Shopkeepers worldwide at last found their first martyrs in lowly Seelampur last week. As it is in the nature of shopkeeping to buy cheap to sell dear, it gets bad press from everybody outside the trading classes. And yet, today, their support base cuts across diverse sections of society. How did this happen? Has Mammon gone in for a makeover?
There is nothing superficial about this new sentiment. Both Houses of Parliament unanimously passed Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act, 2006, on September 15 to amend the Master Plan of Delhi and ease the pressure exerted by the Supreme Court on commercial establishments. This, indeed, is unprecedented considering the fact that there are many parliamentarians who think of business people as class enemies, and many others who believe that urban India must be downgraded to protect rural Bharat. So how did this remarkable turnaround in favour of shopkeepers happen?
Ironically enough, shopkeepers should thank the Supreme Court for their sudden remarkable rise in social esteem. As the time-worn adage goes, not only must a ruling be just, it must also appear to be just. This is where the Supreme Court was found wanting when it ordered the sealing and demolition of commercial properties. To be seen as just, a judgment must be consistent, universal and should always begin by fixing the primary blame on the principal offenders. In this case, the Supreme Court has erred on all three counts.
It has not taken rich property owners to task for flouting the law; it has allowed demolitions to take place haphazardly; most important, it has let the principal offenders, in this case, the officials of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), off the hook. None of the illegalities that the apex court is so exercised about could have taken place if MCD officials were not so amenable to sleaze and grease. As any builder knows, MCD officials, high and low, have fixed rates for oversights that allow unauthorised constructions and establishments to flourish with abandon. Things have come to such a pass that for a person from the middle-class and below, it is almost impossible to buy anything legally. Try buying an apartment in Delhi and the near impossibility of finding a totally legal unit will come as a revelation.
Now, what options does an ordinary purchaser of a flat or a commercial establishment have under these circumstances? Wait for an upright marshal to come riding in and clean up the city, lock up black marketers and one-eyed members of the MCD gang, or go along with the established practice and latch on to a piece of property, as money value keeps falling every day.
The Supreme Court has taken no action against those who are supposed to uphold the law and has instead focused its attention on the weakest link in the whole chain — the ordinary, everyday purchaser of urban property. The sins of the MCD run into pages but can be summarised easily. It has deliberately failed to uphold the law against construction irregularities for reasons of profit. All of this is common knowledge. It has also failed to implement DDA’s Master Plan on a number of other fronts. This is especially true when it comes to housing for the poor, slum resettlement, low-income dwellings and providing authorised space to hawkers. By not making planned room for hawkers, as mentioned in the DDA Revised Master Plan, it is estimated that the MCD has encouraged real estate malpractice to the tune of Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 crore.
The way various officials threaten and force slum-dwellers to pay to stay is well-known. But what needs to be brought out is that the MCD has cynically neglected to abide by the Master Plan in terms of rehabilitating them. The recent incidents in Yamuna Pushta highlight this aspect in all its gory details. The Master Plan clearly mentions that rehabilitation of slum-dwellers and squatters should not be a mere paper exercise that ends up regularising what exists. Nowhere does the Master Plan advocate indiscriminate bulldozing of slums and JJ colonies, either. Instead, the Master Plan advocates alternative housing and on-site rehabilitation as the best and most enduring ways of resolving the plight of slum-dwellers. But this is far from what is current practice, and yet, the MCD is not in the dock.
The Supreme Court must also be impartial in its dispensation and make sure that its rulings affect all offenders equally. The rich construct unauthorised structures at will and even build palatial homes in totally unauthorised areas, and get away without even a rap on the knuckles. Even when a property is registered in an authorised residential colony, it is only the title deed that is fixed. No attention is paid to the legality of the construction or to the manner it is, or is going to be, used. Even the completion certificate is not required and this lets the MCD off the hook yet again. Bereft of institutional support, what should the ordinary purchaser of urban property do? Should such a person go ahead with existing practice or wait for the ideal world to somehow materialise?
The Supreme Court also needs to carry out a reality check with regard to the way land use has been changed from time to time, nearly always retrospectively. This encourages the popular belief that things will get regularised in due course and that it is foolish to wait and let the monetary value of property go out of reach.
The DDA, the supreme planning body of the city and the largest team of planners in the country, has amended the Master Plan with respect to mixed land use well after mixed land use of the kind it is now allowing was already in place. For example, guest houses, banks and nursing homes were operating happily in residential areas for years before the DDA came out with its notification on March 17, 2003, allowing them to function next to your home. This encourages the disposition that law will follow practice and it is foolish and economically unwise to expect the reverse trend.
Amidst all this fracas, parliamentarians have staked a claim that it is their job and their job alone to make the law — the Supreme Court can only interpret what is promulgated. This, again, is factually correct, but look at the haste and complete abandon with which laws are made. On September 15, 2006, while Delhi was in turmoil, Parliament passed the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act that allows shops and commercial establishments on 2,183 roads. It did this without taking into account consideration of ecological balance, which, incidentally, is one of the paramount guiding principles of the DDA’s Master Plan.
Surely, the parliamentarians know that the DDA has a special screening sub-committee that was set up in 1980 with its vice-chairman as convenor. This is in keeping with the original DDA Act of 1957 (Section 7-11A) charter that clearly states that planned development is the DDA’s main function. Parliament rushed through its legislation without giving due importance to this committee in its belated efforts to bring relief to shopkeepers in Seelampur and elsewhere. The Master Plan’s provisions have been allowed to die on the vine, and nearly every authority has had a hand in this.
Finally, it cannot be true, but it is: MCD officials have not sealed a single builder’s office in A and B residential areas. Perhaps, the same holds true in other locations further down the alphabetical order.
Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.