The Campa Cola conundrum

Oct 23, 2013, 07:34 IST | Ranjona Banerji

If anything exemplifies everything that is wrong with Mumbai, it is the story of the buildings in the Campa Cola compound, Worli. Illegal buildings, people who move in knowing this, but in the hope it will get sorted out. Unscrupulous builders and at the top of the pile there’s that gigantic bureaucratic-cum-political machinery which keeps the law well out of the picture, depending on its utility.

Lawbreakers: The fact that no one seems to have closely questioned either Pure Drinks or the original builders and their heirs yet, tells how the rich and powerful get away with skirting the law over and over again

At the heart of the Campa Cola conundrum is that very Mumbai problem of floor space index or FSI, which determines how tall a structure can be. The original builders asked for permission for five storeys and then built whatever they felt like. As with the 90,000 or so buildings in Mumbai, which do not have occupation certificates (OC) over minor and major violations of innumerable bye-laws, the builders assured buyers that all would be sorted out. And truly, often the OC comes pretty late in many transactions.

Even if the residents of the Campa Cola compound knew that their buildings did not have an OC and indeed, they did not get municipal water, it is also true that they paid property taxes, which accrues to the municipal corporation. They also paid stamp duty and registration and got loans from banks. They had electricity connections which when these buildings came up 30 years ago, was supplied by the BEST undertaking, part of what was then the Bombay Municipal Corporation.

Were flat owners and residents of the Campa Cola compound in the wrong? Without a doubt. Do they deserve the harsh punishment they’re getting — their flats being demolished? Now that’s not so easy to answer. One could just as well make the argument that the residents were fools because they tried to change the status quo. They got into trouble after they asked to be regularised. If they had stuck with tanker water and not taken their case further, all would have been well!

The other problem here is that the laws were flouted, broken, ignored by the three original builders and by the original owner Pure Drinks who did not subdivide the land as required. Now, after the buildings are demolished, everyone stands to gain except the flat owners. FSI can be recalculated and new buildings will come up. FSI is a marketable commodity in Mumbai, more valuable after the slum redevelopment scheme started, and can be exchanged around the city.

This case has got a lot of publicity — both negative and positive. An argument has been made that when slum dwellers are ousted from their homes, very few middle class people are bothered. It is also true that in the current climate of so-called low tolerance for corruption and lawbreaking, the Campa Cola residents stand on questionable territory. The other side is that when people — any people — lose their homes, it is a humanitarian problem.

The odd thing is that there is an easy answer here. The residents can be charged a very hefty penalty and be allowed to stay on. This helps them to keep their homes and their savings intact. It also ensures that all those hungry builders licking their chops at some new prime land in south Mumbai are left hungry and will have to look elsewhere. The municipal corporation makes some money, a small proportion of which could be diverted to improving life in the city after all the requisite pockets are filled.

The search for justice is another matter. There is no way that officers involved from 30 years ago are going to be caught or held responsible. The fact that no one seems to have closely questioned either Pure Drinks or the original builders and their heirs yet tells you how the rich and powerful get away with skirting the law over and over again. The Campa Cola residents are lucky that city politicians have started speaking up for them as the November 11 deadline to vacate approaches.

The ultimate lesson is for flat buyers out there. You don’t have to make PT Barnum’s axiom that there is a sucker born every minute, come true every day in Mumbai.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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