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A house out of order

Affordable housing in Mumbai remains a distant dream as rapacious builders and politicians turn its real estate market into a giant casino. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 16:48 IST

Here’s a story which reveals how Maharashtra, the state of the ‘Makers of Modern India’ like Phule and Ambedkar, Tilak and Gokhale, is now best known for the ‘Builders of Modern Mumbai’. A public-spirited citizen, angry at persistent water and power shortages, wanted to meet a minister. Several unsuccessful attempts later, he was advised by a friend to ring up the minister’s office and pretend he was a real estate businessman. The ploy worked: he got the appointment the next day.

The story is not apocryphal: visit a ministerial bungalow in Mumbai, and don’t be surprised to be surrounded by builders and land developers. When a major Maharashtra politician celebrates his birthday, a majority of the advertisements wishing him are sponsored by building companies. A news report we did before the assembly elections last year suggested that at least half the candidates in urban Maharashtra were connected to the construction industry. One of the most-prized portfolios in the state ministry has been urban development: most chief ministers prefer to keep the lucrative department to themselves.

In a sense, the Adarsh scandal was waiting to happen and is only the latest in a series of land scams that have dotted the state’s political horizon for decades now. It started in the late 1960s when Vasantrao Naik, Maharashtra’s longest serving CM, discovered a pot of gold in what is now Nariman Point, probably the most lucrative piece of real estate in the country. Naik got away perhaps because he was in the pre-investigative journalism era. When in 1981, AR Antulay was exposed for giving cement meant for the public to private builders, it cost him the chief ministership.

While Antulay got caught, Maharashtra’s tallest contemporary leader Sharad Pawar wriggled out when by modifying the regional plan in 1989, he converted more than 10,000 hectares of a ‘green zone’ into an ‘urbanisable’ zone at Vasai-Virar. The long-term consequences of ‘dereservation’ are visible today: once a green belt known for its banana plantations, Vasai-Virar is now a concrete jungle.

With Pawar as their ‘adarsh’, almost every successive CM has used land as an instrument of personal wealth and political power. The agrarian sugar lobby, which once ruled the state, has been replaced by the neo-rich builders lobby. New schemes have been conjured up by politicians and builders to maximise profit. For example, the R32,000 crore slum redevelopment scheme in Mumbai initiated during the Shiv Sena-BJP years, ostensibly to benefit slumdwellers, only provided a bonanza to builders. Since then, every government has exploited loopholes in the laws to make windfall profits.

And yet, Adarsh is, in a sense, different from the land scandals that have preceded it. In the 1980s and 90s, the real estate boom was powered by a rising gangsterism. When politicians wanted to evict a pesky tenant, they turned to the underworld. Witness the manner in which a Dawood henchman, Bhai Thakur, built his empire in the Vasai-Virar region during this period. Or the manner in which mill lands in central Mumbai were cleared with the assistance at times of local gangs. Perhaps, the symbol of the ‘criminalisation’ of land was when in 2000, two shopping centres were opened right in front of the city’s police headquarters, built illegally by the D company on land owned by the state’s public works department.

Today, there is no need for Dawood: a handful of unscrupulous political ‘fixers’, timid bureaucrats and most worryingly, crooked servicemen, are all that one needs to strike a mega land deal. That members of the defence forces — supposedly insulated from the mounting corruption around them — have also succumbed to temptation only confirms the worst fears of a society which is rapidly losing its moral compass.

In this case, the men in uniform are under the scanner and will, hopefully, be charged by a court of inquiry. But what of the even more powerfully connected, who under the guise of luxurious mini-cities, are also guilty of flouting legal and environmental norms in connivance with the political class? An Adarsh was exposed because of a persistent media and brave activists. The fact that it was happening in the heart of south Mumbai also perhaps made it easier to highlight the story. But what of the numerous illegal Adarshes across the country which are driven by a rapacious builder-politician nexus?

Unfortunately, the concept of affordable housing has been mired in corruption, with the scarcity of land in megapolises like Mumbai, reducing the real estate market to a giant casino. At the heart of the problem, as the Adarsh case demonstrates, is the manner in which morally bankrupt state housing authorities have misused their discretionary powers to benefit the privileged few, leaving the vast majority of people struggling to find decent accommodation.

Just one statistic from Mumbai should be enough to exemplify the scale of the problem. Of Mumbai’s 15 million population, 55% live in slums, there are 20,000 crumbling buildings and of the remaining Mumbaikars, 70% live in one-room tenements. In a city of such acute housing deprivation, an Adarsh is a tower of shame.

Post-script: While we investigate the Adarsh scandal, what of maybe taking a hard look at the manner in which politicians have misused their land allotment quotas to benefit journalists too? Or are we to presume that journalists are above the muck?

( Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network )

*The views expressed by the author are personal