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The unresolved whodunits of urban real estate

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
April 03, 2013 13:56 IST
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The real estate business thrives on creating excess spaces beyond the permitted building codes, short-changing the buyer, and even opting for poorer quality of material. This finds an enthusiastic resonance among the officialdom. Flouting rules is part of the business model, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

If there is one sector that reeks of illegalities and fosters corruption, it is real estate in India. No city is devoid of this venality. Bigger the cities, scarcer the land and higher the demand for housing, greater is the profiteering - a preferred term than profit-making - and more prevalent the community of rent-seekers from the ranks of politicians and officials, especially civic.

The business thrives on creating excess spaces beyond the permitted building codes, short-changing the buyer, and even opting for poorer quality of material. This finds an enthusiastic resonance among the officialdom. Flouting rules is part of the business model in which, using glitzy advertisements, more than comfortable homes, lifestyles are offered. All except the buyers are winners.

Of course, there are exceptions but it would appear they are far too few.

In this backdrop, it is heartening that the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has now decided to act against illegal constructions and illegal changes in the structures built in the city and appointed 65 officers to sniff out the variations from approved plans. The hope is that this thrust is successful but they have a lot of work to do. The civic body intends to hold these officials responsible for, say, a collapse due to unapproved alternations.

That, however welcome, is about now and later. The city, with a burgeoning population whose pace of growth has slightly, only slightly, ebbed, has been a victim of illegalities of all kinds over a period of several decades and possibly, the approved plans of some of them may not even be available readily. More importantly, the question is about how these illegalities became rampant threatening the lives of their occupants as well as alter the officially intended space uses.

Two examples would do well here.

One is the construction of buildings built under what is commonly described as ‘private forests’ in and around Mumbai. Another is the manner in which a reputed builder was allowed to build what was not supposed to be -- luxury apartments instead of affordable houses.

In the first, building after building were constructed with due permissions from the civic body and later attended by the obligatory municipal services and then suddenly, declared illegal because the private forests had to be left alone. Private forests are places where the number of trees was beyond a specific number or density.

In the 1970s, these were declared privately owned forests but had to be left untouched. However, the government notification did not reach the collectors and therefore, not known to anybody so they were treated as normal land. Suddenly, when infringements were spotted, the apartment blocks were declared illegal and liable for demolition. The courts gave them relief and some penalty would probably lead to their regularisation.

In the other case, an award in 1986 determined that a builder be given land at the rate of Re 1 per hectare. In return, the builder had to construct affordable 431 and 861 sq ft flats of which 15 per cent were to be handed over to the government at the rate of Rs 135 a squre foot. But the campus strategically located between the Eastern and Western Express Highway, quite emerged to be something else. A news report last year quoting (external link), the Supreme Court is revealing.

If the officials are to be held responsible (external link), for illegalities they are now supposed to sniff out  (external link) henceforth, why are the officials who were involved in these two glaring instances going scot free? With regard to the ‘private forest’ notification which did not leave the portals of Mantralaya, it would not be difficult to pinpoint who was responsible for suppression of an important notification. He or she remains unidentified and if the government tried to find out who, no one knows about it.

The construction in Powai was not behind an impenetrable screen but with the connivance of officials and could not have gone on to be what is said to be a ‘good address’ instead of a place of the aam janata. Officials are supposed to approve plans, and give a commencement certificate and then, only if it met with stipulations, issue the occupation certificate. The mote that blinded the involved official machinery should have been sufficiently satisfactory to have winked at it.

The issue is of reform, not mere detection in future, and it can start with efforts to shake up the machinery and the building industry by digging into the past. If it is a case of a game of whodunit, it had better start with the Powai and the ‘private forest’ case, in the matter of the latter, flat owners were unable to transact a sale for some time. However, for a consideration, despite a government fiat barring it, they are registered as sold and bought.

It would be educative if someone were to file a public interest litigation asking that all civic bodies make public the approved plans and the executed plans of all buildings. It would emerge that most are not just replete with deviations but have the chalk-and-cheese difference between the approved and the built and sold apartments. If the names of those who signed the relevant papers were to be also revealed, it could well be a who’s who list in officialdom.

Only on Tuesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan stated, as Loksatta reported  (external link), is less about fixing responsibility and more about regularisation of illegalities. He spoke of how illegal constructions were ‘growing’. It goes without saying that the buyer can never be faulted - buyers beware doctrine is never possible as never does one get all details before making a choice - but the originators and perpetuators of the mischief should surely be brought to book?

Unless one gets to the root of it, the malaise would continue. But who has the will among the politicians, Prithviraj Chavan? Take the ball; it is now in your court. Especially because you have a reputation of being intolerant of venality, but will you?

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator who takes the common man’s view point seriously

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