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Kolkata apartments in a controversy

July 22, 2006 17:47 IST
Sanjay Rastogi*, a chartered accountant, had booked a 2,000 sq ft flat in Tower I of South City, the mega housing project on Prince Anwar Shah Road in south Kolkata, two years ago. It was then the most sought-after address in town, and Rastogi considered himself quite fortunate.

Some of the best-known players in the business - Emami, Shrachi, Merlin, Rameswara and Sureka - had come together to develop the 31.5 acre mini-township, the "largest mixed-use development in the east" with around 1,600 apartments spread over four of the tallest towers in the city. The township had plans to include a school, a club, mall, a dedicated sub-station and many other facilities for the residents.

But not long after he booked the flat, the project began to make newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons. It started last year with a local environment body complaining to the West Bengal Pollution Control Board that buildings nearby had developed cracks.

Again in January 2006 it was alleged that the project had encroached upon Bikramgarh Jheel bordering the site. Government departments got cracking - the civic building department imposed a stop-work and the WBPCB decreed that no flats could be handed over until the matter was cleared up.

More controversies followed with the WBPCB being pulled up by the Union environment ministry, having apparently allowed work to start without the mandatory Environment Impact Assessment.

The matter is in the courts now, where a public interest litigation filed by the Trinamool Congress's Javed Khan is being heard. To add to the swell of bad publicity, newspapers early this month reported that a labourer had fallen to his death on the site. This was the sixth death reported and concerned authorities had begun frowning at the callousness of the builders.

But has the negative banter affected residents like Rastogi? Though some investors may be concerned about the outcome, surprisingly there are some who aren't too worried especially as construction at the site is on full swing.

In fact, Rastogi says, he's even had a few inquiries from agents offering him the current market price of Rs 2,600/sq ft, and while that is a good Rs 800 more than what he paid, Rastogi is still holding on.

"So many big people are involved, so much is at stake", he says, pragmatically, adding, "I find it difficult to believe that they would not be able to work out some compromise formula with the authorities."

A number of well-heeled people in Kolkata who have bought apartments in the project feel the same way. Despite all the negative publicity, all but 150 flats have been sold.

DJ Chakraborty, marketing manager of the project, reports that nearly two-three bookings happen on a daily basis. Of course, he has to heed the calls of people who are concerned about the controversy surrounding the site. In such cases, people are encouraged to visit the project site and see the construction for themselves.

Towers one and two are already towering 32-storeys into the sky, while towers three and four (incidentally, a WBPCB committee report had wanted these demolished) are under full construction.

South City is, of course, not the only high-profile residential project that is controversial as far as environmental matters are concerned.

Two others, Sanjeevani Projects' Sanjeeva Town and the Ideal Group's Green Valley Towers, have also been hauled up for encroaching on the East Calcutta Wetlands, declared a Ramsar site. Bookings on these projects were well underway even as court orders decreed they be demolished.

The WBPCB, in its submission to the courts, said that the developers had not got an NOC from it before starting work. That's not all, environment activists led by Bonani Kakkar of People United for Better Living in Calcutta have alleged that the law forbidding the filling-up of ponds has been violated by Metro Cash & Carry, a favourite project of the chief minister's, in the construction of its centre in Mukundapur.

A number of other projects that are nearing completion also had similar allegations levelled against them. The Silver Springs project, one of the first high-profile housing developments to come up on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in 2003, ran into trouble with the WBPCB for allegedly filling up a water-body in the area.

But the project's almost ready, the towers are in place, the model flat is ready and those who have booked flats are happily checking out colours of the walls, size of the bathrooms and deciding on the furniture too.

Concerns for the environment surrounding these housing projects, it seems, is only for the environmentalists and doesn't seem to have too much effect on the increasing number of buyers. There's obviously a raging demand for these housing projects and even if most of them are shrouded in controversies and court orders, who cares.

Some names have been changed to protect identity.

Gargi Gupta in New Delhi
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