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#India – Demolition double standard: If slums go, why not Campa Cola?

Kavitha Iyer in FirstPost
This is not the first time that home-owners in the financial capital have been in fisticuffs with lathi-wielding policemen. Only, they have been slumdwellers, rioting to stop demolition squads, a common enough scene in in the past decade.  So the scenes of residents of the Campa Cola buildings in ’s upper middle class locality of Worli being physically removed from the path of a bulldozer at their gates may be tragic — being forced to abandon one’s home is heartwrenching, under any circumstances — but there is little reason to see this impending demolition, now postponed through an extension from the Supreme Court, very differently from the countless slum clearance drives of the past.

 

]Campa Cola SocietyThe ruckus at Campa Cola society today

First, some facts: The eviction and impending demolition are not the overnight knockout punch they are being made out to be by residents of the 96 unauthorised flats in the Campa Cola buildings. Stop work notices had been issued during construction, including one as far back as November 1984. The flat-owners and residents were not unaware of the illegalities — one of the building’s architects has said everyone from residents to localpoliticians knew the structures were being built rapidly in violation of stop work notices. The flats were a steal, he contends. Besides, the absent water supply and occupation certificates would have been a persistent alarm bell — the housing societies had to file writ petitions demanding water supply from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

here is more evidence that the residents were not in the dark about the irregularities:

* The trial court noted that the architect had repeatedly told the developers/builders that construction beyond the sanctioned plan was illegal and that the members of the housing societies were aware of this fact.

* When residents appealed against the verdict, the HC agreed with the trial court that members of the societies knew that the flats occupied by them had been constructed in violation of sanctioned plans.

Another fact: The Supreme Court verdict in the case expressly forbids the state from doing exactly what the desperate residents of the illegal homes have been demanding from Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

In fact, in its very first paragraph, the judgment points out that courts have in the past “repeatedly cautioned the concerned authorities against arbitrary regularisation of illegal constructions.. ”

It says: “Unfortunately, despite repeated judgments by this Court and the High Courts, the builders and other affluent people engaged in the construction activities, who have, over the years shown scant respect for regulatory mechanism … have received encouragement and support from the State apparatus. As and when the Courts have passed orders or the officers of local and other bodies have taken action for ensuring rigorous compliance with laws relating to planned development of the cities and urban areas and issued directions for demolition of the illegal/unauthorised constructions, those in power have come forward to protect the wrongdoers either by issuing administrative orders or enacting laws for regularisation of illegal and unauthorised constructions in the name of compassion and hardship. Such actions have done irreparable harm to the concept of planned development of the cities and urban areas.”

This judgment came at the end of a litigation that lasted years, fought keenly by residents who didn’t give up even after the February verdict specifically ordering them not to approach any agency for any relief. No less than Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s arguments for the flat-owners were dismissed by the court.

The court specifically rejected Singhvi’s contention for the flat-buyers that they were being penalized for an illegality committed by the builder. “They (flat-buyers) were aware of the fact that the revised plans submitted by the architect had not been approved by the Planning Authority and the developers/builders had foretold them about the consequence of rejection of the revised plans. Therefore, there is no escape from the conclusion that the flat buyers had consciously occupied the flats illegally constructed by the developers/builders,” the judgment said. “… they cannot seek a direction for regularization of the illegal and unauthorized construction made by the developers/builders.”

No less than the Member of Parliament from South Mumbai Milind Deora, also a union minister, has said the case of Campa Cola is starkly different from those of sumdwellers who are, in his words, “individual squatters” on public land. Even fresh off the boat newcomers to this city are not wet enough behind their ears to believe this — it is hardly possible to wander into a part of the city and just place four poles and, err, squat. Slums in Mumbai, even pavement encroachments, are serious, organised business, something Deora is fully aware of.

The only difference is that the poor are expendable — the Congress-NCP Maharashtra government and the Shiv Sena-led BMC together demolished lakhs of shanties between December 2004 and mid-2005, right after the DF government came to power after promising, dangerously, to extend the “cutoff date” for regularisation of slums in Mumbai. Slumdwellers who settled before 2000 would be extended protection against demolition without rehabilitation, was the promise, a bonus of five years from the earlier cutoff of 1995. That promise was made once again in 2009 even though every Mumbai politician worth his vada pav knows that there is a court order against such an extension, that the state’s appeal against this HC judgment is still pending. But then, as we said, the poor are expendable immediately after an election, until immediately before the next.

Upper middle class Worli is not so expendable right now for a combination of local reasons and circumstances, not the least of which is the keen electoral contest that is going to follow soon here.

And that is why the MP and a Congress MLA are petitioning the CM knowing full well not only that this CM has earned a reputation for playing by the book but also that an ordinance is legally inexpedient. To be fair, Deora doesn’t really have a choice — it’s either make the right noises here or watch the BJP sneak off with the sympathies of the locals. So Deora and Amin Patel have been seen at the building, placards in hands, as if they were elected members of the Opposition and not the ruling party. The mayor and his entourage made their mandatory visit, as if the civic administration would be able to turn a blind eye to a strongly worded SC verdict because the municipal commissioner’s political bosses are walking the election talk. And the BJP — perhaps the most keen to milk this situation — pretends it could have handled this better. The only thing that’s left to try is a magic potion from Narendra Modi.

To the Mumbaiite in the slums and chawls, and even in the less affluent suburbs, the unfolding drama is another instance of the failure of the State apparatus to act firmly against illegal constructions belonging to the affluent while not hesitating to take similar action against the jhuggi jhopris, a sort of unacknowledged respect for moneyed illegalities that have a political nexus.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai’s typically hurried style, we have forgotten there is a larger picture, and we have overlooked the minute details. We only want the immediate headlines: An ordinance will not prejudice other cases of buildings with similar illegal floors, said one legal luminary (of course it will); the purchasers were totally in the dark about illegalities (they were not); the politicians are petitioning the chief minister and Sonia Gandhi to intervene (neither has stepped in yet).

But the larger picture is that this landmark SC judgment is also about civic officials and politicians colluding to create a situation where Mumbai’s flat purchasers can never hope to complete EMIs in their lifetime if they want to purchase a flat minus these large cut corners. The SC judgment is in that sense as much about the average flat buyer who can never afford Worli as it is about the desperately poor in Mumbai’s shanties and also about the shiny-eyed hopefuls who dreamt of a home of their own and shifted 45 km away to Mumbra only to die when the illegal Lucky Compound building in Mumbra came crashing down one hot summer day this year.

In fact, in more ways than one, April 2013 was an instructive month if you follow the incredible stuff that makes news in Mumbai.

On April 4, 75 people died in a building collapse in Mumbra. Two  deputy municipal commissioners, fairly senior officials, not lowly peons seeking some palm grease, were among the 22 arrested. They were charged with accepting bribes to permit the blatantly illegal construction.

Four days later, on April 10, Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil signed on the suspension orders of 36 policemen of a single police station after a plucky activist caught them on camera accepting payoffs ranging from a few hundred rupees to several thousands, depending on the rank, to overlook unauthorised repairs inside a shanty town.

Late the same month, the BMC issued eviction notices to flats in Worli’s Campa Cola society, kicking off the drama that has gained foreground today.

The single thread that runs through much of Mumbai’s biggest malaise — a completely decrepit housing situation — is corruption. The Supreme Court verdict leading up to today’s ruckus in Worli has plenty to say about tackling corruption. The politicians cluck-clucking their sympathies in Worli should instead act strongly against the collusion of officials and builders that allowed the buildings to be built.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the Campa Cola saga. If its demolition is stalled, that lesson will never be learnt.

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