By Aishwarya Mohapatra

Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

The recent news about the eviction of a hundred-and-forty families from the Campa Cola Compound in Worli, Mumbai shocked most people across the nation. After all, eviction and removal by force are things that happen to “slum dwellers” and the like, and not respectable middle class families living in a home for more than 20 years. There is a wave of angry netizens cursing the Indian judiciary for its hard-heartedness and the presence of corrupt officials in government and civic bodies like the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the actions of which have led to families losing property worth earnings of decades.

To provide a little background on the subject, the Campa Cola compound was constructed on land leased to Pure Drinks Ltd in 1955. The BMC permitted it to develop the land for residential properties. Pure Drinks along with three builders Yusuf Patel, B K Gupta and PSB Construction erected two buildings – two of which were of 17 stories and 20 stories each. The builders were fined, but they resumed work after paying penalties. Buyers occupied the apartments and buildings formed co-operative societies. The residents have been in litigation with the BMC since 2005 to prevent the BMC from razing the building down. The Supreme Court on May 30, 2014 has declined to stay the eviction of the residents. As of now, the residents have now started camping in tents inside the compound, hoping for a favourable outcome of the curative petition to come up in the Supreme Court in July. Celebrities like Lata Mangeshkar have come out in favour of the residents. Also, MNS leader Raj Thackeray and former police commissioner Satyapal Singh, who is now the BJP’s MP from Baghpat, UP joined voice to the residents’ plea.

Looking at the matter casually while removed from the outrage of it all gives way to certain questions: Does the problem of illegal housing persist in other places in Mumbai, and how does it even crop up in the first place? Who should be held most responsible for the Campa Cola disaster? Is the Supreme Court right to be so harsh on ordinary citizens of Mumbai who were only looking for a place to live and raise families?

Speaking in a broader sense, the phenomenon of illegal buildings in Mumbai is not a recent one. The issue has always persisted in the most space-challenged city of the country, but has increased since 1995 onwards, when a new set of regulations were introduced by the BMC regarding development control, FSI and TDR. Projects without environmental clearances and violating air space regulations were increasingly built. There was excessive consumption of FSI and the open spaces around buildings were illegally used up. When more FSI and faster development clearances are non-existent, areas with ever increasing demands get filled up with illegal buildings. A critical factor that draws buyers is the fact that illegal buildings have lower property prices.

Illegal housing has been more or less checked in Navi Mumbai, where CIDCO has enforced strict norms, but the rest of the city seems to be afflicted with this menace, be it Greater Mumbai, the Kalyan – Dombivali belt, Thane and Ulhasnagar. According to BMC, there are 56,000 illegal buildings in the city, and the number is increasing, given the land constraints and the influx of people. 9 out of every 10 buildings in Thane’s Mumbra region are either illegal or irregular, according to the local political parties.

Illegal constructions, once identified, can be demolished without notice, and residents have to face a constant risk of displacement from their homes. A whole project may be deemed as structurally unsound if there are additional illegal constructions, which are obviously not a part of the original approved plans. The recent incident of an ill-constructed illegal building crashing in Mumbra, Thane on April 4 2014 only underlines the dire consequences that can arise from inhabiting such buildings.

Still, in the much publicized Campa Cola case, it is not as if the residents are entirely above blame. According to Rohit Malhotra, a resident who has been acting as the spokesperson for the eviction, the buyers were told in 1986 that building plans were approved, however the BMC never gave an occupation certificate (OC) to the buildings, a fact that the residents must have been aware of after a few years, due to the lack of regular water supply and the dependence on tankers for water.

It is illegal to move into a building that has not been given its OC, and buyers must ask for OCs from the builders before even purchasing apartments or flats.

That’s how this goes – buyers overlook the irregularities for a lower price or discount from the builders, while builders bribe BMC officials and politicians for illegal construction. Desperate flat buyers convince themselves with the assurance of the builders that the buildings will be legalized with time. If builders are caught, politicians raise a hue and cry about the issue in favour of residents to gain sympathy – it was much seen in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And the vicious cycle goes on and on.

It is of much grievance to the Campa Cola residents as well as to the citizens across the country that the Supreme Court decided to make an example of Campa Cola while Adarsh remains standing. The loss of the families is definitely moving, but the buck has to stop somewhere. About 40% of the buildings do not have mandatory OCs from the BMC. Between 2003-04 and 2012-13, the civic body had received 14370 applications for OCs and could grant only 6888. Illegal buildings mean that people are living in unsafe and dangerous surroundings, and this is unacceptable.

The more immediate actions to be taken are caution and diligence by prospective buyers. Be careful of builders who may fake building plans. There has to be an effective means to keep track of building plans and permissions, and the BMC announced putting the building plans online to enable buyers to keep a tab on their investments. But, more permanent reforms would include improvement in land records, measurement and registration procedures. More agriculture land must be converted to urban land. Building permissions and related procedures must be streamlined for more ease. Development norms can be made more flexible, to reduce illegal construction – success can be witnessed in cities like Bangalore. Compliance to rules and laws must be sacrosanct, with no presence of the “ye chal jaega” attitude. Ahmedabad was able to reduce illegal construction only due to strict compliance to building norms after the 1991 earthquake. As Gupta, a bedridden builder of the Campa Cola case, puts it, the buildings were constructed because “there was a breach but it was legally approvable”.

Recent events show there’s a lesson for all involved – the builders, civic bodies, ordinary citizens as well. Only we can decide if the Campa Cola case becomes an ineffectual old tale or a beginning towards safer and regularized residences in the country’s financial capital.

Aishwarya is a Graduate in Manufacturing Science and Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. She is a hardcore rebel through and through, and loves taking the not-much-thought-of side of things. Her philosophy is “A good laugh a day keeps the doctor away.” A keen lover of books, she writes – whether it is logical prose or irrational poetry. She is passionate about theology, spirituality and women’s rights. She likes meeting new people and learning about new cultures. She can be reached at her email (ash.kgp@gmail.com) or her blog (aishwarya-23@tumblr.com)

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind