Demolition of illegal properties where the poor live is common. Demolition of properties where the rich might live happens occasionally. But demolition of properties where the rich and middle classes live and have been living for 25 years is very, very rare.
In the story of how the Campa Cola land at Worli moved from a factory site (given by the BMC in 1955) to a raging controversy is the essence of what is wrong with Mumbai’s growth; not just now, but for more than a century. Dive into the city’s history to see how Backbay was reclaimed and the genesis of land-grab comes through clearly.
But to get back to the present controversy, in 1980 Pure Drinks asked for permission to make residential buildings on some of the land. In 1981, three builders started on the work. And it is from here on that applying for permissions and following building regulations go into that grey zone – or black hole – that is real estate development in this city.
Seven buildings built illegal floors, way above permissions and FSI rules. The buildings have been occupied since 1990 and people moved in being told the occupation certificates were soon coming – as happens so often in Mumbai. They had paid stamp duty and registration fees and municipal and property taxes.
Now almost 25 years later, some floors have been deemed illegal and have to be demolished according to a Supreme Court order. However, it is also true that by 2005 residents were aware of irregularities and filed for making their buildings legitimate.
The nudge-nudge wink-wink method by which official work is done in real estate development in the city is laid bare here. How do greedy developers get away? The modus operandi is multi-pronged using blatant defiance of legalities and/or disingenuous fudging in the belief that either the misdeed will never be found out or regularised.
One such method I got to know recently is so simplistic as to be mind-boggling. “Suppose a developer got permission to build on 600 square metres,” said a retired municipal functionary well-versed in these matters I know, “he would bribe a clerk in the corporation to add the numerical 1 before this figure after some time had passed. Subsequent clearances would be for 1600 metres and in due course of time be seen as the legally approved area for development.”
Unsuspecting buyers – and that includes the vast majority since few of us really bother about the fine print or have the wherewithal to understand abstruse legalese – are easily conned. There are also, of course, those who may have some inkling of the illegality, but find security in the hundreds of such developments that get regularised over time. The ‘system’ would take care of the problem is the belief.
The poor are often dismissed as “vote-banks” in an exercise of disdainful dehumanisation of which the so-called transit camps are the most grotesque manifestation. People who might command some influence must have felt that they could never be targeted. But here we are with the apex court stepping in to demand that laws be adhered to.
Since the buildings under dispute are not safety or security hazards – like the recent one in Mumbra which crashed – nor is it unoccupied (like Pratibha was), demolition seems harsh on humanitarian grounds. A hefty, punitive fine – for both builders and occupants – seems fair.
But the Supreme Court obviously has to go strictly by legality and it remains to be seen if the five-month reprieve for the Campa Cola buildings is a pyrrhic victory or can lead to bigger relief.
Meanwhile, the issue of corruption in realty development is so deeply ingrained that it would take mammoth will and effort to stamp it out. What do we do about that?