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Builder-politico juggernaut a menace

In a metropolis, where abundant opportunities attract people from across the nation seeking to build a better life, a dream home appears to be just a mirage. With an area of 437 sq km, of which a large pool of land under Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey Colony, Film City, Mumbai Port Trust and Mazgaon Dock is unavailable for development, the fantasy of affordable housing has turned into a nightmare for citizens from the middle and lower classes.

The issue assumes importance in the wake of a flurry of building collapse incidents in and around the city, claiming over a hundred lives. Unscrupulous elements have taken full advantage of the scarcity of land and have started controlling the business of housing in the city. They have been erecting unsteady settlements, turning Mumbai into Slumbai. This has happened right in front of the people who were supposed to safeguard the city’s interests, but compromised the citizens’ security in the name of politics.

It has never been an easy job to build an illegal shanty in this metropolis, as every such act is closely monitored by people from the area who work in cahoots with the local civic ward office, police station and the person who represents the constituency. So, for a poor person a shanty always comes with a price. The mushrooming chawls are comparatively better than the slums, but are also managed and controlled by people who constructed them.

Barring a few land pockets of the island city, the remaining areas have been encroached upon, and not even the hillocks, areas near water mains and the nullahs have been spared. It is not that the government was doing nothing. It sought to discharge its duty of a welfare state by creating a housing development authority in the name of MHADA, and later came up with SRA.

In between came the Rent Control Act, freezing the rents in Mumbai. Politicians may have sided with the tenants, but the landlords, who were legally into the business of erecting residential buildings to offer on lease, stopped new constructions leading to scarcity of houses on rent. Left with no choice, hapless people were forced to gravitate towards illegal slums and chawls.

MHADA developed certain colonies. But slowly it turned into a pro-builder authority as quality of its constructions deteriorated after 1980 and compelled people to look for decent dwellings from private developers. Those who could not afford these fell into the net of unscrupulous elements, who offered accommodations at cheaper rates on encroached spaces.

When this class started receiving political patronage, all hell broke loose and buildings constructed with inferior quality material — without legal approval from authorities — started burgeoning. Most of the structures do not meet the criteria of a suitable building with the required permissions of BMC.

Mumbai has three types of structures. First, those constructed during British era in South Mumbai. Second, the ones erected later, adhering to quality and existing rulebooks. The third category, which came up after chucking the rulebooks into the Arabian Sea, comprises the largest number. For this industry, patronage from the political class came as a much-needed boost. A cursory glance at the number of illegal structures in Mumbai and neighbouring Thane will support this fact.

No formal qualification is required for a builder and anybody who has money and necessary political benefaction can become one. People from the industry say they cannot work in the absence of political support, as officers in civic and state administration are more loyal to the elected leadership because they decide their appointments and tenures. Appointments at crucial posts in building proposals, encroachment departments at a civic body or town planning, revenue and urban development department in the state government do not come for free, and a different kind of merit always matters, they say.

All the while, successive governments and those who ruled the civic body just turned a blind eye towards the illegal structures of inferior quality. We have not heard anyone from the political field oppose construction of an unauthorised building or take the issue of illegal structures to its logical end. On the contrary, they just line up to show sympathy when such a building is vacated by authorities, or keels over taking several lives.

It’s time to bring to mind the fact that in our democracy, elected people are supreme, as they enjoy powers to appoint, transfer or punish bureaucrats, and make rules. For them, forums such as parliament and state legislatures are august houses in a democratic set-up where they can raise their voices on any issue. It’s time someone spoke up.

— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY¬†

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