In a city where no rules seem to be strong enough to safeguard a square inch of open space, MiD DAY has obtained documents that point, once again, to the unholy builder-bureaucrat nexus. Various existing guidelines pertaining to air safety were put on the backburner by the system’s own appointed caretakers — the Civil Aviation Ministry at the Centre and the Airports Authority India (AAI, Western region) — to repeatedly bend the rules and grant a NOC to a builder for an upcoming building, located dangerously close to the main airport runway 0927 in Santacuz.
MiD DAY’s investigations have revealed that first top officials of the AAI and thereafter head honchos of the Union Civil Aviation Ministry repeatedly overlooked the recommendations made by Mangala Narasimhan, an official of the NOC department of the AAI in Mumbai, against the plan of a building by Chouhan Builders, which violated various air safety rules. When Narasimhan refused to sign the NOC on account of the violations, the top bosses at AAI allegedly outsourced the deed to an official outside the NOC department. Narasimhan was soon transferred to another department of the AAI.
The first of many violations that made the construction of this building possible took place back in April 2005, when the builder got a nod from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) for construction work on nine sub-plots under S6 of the Khotwadi area in Santacruz (West). Significantly, the SRA gave its permission for the construction in spite of the fact that the area is under the sole jurisdiction of the AAI. This is made explicit in the Development Control Regulation for Greater Mumbai, 1971 laid down by the Urban Development Department of the state government, which says unequivocally that no construction can take place within a radius of 2.4 km from the runway without the permission of the Civil Aviation Authorities, in this case the AAI. In spite of this, Chouhan builders miraculously received permission from SRA to construct the building at Khotwadi, in Santacruz (West) at the mere distance of 668 m from the tip of the busy runway 0927 of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). The plot in question is at a distance of 1128 metres from the city’s other aerodrome in Juhu, which means that it is a threat to flight operations at this runway as well.
It was smooth sailing for the errant builder till this point. The first hiccup came in August that year, when Chouhan builders applied to the AAI for the mandatory no-objection certificate for the construction, requesting approval for construction upto a height of 22 metres. At this point, the NOC department of the AAI set a limit of 12.22 metres for the building in accordance with the safety norms, asking the builder to submit a fresh building plan and an undertaking assuring the authority that the height of the building would not exceed 12.22 metres. The builder, obviously unhappy with the order, did not revert to the authority, and the case was eventually closed.
The builder made no move for the next four years. Documents reveal that Chouhan Builders renewed its attempts to bring about the construction of the building in 2009. This time, its proprietors appeared to have convinced the regional executive director of AAI, (western region) to overlook the earlier stipulation of 12 metres issued by the NOC department in 2005, and write to the Aviation Ministry in Delhi, asking for fresh permission for the building, 20 metres high. The Ministry, however, denied permission for the same and reverted with a strongly worded rejection of the proposal. (Document with MiD DAY)
But Chouhan Builders were not ready to submit even to the Ministry. In 2010, the builder, unfazed by two rejections, made a fresh application to the AAI, this time adding two other subplots to the Khotwadi plot. This time, the AAI promptly transferred the matter to the Ministry bigwigs at the Centre, sending over all the files to the Delhi headquarters. The headquarters reverted with yet another rejection, saying that an NOC could only be issued for constructions upto a height of 12 metres. The AAI duly issued an NOC for the same to the builder.
‘Success’ at last
What happened after this is anybody’s guess, as in the same year, in the month of December, the AAI office in Mumbai received a fresh new order from the headquarters, which did a complete volte face this time. A letter from the appellate committee of the Civil Aviation Ministry this time ordered that an NOC be issued to Chouhan builders for construction on the contentious plot upto a height of, not 12, but 16.02 metres. Chouhan Builder’s relentless efforts seemed to have paid off. Needless to say, this order went completely against the earlier orders issued by the Ministry, which had categorically denied permission for construction for even an inch over 12.22 metres.
Having knowledge of the curious case and smelling a rat, Narasimhan, who was then the Deputy General Manager of the NOC department at AAI Mumbai, refused to issue the freshly ordered NOC, calling the appellate committee’s recommendations erroneous. It was then that top bosses in the western region allegedly started putting pressure on her to sign the contentious document. But she wouldn’t budge. She wrote to the Civil Aviation Secretary Nasim Zaidi and later sent four mails (copies available with MiD DAY) making him aware of the alleged malpractices involved in the case. She even wrote to the appellate committee, contesting their recommendations. She was called to Delhi on February 28, 2011 for a meeting, chaired by the then Director for Civil Aviation, Alok Shekhar, where the matter was discussed among top aviation officials – V K Dutta, J M S Negi, Jyoti Prasad and former DGCA chief Kanu Gohain were all present at the meeting. Three months later, M Muthu, the General Manager, aerodrome department of AAI, western region, allegedly tried to talk Narasimhan into signing the NOC again. When she refused outright, an official from another department — Pradeep Minz — was asked to sign the NOC. Just 10 days later, Narasimhan was transferred from the NOC department to the aviation safety department.
Narasimhan’s last attempt at justice, a letter to the civil aviation secretary Zaidi, makes it all chillingly clear, when it says, ‘The emphasis on clearing extra height for only Chouhan builders but no one else is discriminatory, if not downright criminal. I have been transferred to aviation safety department just to keep me away from NOC and knowing about the murky dealings of the appellate committee/AAI higher-ups. The message is quite clear — MOCA and AAI prefer/reward officers who are willing to obey wrong orders to those who dare questioned/correct them.’
Narasimhan could not make an official comment owing to a gag order that prevents her from speaking to the press. “I am not eligible to talk to press,” she said. M Muthu, who allegedly asked an official from outside the NOC department to sign the document when Narasimhan refused to do the deed, said, “I have done what I was asked to do by the CHQ (Delhi Headquarters). I have to comply with the orders given by the CHQ. As a GM, Aerodrome, Western region, I did not have any other role in the matter.” Muthu is now GM at AAI Bangalore. Pradeep Minz, who signed the NOC in lieu of Narasimhan, although he was not a part of the NOC department, could not be reached for comment. CEO of SRA, S S Zende could not be reached for comment. When MiD DAY contacted Chouhan Builders’ Andheri office, an office boy said that his boss was not in. Ayub Ali, supervisor of the project for Chouhan builders, said, “We have all the legal documents related to project. You must be aware that such things are associated with all SRA projects,” said Ali. Civil Aviation Secretary, Nasim Zaidi said, “Many officials write to me every day, so I am unable to recall this particular matter. If the matter comes to me, I will ensure that a fair enquiry is conducted.” Despite repeated attempts, MOCA official Alok Shekhar, and former DGCA Chief Kanu Gohain could not be reached for comment.
Radius from the runway in which no construction is allowed without the permission of the Civil Aviation Authorities