Mumbai’s ambitious plans to replace its sprawling shantytowns with high rises received a boost on Wednesday. The Bombay High Court scrapped the one-man committee that the state government had appointed to probe the rising flood of complaints of corruption in the project that is at the heart of the city’s dream of becoming a global megapolis.
Since its inception, it has been dogged by allegations that it is in the grip of a builder-politician-bureaucrat nexus. This newspaper conducted an investigation into what happened to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) plan, which was to have built four million tenements between 1995 and 2000. So far, only around 65,000 are ready. The police, it turned out, had leads that could trace payoffs to bureaucrats and politicians by builders trying to make a fast buck out of rebuilding slums. But Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh — who heads the SRA — had stopped his own investigators from probing complaints of corruption. Deputy Chief Minister RR Patil is also the Home Minister.
This means that the power to make or break the project that is meant to provide alternative accommodation to 40 lakh slum-dwellers is concentrated in the hands of powerful men who hold high political office. The Bombay High Court has now asked the Housing Department and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to investigate the complaints and take action as per criminal procedure laws. The ACB had, last year, asked for a special investigation team to probe the growing number of complaints. The government had turned down the request. On Wednesday, the Chief Minister said his government would implement the court’s orders. More than half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. The government is keen to pitch the city as Asia’s next Shanghai. But this cannot happen unless the metropolis is cleared of its slums. For this, unscrupulous builders — and the politicians and bureaucrats they keep happy — need to be checked. This seems unlikely at the moment. The court has signalled its impatience and rapped the government on the knuckles. Well begun may not be quite half-done but the court’s ruling suggests that the government cannot drag its feet for much longer. The people of Mumbai deserve better.