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Shut Up, Or Put Up

What are some valid grounds of complaint against your neighbour?

Remember Playboy? The one with the hedonism mantra and the centre-spreads? Well, it carried articles on some other topics too. Here’s one: A very devoted missionary goes into deepest Africa to spread the word of the Gospel. Read, “… to convert the natives to Christianity.” As the fiery speech picks up, the villagers, in a state of agitation, shout, ‘Huzzanga’. Encouraged by this show of emotion, the fire-brand revs up his delivery, only to be greeted by more and more ‘Huzzangas’. Finally, satisfied that he has done God’s work that day, he ends and asks the chief to explain a strange-looking animal in the krrall. “Of course,” says the chief, as they edge closer to the ferocious animal. “But just be careful not to step in the Huzzanga.” So, where does this fit in with law?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in America comprises an over-active bunch of agents, much like some of our own ministers. Sometimes, they act like the gun-slinging sheriffs or federal marshals of yore. The ‘shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later’ brand. They once targeted a chicken farm.

It was a large chicken farm on the banks of a river. An old farm that was probably as old as the river itself. It had loads of chicken which were raised for sale. Business depended on the number of chickens sold—the more, the better. Problem was, the more the birds, the more the bird excreta. While most of the stuff is often recycled as manure, in the instant case, it got washed down into the river by rain. This waste disposal system had existed from as long as the farm had.

The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) did not like it. They demanded that the farm stop polluting the river or shut down. An unstoppable force against an immovable object. Sparks flew. You be the judge. After a lot of legal haggling, the court held for the chickens. ‘Age-old process without any evidence of actual harm’ held the day. The DEA had to back off. KFC and others had their supply and the eggists had their breakfast as usual. The extension of the episode is this. Can you run off your muck from your property any way you wish? The answer is yes-and-no.

In one of his books, Lord Denning tells a delightful story of a case he had personally decided. The judgement starts something like this. “… is a village. It has a cricket ground. Surrounding the cricket common are some houses…”

One of the houses had a new owner. For those who have played cricket in the by-lanes, the sound of a ball crashing through a window must still be heard. The new occupant, however, hated the sound and the ensuing cost. He sued. Denning disagreed. The ground was there, he said. It was a cricket ground. You should have known of the consequences before you bought the place, he ruled. But, then, cricket, to an Englishman, was a religion much before it converted the Indians.

In another case, a few days ago, a bullet whizzed past a man’s property. No one was injured. But the question arose: ‘Did the bullet violate the man’s right to safety on his own property?’ You be the judge.

The law here says that the right to bear arms involves a great responsibility. The very fact that a bullet entered another’s property, even flying through his air, constitutes a danger. The shooter is at fault and may lose his licence. In fact, he should.

In law, these cases are referred to as the ‘Wild Beast Theory’ cases. What you do on your property is your business. But the moment you endanger another or create a nuisance, you are liable. This includes smoke, stink, dust, sound, heat, cold; just about anything that makes your neighbour’s life less happy. But if damage cannot be proved or the possibility of damage is too remote, the courts will look askance.

Going back to gully cricket, a compromise was evolved. One that worked wonderfully well. Each player would deposit four annas (25 paise), when the cost of replacement was Re1 and four annas, cricket won the day; … until the time cars invaded the lanes, wanting to park.

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected] or [email protected]

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