Campa Cola Society demolitions tamasha

Campa Cola residents barricade themselves. Image: NDTVCampa Cola residents barricade themselves. Image: NDTV

It is all over the media. Unsuspecting, well educated residents of an upscale locality are losing their homes over something that is “not their fault”. The builder didn’t tell them that their flats were illegal, etc. Media loves this shit. More! Plight of people like us sells!!! More importantly, plight of people like us is registered as plight, instead of “municipal administration problem”.

The residents have run campaigns, done protests, parked their vehicles to obstruct the BMC, and at last news, rioted. Political parties have bridged their differences and come to the need of their voters, led by Milind Deora, who is convincing people that illegal construction is really not such a big deal, and like all other illegal constructions, this one must be allowed too.

Over 90% of the articles fail to mention the name of the builder who built the illegal floors, “Yusuf Patel”, so let’s get that mentioned upfront, because this part of the issue is not disputed at all.

And now the Supreme Court has extended the demolition date to 31st May 2014.

And we also give media sound bytes on request that we want a corruption-free society, and how it is up to each one of us to fight corruption. Wondering if Campa Cola residents joined any protest march themselves.

No one is debating that the building is illegal. It was build on industrial land by Yusuf Patel, who also happened to have major clout and underground connections (also supplied silver ingots for smuggling that were adulterated with lead to underworld don Haji Mastan). Then the FSI was for five floors, but he went ahead and kept building up (and not for the first time). One building Midtown is 20 floors, the other, Orchid is 17 floors. No one is disputing that this is illegal.

The residents have ignored a Supreme Court order to vacate 102 flats within a 41 day period provided and barricaded themselves in the compound.

protesters from campa cola building facing demolition

Campa Cola compound residents protest – Image: Indian Express

This is a method. Builder builds an illegal building. Political connections keep it from being demolished. Builder sells flats cheap. People buy illegal housing because it is cheap and because it is practically tradition to get the government to regularize it for “humanitarian considerations”. This does not change the fact that it is illegal. The idea that you buy cheap flats in a posh locality and get them converted into extremely high priced real estate on regularization is neither new nor something you can count on the government catering to. Illegal is illegal. Asking for leniency because you counted on government inaction is absurd. Political parties supporting such a demand is even more absurd.

The real question comes in the role of our upright citizens who are pleading innocence now. The claim is that they did not know the building is illegal and are now being evicted. They have been fighting for their “rights” since 2005.

Here’s the deal. No one has a right to live in an illegal construction. So the “fight” was essentially to get an illegal construction regularized by getting the state to make an exception for them from the law. Milind Deora goes ahead and helpfully points out how this is routinely done, since the concept of politicians upholding the law is usually seen as inferior to the concept of politicians doing whatever people ask them to and earn goodwill (read votes) at the cost of laws.

Except for some reason it is not working, and the case went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court too ordered the demolition.

But how true is this melodrama?

The Supreme Court verdict on the case states that the residents knew that the building was illegal.

“Although the members of the housing societies knew that the construction had been raised in violation of the sanctioned plan and permission for occupation of the buildings had not been issued by the competent authority, a large number of them occupied the illegally constructed buildings.”

Architect Jayant Tipnis testified in court that he had warned the residents several times. He has also confirmed this in media (our real courts) and said that the BMC could have halted the construction too.

“The construction of the building and the six units started without a commencement certificate. I was brought in to ensure that plans were approved and the FSI allowed. The BMC did issue stop-work notices. But it stopped at that, so the constructions continued and the developers even covered the stilt area and sold it to a reputed advertising agency who then wanted me to get it regularised, Of course it could not be done,” recalled Tipnis.

As engineers, on an average, had a three-year tenure at the building proposals department, they preferred to look the other way rather than take up demolition of illegal constructions in the city, said Tipnis.

The 70-year-old architect was already working with Patel handling his other building sites at Nagpada when he was called to take up the Campa Cola project. “Patel had turned a new leaf. He was no longer in the smuggling business, but his reputation remained. Had the BMC not been afraid of his reputation and carried out some demolition, the illegal floors would not have been constructed,”

Chandrashekhar Prabhu, urban expert (whatever that means) told CNN-IBN

“This was an industrial plot. Industrial plots were not being permitted to be used for residential purpose. The developer was an underworld don and he managed his way through the government and the politicians. Even in 1986-90, this was a sham and this building ought not to come there. The water came from tankers and there was no water connection…and the residents were aware of that.”

But the basic thing is that the residents had the opportunity to present arguments about their innocence several times in court and they failed to convince. D Jeykar, representative of the residents admits she knew the flat was not legal, but says that buying under construction flats is legal, so they thought it was okay. This seems to imply that investing in any under construction project is potentially illegal, which is not true.

Apart from this, even if they knew the building was constructed illegally, their moving into the flat without Occupation Certificates was still illegal and done with full knowledge, no?

The residents allege that their society is being singled out for demolition out of the many illegal buildings because it is a conspiracy:

“Krishna developers which has bought over the rights from Pure Drinks, wants to construct a five-star hotel here. He wants us out. Another plush residential complex is coming up around 500 metres from here and that builder wants a stretch of our land to construct a good approach road,” said Mr. Sacheti.

Knowing India, this is probably true as well, though it is a bit unbelievable that any investor will want to raze residential accommodation for a road.

Equally concerning is the complete lack of action against the builders. The residents are fighting to get a property purchased illegally at cheaper rates (one third of the price, going by some reports) converted into legal prime real estate in Mumbai. There does not seem to be any attempt by the residents to charge the builder for fraud and demand their investment back – which would be logical. One has to wonder why they must insist on an illegal structure being made legal instead of getting their rightful money back and investing in a legal structure? Obvious thought comes to mind is that it may be tough if they knowingly purchased an illegal structure. It is also a little difficult to imagine educated people purchasing a property at a third of the price and not finding out why it is on sale so cheap. Not like people who buy flats look at only one flat and buy it, so difference in rates, even if not advertised, would be evident.

Why are the government authorities not taking action against the builder?

Deafening silence. Not even aware of reporters asking these questions to anyone. It seems the underworld “of the past” is alive and well.

Nor is anyone asking for official answers on:

“We do not agree that the floors are illegal. We have been paying property tax for years now. At best, there is irregularity. Why did the government accept tax from us if our structures were illegal?” asked 42-year-old resident Vijay Mirani.

It is the natural process of occupying illegal accommodation. Get a lot of papers “proving” it is legal. The question is how is proof of residence done? How does the first piece, that gets used for “proving” other things made? We come right back to corruption in the system that can allow you to do these things. Or perhaps simple greed that waives verifications when it comes to getting money. “If someone is paying, they must be legal, right?”

Everyone seems to agree that it is important to punish the builder and not the buyer, but no one seems to have touched the builder at all. Residents have not tried to get him to refund their fraudulently obtained investment, politicians aren’t saying anything on what they will do to the builder, even as they are wiping the tears of the residents.

In my view, regularizing the building will be a very bad precedent for dealing with the illegal construction in the city. It will make the BMC’s job more difficult. I also abhor this practice of overturning Supreme Court decisions on the streets.

It is a tough situation and one of many we will face with a past of rampant lawlessness and attempting to move to a law abiding future. Many things seeded in the past will result in people doing illegal things fully expecting that they are “all right”. The question is if we hold firm, or if we make exceptions when people engineer them. If we make exceptions, there remains no ethical basis for not making exceptions for those who cannot command massive attention. Which brings us back to the lawless 1980s.

The only hope seems to be to stay firm, but also prevent a sense of “being targeted by the law”.

In my view, nothing can fix the loss of losing prime real estate you had hoped to get (but had no real right to) and it is a loss that comes with gambles like this. But what needs to be done is to take a more robust view of this situation and ensure that the residents are not the only wrongdoers paying the price simply because they are living where the law strikes.

There is a need to take legal actions against the builders (who have constructed many such buildings). There is a need to pull up the BMC on why it did not stop the construction itself instead of merely issuing a few notices and shutting up. It is important to note that engineers in musical chair transfers may not want to risk going up against powerful people and prefer to simply kick the can down the street for someone else to handle when they are transferred. This can be prevented with proper procedures and time directives so that BMC is legally required to act on illegal construction within a certain period of it coming to their attention.

The BMC should also be forced to compensate the residents for their role in perpetuating the myth that the illegal building was okay to live in. This likely cannot exceed the “legal” land rates in the area, which will be another insight on the black market around property dealings, which is for another day.

The BMC also needs to immediately start moving on the other illegal constructions and ensure that this is established as a clear process rather than a one off targeting of a society because they asked for more water or some builder the BMC is in cohoots with wanted to build a project and they were in the way.

Now that the Supreme Court has stayed the demolition, it may perhaps be an opportunity for the government to mitigate the sense of targeting around the demolition and take concrete actions that make the loss bearable to the citizens in the sense of being a part of history of a new era of legal accommodation in Mumbai.

Note: Several people have pointed out that the builder Yusuf Patel is dead and his sons are avoiding. i don’t see how this is relevant to the story, since the building business didn’t die with him. The liability of the builders should still be there. At least the Supreme Court thinks so, since its elaboration of its stay on the demolition includes a directive to prosecute the builders.

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Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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