Sometimes, all it takes for a person to go after something is a refusal. It took two years of incessant requests under the Right to Information Act before activist Simpreet Singh got the information he wanted, on what had seemed at first like a minor case of building norms bypassed.
Now, former chief ministers are quaking and top bureaucrats are finding themselves in jail over the mammoth scam that saw a prime plot in Colaba, meant to house war widows and veterans, turn into a soaring skyscraper whose list of residents reads like the who’s who of state government and bureaucracy.
It all began in 2006. Singh had been working with activist Medha Patkar for three years when he read a small newspaper article about the housing society.
“I wondered what it was all about,” says Singh. “On a whim, I wrote to the Collector’s office and the revenue department, seeking details.”
Neither office replied. So Singh sent another request, then another.
“Months went by, and I got no answers,” says the 32-year-old. “That’s when I realised something was up.”
When the first two offices failed to reply, he started firing off letters to every other government office he felt had played a role in issuing permissions — the MMRDA, urban development department, even the Union ministries of environment and forests, and defence.
“It took the highest degree of stubbornness to get any answers at all,” he says, smiling. But Singh kept at it, filing queries, more queries and appeals.
“There were times in those two years when I was tempted to give up,” he says. “But then I would think, how will we ever get to the bottom of things if we give up?”
In early 2008, as the replies finally filtered in, the pieces began to fall into place. “There were so many big names… all of them beneficiaries… and such a blatant misuse of power,” says Singh, shaking his head. “It was unbelievable.”
Finally armed with his evidence, he filed a complaint with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and, in December 2010, filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court, causing a flutter that continues to dominate front pages.
Singh now runs the unregistered NGO Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao.