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Real Estate: Offenders go scot-free, victims pay

May 02, 2013 18:15 IST

Civic bodies which are supposed to regulate the dimensions of a city’s growth, including what land ought to be used how, also have the responsibility of detecting and curbing flouting of norms, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

It is heartening to see a Bangladesh court ordering that all movable and immovable assets of the owner of the illegally constructed building that collapsed in Dhaka be seized ‘immediately’. That court also directed that all registrars across the country be informed by a circular that the owner’s properties are not sold or transferred. More punitive moves can be expected.

It has been a horrific tragedy. The building’s collapse led to the deaths of some 400 persons, easily making it a huge urban disaster and pointing out how in countries in this region, illegalities can not only just flourish but is aided and abetted by the officialdom. Like this building, one collapsed in Mumbra recently, also illegal, killing 74, equally horrendous.

In Mumbra, the owners and builders were merely arrested and so are a few civic officials for taking bribes to facilitate the construction of not only illegal but also poor quality structure with no engineer hired. We just don’t know what kind of punishment would be awarded, and by when because in India, even the courts take their time.

Not only the courts, of course. Even the investigative agencies have their own nice reasons for the direction in which a probe should proceed or is pushed. The CBI, and the fallout after the sharing of a status report, supposed to have been given in a sealed cover to the Supreme Court, is a high profile example of this venality, the willingness to compromise.

Take the Campa Cola compound buildings where 135 apartments in seven buildings are to be demolished because the Supreme Court ordered it. While illegalities are not to be countenanced, the fact remains that as a monitoring agency, the civic bodies should not allow them to even come up. And when they are allowed and then faulted, the builders escape, unless people are killed, as in Mumbra.

Civic bodies have a long-persisting, even well-consolidated tradition of allowing builders to mulct the buyers in a sellers’ market for the gains to be made are huge. Campa Cola compound buildings did not materialise overnight with someone using a magic wand. It was built over nearly eight long years and when the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai woke up to it, in a manner of speaking, it was 12 years after the first illegal flat was sold.

Of course, they builders have been fined, but it involved sums ranging from a mere Rs 600 to Rs 2,000, which amounts to not even a rap on the knuckle. The only other liability would be the approximately Rs 1.5 cr of the estimated cost of demolition which the civic body is undertaking at the behest of the apex court. The court has said the builders, not the civic body, have to compensate the residents who lose their apartments.

Though loss of lives has not been the case with the occupants of the seven buildings whose illegal floors are to be demolished now, under a court order, loss of homes is indeed a fact. Neither the builder-developers nor the civic officials are being punished for it and even pay cash for it but are going to be asked to merely fork out the cost of demolition. No doubt, there is irony: you pay for bringing down what you illegally built.

It is appropriate that the greedy have to pay for their folly but a mere Rs 1.5 crore after the measly fines in the past is just not enough. It is no deterrent either. But shouldn’t the conniving civic officials, who have made corruption an institutional character of the civic governance, be held accountable? Not a single big-ticket real estate issue which involved illegalities, connivance, has seen officials other than petty ones face the music. That, it would appear, is just to assuage public anger which surfaces once in a while.

If the builders are liable to pick up the cost of the demolition, are they not also liable to be prosecuted for the crime of building unauthorised structures, of stealing floor space index with exemplary punishment? Shouldn’t the civic officials, especially in the town planning department, be made to pay for being co-conspirators? Both the builders and the officials have been getting off the hook, leaving the unsuspecting buyers in the lurch.

Civic bodies which are supposed to regulate the dimensions of a city’s growth, including what land ought to be used how, also have the responsibility of detecting and curbing flouting of norms in the making than allow them to happen. For political reasons, and also monetary, such deviations are regularised, making a mockery of concepts of planning. This ought to end for rules are made to be observed, not winked at, nor flouted.

Wilful somnambulism seems to have enormous benefits. This ought to end.

Mahesh Vijapurkar takes a dim view of power politics and canvasses the common man’s point of view. 

Mahesh Vijapurkar