Ganesh festival organisers across Mumbai are upset with the Bombay High Court, and they can barely conceal their determination to defy it.

On July 17, while hearing a case on the noise pollution and road obstruction caused by Ganpati pandals (marquees), the court reiterated for the final time that Mumbai’s civic body – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – could not grant permissions to pandals that hinder traffic and pedestrian movement in the city.

The 10-day Ganesh festival, beginning on September 17 this year, is perhaps Mumbai’s most defining cultural event that has been growing bigger in scale every year. There are close to 10,000 Ganesh festival organisers in the city, many enjoying active support and sponsorship from parties across the political spectrum.

Festival organisers regularly come under fire for violating sound pollution limits for public events, but the spotlight has shifted to a new controversy this year: pandals erected intrusively on public roads. In 2014, close to 1,200 marquees were put up on Mumbai’s roads and pavements, including spaces near bus stops, railway stations and even hospitals.

Now, despite a court ruling that clearly disallows marquees from setting up in the path of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, several organisers claim they intend to celebrate the festival exactly as they always have.

What the court said

On June 24, in response to a Public Interest Litigation by a Thane-based doctor, the High Court had ruled that while granting permissions to Ganesh pandals, the civic body must prioritise citizens’ right to roads that are in a “reasonable condition”.

Soon, an appeal was filed against the court’s decision, but it did not come from pandal owners. It was a plea by the BMC itself, which requested the court to modify its order so that at least for 2015, allowances could be made for festival organisers to continue erecting pandals as usual. From next year, the BMC promised, it would comply with the court’s order.

An agitated two-judge bench pointed out that the BMC appeared to be espousing the cause of Ganesh pandals instead of citizens. During the hearing on Friday, the court made its stand clear once again: approvals for Ganesh pandals, it said, can only be sanctioned if they do not come in the way of citizens and traffic.

‘Who can stop God?’

Festival organisers are now reacting to the High Court ruling with disgruntlement and a fair amount of bravado.

“This court order is so unfair. Our pandal has never inconvenienced anyone,” said Shankar Harale, secretary of the Khetwadi 12th Galli Ganesh Mandal, a popular 66-year-old Ganpati organisation whose pandal draws several lakh devotees every year.

The organisation’s marquee is typically set up in a narrow street of Khetwadi, a residential neighbourhood, at least three weeks before the Ganesh festival begins. Once the pandal is erected, an even narrower pathway is left open for public use, but Harale claims it is sufficient for local residents to use.

After spending most of Sunday in meetings with other Mandal members, Harale said their group had decided to apply for permission to the civic corporation to allow their annual marquee to be set up as usual. “The BMC has always supported Ganesh mandals and we know they will adjust for old pandals like ours,” said Harale. “After all, who can stop a festival? Who can stop God from coming to us?”

‘This is a Hindu festival’

Even non-controversial festival organisers, whose pandals are set up in open spaces or within housing colonies, have come out in support of their troubled brethren.

“Mumbai will celebrate this festival the way it always has – let the authorities take any action they want,” said Ashish Rampure, secretary of the Tejukaya Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, one of the many pandals in central Mumbai’s Lalbaug area. “This is not just a Maharashtrian festival – all communities celebrate Lord Ganesh and if we are united, we can overcome any problem.”

Ashok Satade of Chembur’s Sahyadri Krida Mandal did not seem to share Rampure’s passion for communal unity. “When Muslims pray Friday namaz on some streets, we have complained. But Ganesh is a Hindu festival, so it is unfortunate that this PIL in court was filed by a fellow Hindu,” said Satade, claiming that the Thane-based doctor, Dr Mahesh Bedekar, should have thought about this before filing a PIL against pandals in court.

Ram Kadam, a leader from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, blames Mumbai’s acute lack of open spaces for forcing Ganesh marquees out onto roads and streets. “No one deliberately puts pandals on the road – they do it because they have no choice in this city,” said Kadam, offering as a solution the option of making pandals slightly smaller than usual. “We need to make this a win-win situation for all, but the festival organisers should not be affected in any way.”

‘We will keep a check’

Citizen activists, meanwhile, are bracing for a tough fight to ensure that the court’s order is implemented by the BMC and the police.

“We have been vying for such an order for a long time because Ganesh pandals on roads have become such an obstruction and nuisance,” said Anandini Thakoor, chairperson of H-West Ward Federation Trust, a residents’ association in Bandra. Thakoor claims she had to complain to the civic body for four years in a row before action was finally taken against a pandal obstructing a bus stop in her area. “It’s not just a matter of ten days – these pandals come up more than a month before the festival and are taken off several weeks after.”

Sumaira Abdulali, an activist who has frequently taken festival organisers to task for flouting noise pollution norms, says her group is going to be vigilant on this issue as well. “The attitude of the organisers shows that the court’s orders are not going to be easy to implement,” said Abdulali, convener of the Awaaz Foundation. “But we are going to keep a check.”