The Himachal Pradesh High Court has restrained the operation of Food Court in the Heritage Town Hall Building in Shimla on the ground that irreparable loss and injury will be caused to it.

An Advocate named Abhimanyu Rathor had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking to quash the tender awarded to a bidder for running a ‘high-end Café’ in the Town Hall. By way of an interim relief, he had prayed to restrain the running of multi-franchise ‘food court’ in the said heritage building.

A Division Bench of Chief Justice M.S. Ramachandra Rao and Justice Jyotsna Rewal Dua observed, “A prima-facie case has been established for grant of interim relief against respondent nos.7 & 5. The Town Hall is a much coveted historical landmark of Shimla Town that has been renovated at great cost with investment of funds by Asian Development Bank. Heritage sites are always precious, they are witness of antique era. Heritage building is held in public trust ´cause it is a treasure. The heritage has to be preserved for it’s the heritage. Running of food court in the iconic building will put the property under continued pressure and threat to its heritage value. … Irreparable loss and injury shall be caused to the heritage property and in turn to the public at large in case respondents no. 5 and 7 are permitted to continue to run the food court there.”

The Bench said that there is overwhelming public interest in the petition that outweighs the conflicting private interests of the respondents.

The petitioner Advocate appeared in person while Advocate General Anup Rattan, Senior Advocate Neeraj Gupta and Advocates Mukul Sood, Dhananjay Sharma, and Shilpa Sood appeared for the respondents.

Facts of the Case -

In terms of the judgment passed in 2019, the Municipal Corporation of Shimla in consultation with the State Government, was permitted to run a ‘high-end Café’ with reading facilities, Information Centre, Boutique of traditional art and craft in the Town Hall. However, what was actually been opened was not such a café but a ‘food court’. Hence, the Corporation was permitted to set up a food court instead of a high-end café, however, according to the petitioner, it had failed to protect and preserve the treasure i.e., Town Hall. He pointed out that the heritage value of such a structure had diminished and was continuously affected by the opening of such food court over there.

The petitioner submitted that the Municipal Corporation Shimla is the owner of the Town Hall and it is its duty to utilize the property in the manner considered appropriate by it with due regard to the intent of the aforesaid 2019 judgment. On the contrary, it was argued by the other side that the Court had not issued any mandatory direction to utilize the ground floor of the Town Hall only for setting up a high-end café and hence was non-obligatory and elective in nature. It was contended that the main aim of the judgment was to preserve the heritage structure and generate revenue.

The High Court after hearing the arguments from both sides noted, “On preliminary objection, we are of the opinion that merely because some of the documents appended with the writ petition have been supplied under the Right to Information Act to a person other than the writ petitioner, would not in itself be a sufficient ground to throw the writ petition. … The Town Hall about which this petition has been filed is the most centrally located building on the Mall Road, Shimla.”

The Court further said that a food court would remain a food court irrespective of its location and that the Shimla city does not have the poor standards which respondents would want the court to believe for labelling a food court as a high-end café. It also took note of the fact that bids were invited by the Municipal Corporation for setting up a high-end café on the ground floor of the Town Hall and not for the food court and that the participating bidders were fully aware that they were bidding for operating and maintaining a high-end café and not some food court.

“The bids submitted by them were for setting up a high-end café and not the food court. … The minimum eligibility criteria for qualifying technical and financial bids was also detailed in the tender documents. We find it quite strange that on one hand in terms of the bid document the selected bidder – the operator had not been permitted to create third party rights on the project site, he has also not been allowed to use the project site for any other purpose yet on the other hand bid document provides for exempting a bidder from possessing technical criteria viz. required experience in hospitality sector in case he possesses high net worth of Rs. 8 crores”, observed the Court.

Furthermore, the Court said that the setting up of a food court instead of a high end café was not in conformity with the directions of the court, with the decision of the Municipal Corporation, with provisions of the tender notice, with provisions of the RFP document, and with provisions of the Concession Agreement.

“… till the next date of hearing, respondents no. 5 & 7 are forthwith restrained from operating, running the food court in the Town Hall, the Mall Shimla. The Commissioner Municipal Corporation Shimla is directed to ensure immediate compliance of this order. … Despite the fact that we heard the matter for two days, many questions indicated above that emerged during hearing were not answered by the official respondents be it the State or the Municipal Corporation or the HP Infrastructural Development Bank. Petitioner has also requested to file a detailed rejoinder to the replies filed by the respondents. He may do so before the next date of listing”, it ordered.

Accordingly, the High Court passed an interim order and listed the case for the next hearing on March 14, 2024.

Cause Title- Abhimanyu Rathor v. State of H.P. and Others

Click here to read/download the Order