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He's back with his crowbar

He prowls the streets of Mumbai, demolishing a Minister's brother's illegal construction here, pulling down a Shiv Sena shakha there. MAHESH VIJAPURKAR on G. R. Khairnar's second coming.

MR. G. R. KHAIRNAR, a senior official in a mismanaged Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, is indeed a phenomenon: an official with a marked ability for single-minded pursuit of his objectives. He is back on the city's streets, wielding his sledgehammer, demolishing encroachments and driving out illegal hawkers from the sidewalks in what is essentially a squatter's city. More people, 56 per cent of the population, are squatters than legal occupants of scarce land. But this time around he has decided to rein in his tongue which brought fame but also got him into trouble.

If he stands out in today's society, which is disillusioned with officialdom which connives with politicians to shortchange citizens, it is because he is fearlessness, some say Quixotic. He has a halo for just doing his job, which he got back because he alone can do it. Others have only encouraged encroachments, for a price.

Now he prowls the streets of Mumbai, single-handedly taking on the mafia-controlled system of hawking, demolishing a Minister's brother's illegal construction here, pulling down an illegally- built Shiv Sena shakha there. And strangely, the hawkers unions, who in the past went to court against evictions and demolitions, have mutely allowed him to do his job. Some key sidewalks, clogged by hawkers who are actually shopkeepers usurping public places, have now been restored to pedestrians. And more will be soon. That is saying a lot in Mumbai.

Two years ago, the same civic body went through the motions of evicting hawkers from within a radius of 200 metres of railway stations with a court mandate but failed for two reasons. Spotting a weak-kneed civic machinery, the hawkers became belligerent and re-occupied the spaces despite a court order, and the authorities just gave in. Actually, Mr. Khairnar, who has all of six months to clean up the sidewalks before he retires, has shown that people want the pavements free and the civic body does not. He is on the people's side.

Being on the people's side is a phenomenon that can show spectacular results - one individual cleaned up Surat, another made Thane livable. There is a section among NGOs which says it is not correct to call illegal occupants of public lands encroachers. But individuals like Mr. Khairnar have demolished that myth. Don't be there if you are not entitled to.

All the political parties have stood as one and allowed Mr. Khairnar to return to the civic body a month before he would have otherwise retired. They cannot explain why, but they gave him a six-month extension to boot. None wants to fall foul of the man who took broad swipes without substantiation at leaders like Mr. Sharad Pawar, revelling in the media's deliberate mis-reportage that ``he had evidence'' when he only claimed that he ``can gather them if the media helped''. He paid a price: suspension.

Mr. Khairnar does not regret his loose-cannon days, but he is clearly a disappointed man. He is disillusioned with officials because they ``are not intellectually and otherwise honest''. Of politicians, he says ``they do not lead, they are crooks''.

Today he is committed to cleaning up the streets, having failed to clean up both politics and officialdom. His memory is still fresh on how the late Rajiv Gandhi shared a platform with Varadharaja Mudaliar in the slums of Dharavi - Asia's largest encroachment - all because of the don's ability to provide both the infrastructure for a public meeting and also the mass of people to attend it. The way police officials kowtowed to the don - he even offered to have a firearm secured along with licence for Mr. Khairnar - still rankles.

He now believes that seeking the public good through a rash of unsubstantiated - even if he believes them to be true - statements is not possible; he faced untold misery for it. Therefore, Mr. Khairnar has settled for doing his job diligently.

In its presentations to the Mumbai High Court, the Municipal Corporation has always dealt with a small number of hawkers: 38,381. An NGO has, in a survey, spotted over 1.02 lakh of them while in the late 80s, Mr. S. S. Tinaikar, another upright Civic Commissioner, had spoken of 1.44 lakhs. In reality, more than three-lakh hawkers choke the sidewalks and are controlled by goons, who together monthly generate at least Rs. 5 crore of grease money to pay-off officialdom. Now, only people like Mr. Khairnar can make a difference and the long-suffering city appreciates it. Their lament: there are not enough Khairnars around.

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