 5 stories.

THE UNHEARD VICTIMS

The Order adversely affects many different categories of people. For instance, a person who has a sanctioned plan in accordance with TCP Law/By-Laws/Rules, who had saved his ‘life savings’ for the construction of his house, is now stuck in limbo, having done nothing wrong. If a man had the approval and sanctioned plan of  ‘four and a half story’ building, which was permitted under TCP law, he is now told that he cannot construct the house in accordance with that initial sanction.

Another man who has his sole plot/property in the core area is prevented from doing anything with it, though he may have buildings on either side of his plot. The significance of the initial sanction and the mandate of the Town and Country Planning Act is bypassed by the Hon’ble Tribunal which is not even competent to decide the matter under such Laws (TCP Act/ MC Act). To add insult to injury, such persons are not even heard or paid compensation before they are so monumentally impacted by the decision.

The Constitution makers bestowed right on every citizen of the country to acquire, hold and dispose of property and also provided ample safeguards against deprivation of the property by confining such deprivation only on payment of compensation to the expropriated owner. As such, the judgment is against the spirit of Article 300-A of the Indian Constitution.

IMPACTING DEVELOPMENT BY ABSURD AND BLANKET DIRECTION

1. Around 52 ‘Shimla Smart City Projects’, which aim at improving the infrastructural base of the city, are directly impacted by this judgment and are stalled. Such a wide impact of this blanket direction neither can be conceived nor can be expected to be implemented if the city has to grow. Further, such powers were never envisaged under the NGT Act which creates the Hon’ble Tribunal.

2. Another blanket and absurd direction is where the judgment prohibits new construction of any kind, i.e. residential, institutional and commercial in any part of the core area as defined under the various notifications issued under the Interim Development Plan as well by the State Government.

According to the standing laws of the State, the reconstruction in the green areas is permissible on old lines and construction in the core area with the permission of the State Government is also permissible, as per the existing laws (Notification/Statutes). If someone’s house is falling or has become structurally unsafe he should obviously be allowed to reconstruct on old lines, but this is also prevented as a consequence of these directions.    The tribunal has not quashed the relevant notifications which deal with this issue and has said something completely contrary to the existing laws. Now the situation is that we have two sets of laws, which are completely opposite to each other. The Tribunal doesn’t have the power to quash these laws nor interpret them.

3. The most Absurd direction is where the judgment says that beyond core, green and the areas falling within the authorities of the Shimla Planning Area, the constructions may be permitted strictly but not beyond two stories plus attic floor.

According to the law of the land, the construction in the core areas is being regulated by the provisions of the Interim Development Plan for Shimla as amended vide notification dated  28th June’ 2016, which clearly provides that the construction in the core area of Shimla is not story-based but is based upon the maximum floor area ratio and the maximum height of the building which is 1.50 to 1.75 & 21 meters respectively. Similarly, in the non-core areas of Shimla, the maximum floor area ratio is 1.75 & the maximum height of the building is 21 meters. Since the provisions of the Interim Development Plan for Shimla are still in operation, the same are now in conflict with the directions imparted by the Hon’ble Tribunal.

Traumatizing & Patent Illegality of the Judgement

There are numerous errors in the said judgment of the Hon’ble Tribunal, some are legal errors and others are factual errors. The judgment not only enters into a field which is outside its purview, but it also gives a shortsighted vision of its own in the matters of planning and development without comprehending the complexity of the factual problems which exists on the ground.

Though there are many flaws in the judgment, in this first article of the series, some of them have been enumerated as follows:

Firstly, the judgment dated 16.11.2017 has been passed in violation of the principles of natural justice and without giving an opportunity of being heard to those persons who stand adversely affected. The principles of natural justice concern procedural fairness and ensure a fair decision is reached by an objective decision-maker. Maintaining procedural fairness protects the rights of individuals and enhances public confidence in the process. Right of being heard is a right given to those parties who will be adversely affected by the decision. This right is a backbone for a ‘Fair Trial’. Such an important aspect of the judicial proceeding is missing in this case. Numerous persons whose property rights have been taken away have not been heard until now. The judgment should fall on this ground alone.

Secondly, the Tribunal is not even competent, or in other words, has the necessary jurisdiction to hear or decide matters relating to TCP Act or Municipal Corporation Act. The Tribunal is specifically established for matters which relate to ‘Environment’ and laws/Acts which deal with the protection of the same for e.g Environment Protection Act, Water Act, Air Act, etc. The tribunal certainly cannot be expected to interpret TCP Act and MC Act or bypass the mandate of Article 300 A and deprive persons of their houses or stop future government projects which are necessary for effectively implementing State policies.

Thirdly A peculiar problem which has arisen right now is that ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ provisions are not struck down and NGT judgment, which is saying something completely opposite, also stands. It is a rule of thumb that when the Courts have to disagree with a statuary provision for being unconstitutional etc., they will either quash it or read it down. NGT has done none of it, nor it could have done anything in this respect since these two acts are outside its jurisdiction. These acts fall within the jurisdiction of the Hon’ble High Court or the Hon’ble Apex Court.

When the law of the land has not been quashed or struck down, it obviously means that it is still the law of the land and has to be implemented. The judgment seems to be more on the lines of guidelines rather being a dictate or laying down an authoritative pronouncement.

Another fundamental flaw in the judgment is that the Tribunal has travelled way beyond the petition/application and what was prayed by the Applicant who approached it. The Courts, as a rule of practice, are limited to the pleadings which are filed before it, in this case, the Hon’ble Tribunal has gone far beyond the petition which it was deciding. The phrase ‘knight roaming in a shining armour’ is apt for this judgment. Here, the Court has set out to make right all the problems and evils of the State and has done future planning both for urban and rural areas and for the lakhs of inhabitants of such areas.

An important principle which has been forgotten in these blanket directions is ‘Actus curiae neminem gravabit’. The act of the Court shall prejudice no man. (Cumber v. Wane, i Sm. L. C. i ith ed. p. 338.)’.  The number of people who have been condemned unheard is astoundingly large. The livelihood of thousands is at stake, the development of the urban and rural areas of the State is at stake. These people are not criminals, these development plans are not out of the ordinary rather are a necessity for a growing city. The development plans have rightly been drawn by the competent authority under a well-established law. If the law is ‘common sense’ then this sense demands that these directions need a relook. If a law makes lakhs of people in the State as lawbreakers than there is something wrong with the law itself.

Right to Shelter, Challenges of Providing Housing to the Growing Population

It must be remembered that if everyone is compelled to make two and a half stories or not construct on vacant plots, it would lead to scarcity of housing or it would lead to cutting down of more trees as more land/surface area would be required to construct such houses. To sustain the growing population 4 to 5 storied buildings which if found structurally safe and not impacting the environment were perfectly reasonable and rightly allowed by the TCP/MC laws.

Right to shelter is a fundamental right and right of people to move from rural to urban areas is also a basic right. Both these rights stand defeated if these directions are not quashed. Housing will just become more and more expensive and out of the reach of poor and middle-class families. Old structures won’t be reconstructed, no new constructions will be raised, and no new Government projects can come up. The view of main Shimla town apart from Mall Road, which looks like a ghetto, will always remain like a ghetto.

In case of an earthquake, the chances of survival of the ‘High Court building’ (7 stories) and the ‘Cecil Hotel’ building (9 stories) are way more than the two-storied buildings of  Shimla’s lower bazaar /middle bazaar.  The point is that Morden technology and latest techniques of construction allow us to provide structurally safer buildings than what we had in the past. Further, they can also sustain more population in less surface area of land and fulfil a huge public purpose by doing so. The height of buildings as provided in municipal and TCP laws in accordance with floor to height ratio were reasonably arrived at by the competent authority. The Courts certainly are not equipped nor are expected to venture into this area which is outside their powers and tell us ‘how many stories can be built’, it is certainly the domain of the executive as they have experts with them and also have a better grasp of the ground reality (At least in theory).

The cost of such broad-ranging directions and ideas is very high – particularly on Shimla Town and its housing, making the cost of living and doing business costly and hurting the local enterprises, and thereby, shifting the planned outcomes into a different direction concerning economic opportunities. The focus of the planning approach has to shift from ‘development restricting’ approach toward ‘development enabling’ approach and it requires finalization of the Developmental plan for the city. It is extremely surprising that Shimla City does not have a final development plan in place to date (this will be discussed elaborately in future articles).

There are numerous other directions and issues relating to the final development plan and some arbitrary TCP Rules such a “non-inhabitable attics, no single-window clearances and the power of the babus to extort money in the passing of plans etc which will be critically examined in the next article.

(The post was first published in https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/ )

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Himachal Watcher.

Deven Khanna is a Lawyer, practicing at High Court of Himachal Pradesh, other H.P Courts/Tribunals and the Supreme Court of India, he is an alumnus of a National Law School. For any queries related to the articles, he can be contacted at 7018469792 or at khannadeven@gmail.com. The personal blog is at https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/

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Himachal: Warnings of Delta Plus Virulence Fall on Deaf Ears, No Restriction on Visitors from Affected States  

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Shimla-Yesterday, the Centre government directed the state governments to take immediate measure in wake of the spread of more infectious Delta Plus variant.  As the Delta Plus variant is posing a threat of the third wave, the states were told to take steps like preventing crowds, increase testing, more focus on surveillance, contact tracing and put boosting vaccine coverage on a priority basis. Following it, Himachal Pradesh Government might have announced an alert over Delta plus variant, but there wasn’t any follow up on instructions passed by scientists and health experts to take strict restrictive measures ahead of the impending third wave. 

To make it worse, high rank officials and political leaders were seen flouting Covid-19 SOPs on several occasion, which sent wrong messages to the masses. The pictures and videos showing flouting of Covid appropriate behavior by Chief Minister Jairam Thakur and Directorial General of Police, Sanjay Kundu, alongwith other staff for Anupam Kher is the most recent to mention. A group photograph and video of the same were widely circulated on social media and invited huge criticism from the people.  

So far, the state has not reported any case of the Delta Plus variant. But the neighboring states – Punjab, Haryana, and Jammu & Kashmir – reported their first cases yesterday. This puts the boarding areas, like in Una district, at a higher risk. Chief Secretary to HP Government, Anil Khachi, yesterday said samples have been sent for genome sequencing. 

Despite repeated warnings of Delta plus variant (B.1.617.2.1.), Himachal Pradesh has thrown its borders open to all and lifted all restrictions for inter-state travel in just one go. From June 23 onwards, the state government removed the condition for registering on the e-pass portal for visitors intending to enter the state. In the Cabinet meeting held on June 22, 201, the government first decided that e-pass restrictions would be removed from July 1, but later it changed the decision and instead implemented it immediately.

This haphazard decision is said to have come under huge pressure from the hospitality industry – the worst-hit sector, leading to financial crisis and mass unemployment among its stakeholders. Related associations had been approaching Chief Minister Jairam Thakur with their pleas to provide relief, but mostly faced disappointment. The stakeholders say the state government didn’t provide any significant relief, which is making the survival of the industry difficult.

Also Read: Read Eight Reliefs That Himachal’s Devastated Tourism Industry Seeks from HP Govt  

Also, stakeholder of the industry, especially hoteliers, had been demanding the removal of restrictions and conditions on the entry of tourists to Himachal so that they could fetch the remaining peak tourist season.

With its inability to offer relief, the HP Government took the chance to waive off restrictions in a haste.

At the same time, the state government has decided to conduct offline examinations for the undergraduate classes starting from July. A section of the students had been condemning the HP government for scheduling exams without vaccinating students. Some student bodies had been asking the government as to why online classes were possible but not online exams. 

The state government also waived off restrictions on timings for the opening of markets/shops.

As scientists and health experts warn of the virulence of the new variant and with neighboring states already on alert after reporting cases of the new variant, the HP government hasn’t even mentioned any intention to at least put a check on the visitor from the states where cases of Delta Plus are being reported. Carrying an RT-PCR negative report for visitors from such states/cities would have been a wiser step. 

Officially, the state is on alert, but no measures have been announced to check the entry and spread of the variant into the state. The state government does speak of preparing for the anticipated third wave, but there is hardly any long-term preventive strategy. The Covid appropriate behavior is hard to adopt when markets and tourist places are crowded with visitors.

Why Delta Plus is a Big Concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled the Delta variant as ‘Variant of Concern’.

The Centre and scientific/medical institutes in India also agree with that Delta Plus as a variant of concern and could be the cause of impending third wave. Last Tuesday, based on the findings of INSACOG, the Union Health Ministry had alerted and advised Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh regarding the Delta Plus variant of COVID19.

INSACOG had warned that the Delta Plus variant has increased transmissibility, stronger binding to receptors of lung cells, potential reduction in monoclonal antibody response.

“Delta variant is more resistant to medication, treatment and vaccination. Therefore, people who have been vaccinated can still be affected by this variant and can go on to get a clinical illness, Archana Dhawan Bajaj, director, Nurture IVF, told a national English Daily.

“Neutralising antibodies against this variant post-vaccination seem to be nearly five times lower in people who have already been vaccinated than the other variants,” she said.

Further,  Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, ex-Head Scientist of Epidemiology and communicable diseases, ICMR, has also expressed concern over the reports that Delta Plus has reported pathophysiologic change and affecting different organs.  Dr Raman says that it could transfer from cell to cell and would more likely produce neurological symptoms as a common manifestation.

So far India has reported 51 cases of the Delta Plus variant.

Delta Plus variant is a variant of Delta with an additional mutation -B.1.617.2.1.

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Kullu Brawl: New Video Shows Farmers Expressing Discontent with CM Jairam Thakur-led Govt in Front of Union Minister

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Kullu-The Superintendent of Police, Gaurav Singh, 2013 batch IPS, and Chief Minister Jairam Thakur’s Security Personal, ASP Brijesh Sood, got into an ugly scuffle on June 23 and created an unruly situation. A verbal spat between the two officials of the HP Police led to slapping and kicking each other.

What’s humiliating for the state police department was the fact that this unwanted incident occurred on an occasion where the Chief Minister had come to the Airport to welcome a Union Minister – Nitin Gadkari.

Also Read: IPS Gaurav Singh and CM’s Security Personnel Exchange Slaps & Kicks, Video Goes Viral, Inquiry Ordered

The video has appeared on national news channels and the incident made headlines, raising question over the professionalism of the state police. This part of the entire episode, is getting more attention from the media. But a new video has emerged adding another layer to the controversy, as when Union Minister Nitin Gadkari stopped the car and got out to speak to people who were holding a banner of “Four-Lane Sangharsh Samiti” and BJP flags. It turned out, that these people were farmers, who have been affected by the four-lane project as their lands were acquired for it. These farmers allege that before coming into power, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in its election manifesto, had promised compensation four times the circle rate if elected to power. These farmers also allege that after coming to power, the government didn’t fulfil this promise that also included employment to affected youth. These aggrieved farmers say they have been raising their grievance for the last four years, but the government didn’t lend an ear. With these grievances, the farmers had come to see the Union Minister.

Gadkari’s visit has come right before the by-elections in the state. He is supposed to inaugurate and dedicate some projects during this visit. This visit was supposed to leave a positive impact. The video also shows that the farmers’ group did not create any obstruction to the convoy of the Union Minister, neither they create any ruckus. They just stood outside the Airport with banners and posters in their hands. This halt was not scheduled for Gadkari and the Chief Minister was caught off-guard.

The farmers told Gadkari all about their grievance and also alleged that Chief Minister and the Deputy Commissioner, Kullu, weren’t even ready to listen to them. To discuss the matter, there and then Gadkari called for the Chief Minister, who rushed towards the spot from his vehicle.

Watch What Happened When Gadkari Spoke to Agitating Farmers

In the video, the farmers can be heard telling the Union Minister that they are BJP supporters and workers. Later, they were also seen chanting “Jai Shri Ram” for the Union Minister. They can also be heard saying that despite their party being in power at both Centre and the State, there is no hearing. This added to the humiliation for the Chief Minister as the party supporters were not at all satisfied with him.

The video also shows the Chief Minister losing temper when the farmers repeatedly kept saying that they had been agitating for the last four years over the same grievance. He was seen swiftly turning towards farmers with a hostile gesture of warning. The farmers were heard retaliating to this gesture and saying “ Gussa to hame bhi aa rha hai Thakur sahb (we are also angry Mr Thakur)”.

At the same time, farmers expressed their gratitude towards the Union Minister for stopping the vehicle himself and attending them. “This is his (Gadkari) greatness that he saw us and bothered to listened to us,” a farmer later said while speaking to the media.

The situation put both politicians in contrast while dealing with the same situation related to the people’s grievance.

This video aptly explains why the Chief Minister and his security were annoyed with the local police for allowing people to stand outside the Airport. Though the local police was not responsible for the halt of Gadkari’s convoy, the Chief Minister’s security triggered arguments over it. This argument eventually led to one of the most shameful moments for the HP Police. An IPS slapping another police officer is hard to justify or defend, but taking into account the history of an IPS officer like Gaurav Singh, the question as to what exactly caused him to lose his temper to such an extent that he dared to slap the Chief Minister’s security personal on an occasion where the Union Minister was also present.

Also Read: Who is IPS Gaurav Singh, the Officer in News for Slapping CM Jairam’s Security Personnel

Now, as it’s a well-established fact that the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections were fought with Narendra Modi as the BJP’s face, and so were the state assembly polls of Himachal Pradesh in 2017. Owing to the media and the IT cells, the very name and face of PM Narendra Modi won a majority for BJP not only in Himachal but in other states too. Therefore, the situation couldn’t get any worse for a Chief Minister who is serving his first term when the slogan “ Hamara PM Kaise Ho, Gadkari Jaisa Ho” was raised by the people.

What message this entire episode would send to the BJP High Command about Chief Minister’s capacity to contain the distress amongst its own party supporters and handle the officers? This doesn’t end here. The opposition has alleged that this incident clearly proves that the Chief Minister doesn’t have a hold on his officers, as well as, party sympathizers, especially from the farming community. The opposition is citing the current incident as an example of BJP’s anti-farmer attitude. Pertinent to mention that the current Centre government is at loggerheads with farmers who had been protesting for nearly one year against the contentious farm laws passed in 2020.

Himachal Kisan Sabha also released a statement in which it alleged that the Chief Minister was desperate to ensure that the farmers do not get to speak to the Union Minister. Further, the results of the recently held elections to the four Municipal Corporations of Himachal Pradesh – Solan, Mandi, Palampur, and Dharamshala-have already dented Jairam Thakur’s term.

Ahead of the by-polls in the state, the factionalism in the party is already a challenge for Thakur.

Last but not the least, the treatment given to bureaucrats and IPS officers by politicians which results in such ugly, unruly situations like these has also become a topic of debate.

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India’s Revised Vaccination Policy and Supreme Court’s Role Behind This Change in Approach

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Shimla-Free vaccine to all Indian citizens above 18 years of age would be available from 21st June onwards, the Government of India announced yesterday. The Centre has also announced that private hospitals would not be able to levy arbitrary charges for vaccination and the rate would be fixed. The government also rolled back its policy for procurement of vaccines, which was under heavy criticism not only from the opposition but also from the Supreme Court of India.

Though, the Centre claimed that the roll-back was a result of the demands raised by state governments, but some believe this decision came right after harsh judicial scrutiny of the government’s previous policy by the Supreme Court, whose initiation is being lauded by the citizens of India amid this pandemic.

“Many states came forward with a demand for reconsideration of the vaccination strategy and for bringing back the system that was there before 1st May,” the Centre said while defending the rollback.

Also, the Centre was even objecting to the court’s jurisdiction in matters related to policymaking and had termed it as an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the executive. However, very mindful of its jurisdiction, the court had mitigated this allegation of the Centre by explaining how policymaking is subject to judicial scrutiny. The court made the Centre aware of the ‘dialogic judicial review’, where the Court can question the executive and demand justifications from it over non-conformity of a policy to the constitutional rights.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court had grilled the Union government over its faulty and discriminatory policy as states were left on their own for the procurement of vaccines. In its orders passed on May 31, a bench comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat came down heavily upon the central government. The bench had termed the policy approach as “arbitrary and irrational”  because it did not provide free vaccination for the 18-44 year age group.  The bench had sought clarification on policy and dual pricing in which states were being made to procure vaccines directly from the manufactures and were invariably paying more for vaccines while the Centre procured the same vaccines at lower rates.

“Due to the changing nature of the pandemic, we are now faced with a situation where the 18-44 age group also needs to be vaccinated, although priority may be retained between different age groups on a scientific basis. Hence, due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the Central Government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first 2 phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospital for the persons between 18-44 years is prima facie arbitrary and irrational” a bench observed while passing an order on May 31, 2021 concerning a Suo moto case on “Re-Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic”.

Further, the court had also expressed concerns over the digital divide which would make accessing vaccine equally difficult for a large section through online registration.

Earlier, in its orders passed on April 30, the bend had observed that this policy approach would be “detrimental to the right to life and health”. The bench had also observed that this policy requires rethinking, as it needs to be formulated in conformity with the provisions of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The bench aggressively went on to order the government to share all details of the vaccine purchase and distribution, as well as provide information on how the budget allocated for the vaccination (₹35,000 Crores ) was used.

Provisions of the New Vaccination Policy

  • Procurement of 25 per cent vaccinations which was earlier with states will now be undertaken by the Government of India.
  • The government of India will buy 75 per cent of the total vaccines produced and will provide it to the states free of cost. No state government would be spending anything on vaccines.
  • The system of 25 per cent vaccines being procured directly by the private hospitals will continue. Private hospitals can’t charge more than 150 rupees service charge over the decided price of the vaccines.

The Centre said that this policy would be rolled out in two weeks.

“In two weeks, the Centre and states will make necessary preparations as per new guidelines,” the Centre announced yesterday.

Till today, more than 23 Crore vaccine doses have been administered in the country.

To ward off the embarrassment caused by such a contentious policy which was not conforming with the constitutional rights of the citizens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without referring to the judicial review, blamed it on the state governments.

“As the corona cases started declining, questions arose about the lack of choice for states and some people questioned why the Central government is deciding everything,” he said.

“India’s vaccination program was run mostly under the Central government. Free vaccination for all was moving forward and people were showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came, amid all these demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, the decision about priority to certain age groups was raised. Many types pressures were exerted and certain sections of media took it as a campaign,” the PM said.

But with that being said the role of the judiciary in making the government roll back its policy in the interest of the people is being lauded as the victory of judicial review. Also, it has attracted positive response for the apex court which was being alleged of evading several matters related to the public interest under the pressure from the current political regime.

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana Extended  Till Deepawali.

In another major announcement, the Central government announced the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana till Deepawali.

As per the announcement, till November, 80 crore people will continue to get a decided amount of free food grain every month.

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