The backstory of Ulhasnagar’s shifty real estate growth

Published on Oct 09, 2022 01:02 AM IST

Eleven years later, the empty plot on which the building stood, is a popular dumping ground for locals. Residents and shopkeepers of the erstwhile Sheesh Mahal have been trying to set up a new structure in its place, but their efforts have borne no results

This year, Ulhasnagar has seen three building collapses, leading to six deaths. Last year 15 people lost their lives in similar instances (HT Photo)
This year, Ulhasnagar has seen three building collapses, leading to six deaths. Last year 15 people lost their lives in similar instances (HT Photo)
ByYogesh Sadhwani

Ulhasnagar: Suresh Udasi will remain scarred for life by the event of April 19, 2011, that led to the death of two sisters, Mahek (5) and Honey Kukreja (3). The girls had dropped by his photo studio, located on the ground floor of Sheesh Mahal, a five storey building in Gol Maidan, Ulhasnagar. They needed to get pictures of Mehek done for school. The girls had barely settled in their maternal grandparents’ house on the third floor of the building, when part of the structure came crashing down. Mahek and Honey were among six children and two adults who died in the incident.

Eleven years later, the empty plot on which the building stood, is a popular dumping ground for locals. Residents and shopkeepers of the erstwhile Sheesh Mahal have been trying to set up a new structure in its place, but their efforts have borne no results.

Like most buildings in this township, 48 kms from Mumbai, Sheesh Mahal too was constructed without legitimate sanctions and was in violation of floor space index (FSI) norms. Since it did not have legal sanctions, none of the sale deeds were registered. The citizens bought the properties in the ill-fated building constructed in 1994 on 100 stamp paper agreements and became owners of their houses and shops. The land, however, remained in the name of the original owner, which was not conveyed to the occupants. No housing society was ever formed.

So, when they tried to redevelop the structure, apart from the land owner, who posed legal hurdles, the residents realised that constructing an authorised building to rehabilitate all of them was impossible – the available FSI sanctioned by the Ulhasnagar Municipal Corporation (UMC) was merely 1, whereas the old structure had consumed three times over the permissible mark. With their backs against a wall, they roped in a few developers to sell their non-existing apartments and shops; one offered 1,500 - 2,200 per square feet to relinquish their rights. That deal is yet to come through, as the developer no longer finds the deal financially viable. Their only hope is that someday, the government will amend the rules and offer them higher FSI, which would enable them to rebuild Sheesh Mahal.

Sheesh Mahal represents several buildings in the township, spread across seven square kilometres, many of which are in decrepit state and may meet a similar fate. The citizens in Ulhasnagar are caught in a vicious cycle.

This year, Ulhasnagar has seen three building collapses, leading to six deaths. Last year 15 people lost their lives in similar instances.

A township bursting at the seams

Spread over mere seven square kilometres, Ulhasnagar has been home to the Sindhi community since Partition. As business started booming, other communities found the township lucrative for investment as well.

In the ‘90s, enterprising people from the township saw a business opportunity in construction. Families grew, leading to a swell in the population but there was just not enough space to house everyone. This led to a rise in unauthorised constructions.

“In that decade the real estate was way cheaper in Ulhasnagar than in neighbouring suburbs. I found flats at rates of 450 per square feet (psf) in Kalyan and 350 in Ambernath, whereas in Ulhasnagar it was 200-220 psf. The only hitch was the absence of sale deeds. While all agreements were done on stamp paper, most buildings did not have sanctions and those that did were committing massive violations. None of the buildings ever obtained occupation certificates from the civic body; but back then no one cared about these things,” said Naresh Tahilramani, a former banker, who has raised civic issues plaguing the township over the past few years.

A majority of the structures in the township are unauthorised, built by unscrupulous developers in collusion with municipal authorities and politicians.

In a survey conducted by the City Survey Department between 1965 and 1971, 30,714 encroachments were found in Ulhasnagar. This rose to 1,13,767 by 2007. They are categorised as structures on plots reserved for public purposes, roads proposed in development plan, government lands, constructions made on private lands without permission of the planning authority, or on private land after obtaining the building permission but in violation of building permission and development control rules, and slums on government land and reserved plots.

By Ulhasnagar Municipal Corporation’s (UMC) own admission, on December 16, 2003, in Bombay high court at a hearing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the situation has been deteriorating over the years. “The population went on steadily increasing but there was no increase in the area of the town. This led to a rise of unauthorised constructions in Ulhasnagar and unscrupulous builders took advantage of this high demand for residential premises,” stated the affidavit signed by the then deputy municipal commissioner PD Kolekar.

“The usual modus operandi adopted by unscrupulous builders was to file suits in civil courts in Ulhasnagar and Kalyan and obtain ex-parte orders against action of demolition. These orders inevitably remained in force for a long time…The proceedings used to further multiply, as several families who were by then inducted in unauthorised premises, would adopt further legal proceedings and obtain injunctions against demolitions,” the affidavit stated. And even after the status quo orders were vacated, the demolitions could not take place because of “law and order” problems, the deputy commissioner stated on oath.

The deputy commissioner in his affidavit attempted to point fingers at the judicial system. “The legal department in UMC has brought to the notice of Honourable High Court the manner in which ex-parte status quo orders were being passed by the lower civil courts… (UMC filed a complaint against a sitting civil court judge for granting injunctions to developers and citizens). On transfer of the said civil judge and as per the directions given on the administrative side by this (Bombay high court) Honourable Court to the newly appointed judges, the courts were slow in granting ex-parte injunctions against demolitions,” the affidavit stated.

What the officer did not concede to, was the nexus between developers, politicians and officers in the civic body. The one-man Nandlal Committee, appointed by the state government, to study the problem of unauthorised constructions in Thane and neighbouring suburbs, tabled a report July 1999. It named several officers and politicians from Ulhasnagar who were in cahoots with the unscrupulous builders back then. In his report the IAS officer, Nandlal Gupta, cited a report by Director General of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) dated July 8, 1998, “The then president (of UMC) took 30 per square feet from developers and advised them to approach the courts (to obtain stay orders in case of demolition notices). The law officer and chief officer did not initiate any action against such buildings on the pretext that stay had been granted by a court.”

Houses on sand

Citizens were dealt a double whammy -- unauthorised and poor quality of construction. Hardas Makhija, former mayor of Ulhasnagar, said in the past, the majority of developers were unqualified. “Back then even a hawker became a developer. Against 10 professional developers there were 90 others with no knowledge or experience of real estate. Anybody who could get his hand on a plot would get into the construction business. As a result, inferior quality of materials was getting used with no supervision or structural audit to check the quality of construction. In a bid to show they were doing something, civic officials issued notices to such constructions, many of which were being built sans any clearances. When some structures were partially demolished by the civic body, developers quickly rebuilt the demolished portions,” explained Makhija, whose home and office were destroyed in the Sanmukh Sadan collapse in 2009. Three lives were lost and the building is yet to be redeveloped.

Over the years, civic officials have blamed the use of sand, procured from Ulwe creek, for the building crashes. After the ban on sand mining on river banks, the developers started procuring sand from Ulwe creek, which was of inferior quality. Within two decades of construction, the buildings started crumbling.

A majority of the buildings that are crumbling now were built between 1993 and 95, when the construction business was booming.

Then, there are others who do not buy into the poor sand quality theory. Raj Asrondkar, former journalist, corporator, who now runs an NGO called Kaydya Ne Wagha (follow the law), points to several buildings constructed around the same time which are not showing any cracks.

“Those that are in a decrepit state or have collapsed belong to the business class that have spent lakhs in doing up their houses with marbles floors, granite beds, with water tanks atop every washroom (owing to poor water distribution network) and fancy interiors. None of them had a concept of housing societies and were poorly maintained. In contrast, look at the buildings that have come up around the same time and are occupied by working class families. They have proper committees that spend time and money on the upkeep of their structures, as they know they were built in haste by unscrupulous developers using inferior materials,” said Asrondkar.

Clean up the township: HC

All was well till 2005. The residents who were aware of the unauthorised status of their buildings and the unholy nexus of the powers that be and builders, looked the other way. Their structures were showing signs of ageing rapidly, but none of them had collapsed up until then.

In 2005, Bombay high court started hearings of a PIL filed in 2003. A division bench of HC in April 2005 ordered demolition of illegal buildings here. To begin with, 855 buildings were identified and orders were given to UMC to act against them promptly. UMC dragged its feet for months and brought down only three buildings, which were unoccupied, in November, 2005.

When civic body officials attempted to demolish a private bungalow, they were attacked, and they retreated. On January 12, 2006, a division bench of Justice RM Lodha and Justice Anoop V Mohta lambasted the civic body, underlining its laxity which led to mushrooming of largescale illegal construction and unauthorised buildings. “This is not acceptable,” stated the order. “The wrongdoers cannot be benefitted directly or indirectly by inaction or such action that results in giving premium to the largescale illegal constructions.”

That was the last nail in Ulhasnagar’s coffin.

A new lease of life

Days after HC order, the Maharashtra government came to the rescue of Ulhasnagar – it passed an Ordinance to regularise structures and grant them FSI of 4 (which means the total built-up area can be four times the size of the plot). The residents had to pay anywhere between 10 to 20 % of the market value of the property as fees for regularisation.

“Ulhasnagar is primarily a city of refugees or displaced persons who were rehabilitated after migration from West Pakistan in the aftermath of Partition. The township was originally a military transit camp built by the then British government in 1942 during World War-II to house 6000 British soldiers. There were 1173 barracks available and 94,400 persons who migrated from West Pakistan were accommodated there. Many remained without a roof over their heads. Many occupied vacant land and put up their shelters. Pangs of Partition and displacement were audible from packet barracks and unorganised shanties set up on open lands,” stated the Ordinance.

The Legislature, while passing the Ordinance, resolved, “Population explosion and limited areas with limited FSI, greedy and unscrupulous builders and negligent local administration, have brought to the city the largescale illegal construction. These were brought to the notice of the Hon’ble high court through different PILs and the Hon’ble high court has ordered that illegal constructions need to be demolished. They ought to go. However, demolition on such a large scale may lead to law-and-order problems and hardship for residents, with many being rendered homeless. This will virtually lead to the second displacement of migrants from West Pakistan, requiring rehabilitation, which the government can hardly afford.

“The issue was discussed in the last Winter Session of the State Legislature; the representatives of people urged the government to come up with a solution to mitigate the miseries of occupants of the authorised structures. Thereafter, the government made a special law providing for regularisation of the unauthorised constructions, on the lines of the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act, 2001 (Guj. Act No.23 of 2001).”

The township was jubilant. The HC gave the administration 18 months to regularise all the structures.

The state government may have rolled out the red carpet for the citizens of Ulhasnagar but they did not make much of it. In the subsequent 18 months, only a few applications were received for regularisation. “Back then, some politicians misguided the citizens on grounds that fees for regularisation were too high and that they would have it reduced. The fee was never revised and citizens lost out on a golden opportunity,” said Makhija.

Crumbling like pack of cards

By the end of 18 months, HC once again questioned civic officials on the status of regularisation and action plan for demolition. After UMC and state government submitted their affidavits, division bench of Justice JN Patel and Justice AA Sayed pulled up state government on August 22, 2007. “Additional chief secretary, of Urban Development Department, government of Maharashtra, has squarely blamed the municipal corporation for the inaction in demolishing 1,13,767 unauthorised structures and tenements in the city of Ulhasnagar, despite repeated directions issued by the state government in various meetings held from time to time.”

By now, the condition of several buildings had worsened and were listed as hazardous. The helpless residents had no option but to stay put in, for want of ownership documents of land and limited FSI available for redevelopment. 2009 saw four major building collapses.

The spate of collapses continues, the last one being Manas Building, on September 22, 2022, in which four lives were lost. To date, 38 collapses have claimed around 50 lives.

A second shot at life

Having missed the bus the last time, citizens have been seeking another lifeline. Their contention has been that the 2006 Ordinance did not provide for redevelopment. Their demands bore fruit in July 2021 when the then PWD minister Eknath Shinde appointed a committee to study the problem and make recommendations.

In August this year, Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from Ulhasnagar and Ambernath, Kumar Ailani and Dr Balaji Kinikar respectively, raised the issue of accepting recommendations by the committee. “The chief minister accepted the demands on the floor of the house. The redevelopment would be possible in clusters and with FSI of 6.4. Moreover, the fee for regularisation has been reduced to a mere 220 per square foot. The citizens will also have ownership rights to their properties. Most citizens obtained ownership in the past on 10 and 100 stamp papers. All the buildings will also become regularised under this policy. All of this will happen through a single window scheme, CM has assured on the floor of the House,” Ailani said.

The township is now waiting with bated breath for the policy to be actualised. The video of the CM accepting the recommendations in the assembly has been doing the rounds on social media.

“I am desperately awaiting the policy which will allow me finally work from my studio once again. All these years, I have been working out of home,” said Udasi, who owned a 450 square feet shop in Sheesh Mahal.

Makhija though had a word of caution, “I hope this time a better sense prevails among our politicians. I am praying they do not misguide the citizens like they did in 2006.”

HOUSE OF CARDS

Number of buildings that gave way in Ulhasnagar over a decade

September 22, 2022: Manas Building – 4 dead

September 18, 2022: Sai Sadan – 1 dead

August 25, 22: Komal Park – 1 dead

October 23, 2021: Paras Building – 1 dead

August 3, 2021: Anand Palace – no casualties

May 28, 2021: Sai Shakti Building -- 7 dead

May 15, 2021: Mohini Palace – 5 dead

September 16, 2019: Sherawali Building – no casualties

August 13, 2019: Mahak Building – no casualties

August 21, 2019: Sachdev Apartment – no casualties

August 15, 2019: Keswani Complex – no casualties

July 28, 2019: Ambika Sagar Building – 1 dead

July 13, 2019: Devrishi Apartment – no casualties

February 3, 2019: Memsaab Heights -- 3 dead

July 15, 2018: Murli Complex – 1 dead

December 17, 2011: Maa Bhagwati – no casualties

April 19, 2011: Sheesh Mahal – 8 dead

October 29, 2009: Sanmukh Sadan – 3 dead

July 24, 2009: Goodman Cottage – no casualties

April 25, 2009: Hira Building – no casualties

April 2009: Saideep Palace – no casualties

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