Let courts first order demolition of Delhi's illegal colonies

Kanchan GuptaThe denouement was as dramatic as the confrontation between residents of Mumbai’s Campa Cola Compound and BMC staff determined to demolish illegally built apartments as ordered by the Supreme Court of India. Understandably, homeowners about to be rendered homeless put up a stiff resistance. Sensing an opportunity to fish in troubled waters, politicians descended on the colony -- their effort was not wasted as television reporters rushed to record and broadcast their inane assertions of ersatz outrage.

In the end, there was no demolition at Campa Cola Compound, barring one of the gates which now needs to be fixed. The Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the live coverage -- the tearful scenes, the camera-amplified brutalisation of residents by men in khaki, the outpouring of anger at an uncaring ‘system’ that is now seen as unjust and unfair. The demolition has been put off till May next year. Eight months is a long time for those who live on hope in the face of despair. We need not speculate over what could happen by then.

On the face of it, the Supreme Court order instructing the BMC to demolish the illegally built apartments is unexceptionable. Laws are meant to be honoured not in the breach but in the observance. That’s a non-negotiable principle of any law-abiding society and country. There is, however, a vast gulf that separates principle and practice in this wondrous land of ours. We would like to be seen as a law-abiding society living in a law-abiding country, but the reality is quite to the contrary.

As we all know, to survive and get by we are often left with no other option but to follow the law in the breach than in the observance. That’s not necessarily because we are congenital law-breakers; it’s because conforming to the law in India can prove to be impossible if not downright silly. This could have been said about the law in other countries too, but most have evolved and refashioned their laws while we haven’t. More important, the application of law in those countries is even-handed; here the thumb rule is: Show me the face, I will tell you the rule.

There’s a delightful passage in Oliver Twist. When Mr Bumble, miserable in his marriage and saddled with a frightfully domineering wife, is told by the court “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, makes bold to reply, “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass – an idiot.” Nearly two centuries later, we relive Mr Brumble’s experience in our daily lives. The law ‘supposes’ for us, it does not allow us to ‘suppose’ for the law.

It would be infructuous to debate whether the 100 families whose homes at Campa Cola Compound face demolition were aware that the flats they bought some 25 years ago had been built without the BMC’s permission. In a city starved of affordable housing, such questions are neither asked nor answered truthfully. This would be equally true of our other cities. Just as it would be true to posit that rare is the apartment block in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai or anywhere else whose builders have complied with every law and by-law. To single out Campa Cola Compound, hence, is a mockery of this reality.

This is not to suggest that there should be no laws regulating the construction of buildings. It is to highlight the need for laws that are more in tune with our times and recognise the need for mass housing which is affordable and accessible. Stupid restrictions like those on Floor Space Index or FSI need to go, and go now. They exist to facilitate violations which benefit builders, municipality babus and, of course, politicians. The money that exchanges hands is not exactly small change.

A last point that merits elaboration: The unfair and unjust application of our laws. A stern and unforgiving Supreme Court has thrown the rule book at the residents of Campa Cola Compound. But it has failed to bring the builder, the BMC and the politicians on the take to account. Nor has the Supreme Court shown such remarkable adherence to the law in the city where its honourable judges reside. Hundreds of illegal colonies mushroom in Delhi to be routinely ‘regularised’ on the eve of elections. With a stroke of the Chief Minister’s pen, illegal turns into legal.

Here’s a litmus test for the courts: Let’s see Sainik Farms and the farmhouses in Chhattarpur be demolished, remorselessly, ruthlessly. Campa Cola can follow.

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist  

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