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HC on National Herald Building Lease: Keep Status Quo till 22 Nov

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In a breather to Associated Journals Ltd (AJL), publisher of the National Herald newspaper that was asked by the Centre to vacate its premises in New Delhi, the High Court said on Thursday, 15 November, that status quo be maintained till 22 November.

AJL approached the Delhi High Court earlier this month, challenging the 30 October order of the Urban Development Ministry that ended its 56-year-old lease and asked it to vacate the premises at the press enclave in ITO by 15 November.

WHATS THE CASE ABOUT?

The Land and Development Office (L&DO), which comes under the Urban Development Ministry, had ended the lease – entered into with AJL on 2 August 1962 and made perpetual on 10 January 1967 – asking the company to hand over the possession by 15 November.

The L&DO's order also said that failure to hand over the possession would lead to initiation of proceedings under the Public Premises Act.

WHAT HAPPENED IN COURT

When the matter came up for hearing, the central government gave an oral assurance to the high court that it will maintain status quo till 22 November in the land lease matter.

The assurance was given before Justice Sunil Gaur by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta after the court said that if the government wanted the matter to be heard on another date "then maintain status quo till then".

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Mehta told the court that he will not be able to argue post lunch as he has to be in the Supreme Court for another matter and urged the high court to hear the matter on another date.

WHAT WERE SINGHVI’S ARGUMENT

Senior advocate Abhishek M Singhvi, appearing for AJL, told the court that status quo ought to mean no taking over of possession as well as no initiation of proceedings under the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971.

During the proceedings, Singhvi told the judge that two officials of L&DO have entered the National Herald premises which ought not to have been done.

This claim was refuted by Mehta and the court asked Singhvi to ask his clients to verify the submission.

After a few minutes, Singhvi, on instructions, told the court that he has photographs of the two officials and said that their names were Gopal Rastogi and KR Rana.

While Mehta said the matter would be looked into, the court said, "They (L&DO) cannot take possession like this. They have to proceed under the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971".

Singhvi said the first ground for eviction indicated in the L&DO order was that no press was running in the premises given on lease to AJL in 1962.

He said this ground was raised for the first time in a 18 June 2018 show cause notice issued on the basis of an inspection carried out on 9 April 2018 and it was not mentioned in the earlier notice of 2016.

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"The requirement of running a press cannot mean that all press and printing related activities have to necessarily be conducted at the same premises, that is, demised premises.”

"The imperatives of prudent commercial business operations may necessitate that the company utilise the infrastructure or the premises at some other place as a supplement to their operations in the present premises," he said.

Singhvi further said that a new printing press has been bought and installed.

With regard to the allegation of transfer of the premises to Young Indian, when it became a shareholder of AJL by taking over its debt, the senior lawyer said that the change in shareholding does not lead to transfer of property.

He further argued that there was no clause in the agreement, which was converted into a perpetual lease on 10 January 1967, that L&DO's permission was required for change in shareholding and this requirement cannot be incorporated by interpretation.

He said that AJL continues to be the owner of the premises and YI was only the 98 per cent shareholder of the company.

Singhvi said these two grounds were raised in the show cause notice of 18 June, 2018, in addition to two others -- presence of a private photocopier vendor in the premises and creation of a mezzanine floor -- which had been mentioned in the earlier notice of 2016.

The lawyer said a suit has been filed to eject the photocopier, and it is pending in the court concerned.

With regard to issue of mezzanine floor, he said there was no such structure in the premises and the L&DO was referring to the raised level of the electric panel.

He said the panel was located in the basement, but was elevated by 10 feet to comply with building bye-laws which mandate that it has to be easily accessible.

He said the elevated panel cannot be a ground for re-entry into premises as it can be put back on the basement floor.

It was also argued on behalf of AJL that the digital versions of English newspaper 'National Herald', Hindi's 'Navjivan' and Urdu's 'Qaumi Awaz' have commenced since 2016-17.

The weekly newspaper 'National Herald on Sunday' resumed on 24 September last year and the place of publication was the ITO premises, Singhvi said, adding that the Hindi weekly newspaper 'Sunday Navjivan' was also being published since October this year from the same premises.

"The necessary licences and authorisations for the purposes of publication were also placed on record, in particular, the necessary licenses have been obtained by the petitioner (AJL)," the petition has said.

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