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, mainly investigating land misuse, when he read a small newspaper article about a housing society that had somehow got sanctions that should never have been issued.
“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.”
Just out of college, Singh was then pursuing a post-graduate degree in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the issue of land encroachment in Mumbai intrigued him.
The son of wealthy teachers and landowners in Patiala, Punjab, Singh had never seen the kind of scramble for space that first hit him when he landed in Mumbai, touching down right alongside the Dharavi slums.
“There are no slums in Punjab, so I was fascinated,” he says.
Singh is also dogged. So, when the first two offices failed to reply, he started firing off letters to other government offices — 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. “There were times when I was tempted to give up. 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 MMRDA and, in December 2010, filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court, causing a flutter that continues to dominate the front pages.
But the man behind the exposé is still uncomfortable in the spotlight.
He breaks into giggles while posing for the HT photographer, and admits that cameras make him shy.
His personal life is similarly unassuming. Singh lives in a one-room flat in Chembur, not far from a large slum. And even this is an improvement.
When he first arrived in Mumbai, Singh was so fascinated by the slums he saw that he decided to study them as part of his course.
“You can’t understand the dynamics of a slum until you live there, so, for a while, I did,” he says simply.
Singh now runs the unregistered NGO Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao, which operates out of a room in a Dadar chawl.
“I’ve learnt how to generate community contributions,” he says. “Some people donate pens, others pay our printers’ bills. It helps that there are no full-time employees, no overheads.”
The Adarsh case, incredibly, cost a mere R1,000 in queries and appeals, he adds. Advocates YP Singh and Ashish Mehta did not charge legal fees.
Meanwhile, between conducting research projects and organising protests, Singh and his wife Meenu care for their three-month-old daughter.
“My parents have come to Mumbai several times to take me back to Punjab, and they call every time an activist is killed,” he says. “But they have been very supportive, even financially.”
What would they rather have him do?
Singh laughs before replying: “I graduated in production engineering. Like most parents, they wanted me to get a cushy government job.”