By the government’s own admittance, Chennai is an illegal city – more than 50 per cent of its buildings have violated rules

By the government’s own admittance, Chennai is an illegal city – more than 50 per cent of its buildings have violated rules. Such a situation would normally have been viewed with concern, and prompted corrective action. But in Chennai, this is not so. With depressing regularity, the government has been legitimising unauthorised constructions, the latest instance of this being the ordinance promulgated last week that condones unauthorised buildings constructed before July 1, 2007, for a fee.

What is bizarre is the reason given to justify the acceptance of illegal constructions.

Take the present ordinance for example. The Justice Mohan Committee was set up in 2007 to look into ways to improve the Town and Country Planning Act. The committee gave a series of suggestions such as enhanced penalties and powers to ‘lock and seal’ illegal buildings. While all these proposed amendments were prospective in nature – applicable only to buildings built after the amendments were enacted – strangely, one recommendation was slipped in with retrospective effect. The committee recommended that all building violations before July 2007 should be regularised. This would improve enforcement of building rules, it argued. How? It had no convincing answers.

Let us rewind to 1998. The government amended the Town and Country Planning Act then and regularized illegal constructions completed before 1998. The statement of objects and reasons, which accompanied the amendment, admitted that about three lakh buildings in Chennai have violated rules. The government said that it would be administratively difficult to penalise them, and wanted the violations to be condoned. The fines proposed would deter future violations, the government explained.

When this amendment was legally challenged, the Supreme Court permitted it, but only as a ‘one-time measure.’ This meant: no more casual attitude to enforcing building rules and no more regularisation schemes. The Court emphasised that the government should check violations at the beginning stage itself. The State assured the Court that it would. However, not only did it fail to check the proliferation of unauthorised constructions, it repeatedly extended regularisation schemes in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Yet again, 14 years after promising the Court that it would enforce the rules, the government has come up with another scheme.

It would be worthwhile to recall some of the observations of the Supreme Court in this context. The Court clearly stated that regularisation ‘is likely to spell ruin for any city.’

The Justice Mohan Committee and the government have conveniently forgotten this and have also remained quiet on another crucial remark of the Supreme Court: “this mess is the creation out of the inefficiency, callousness and the failure of the statutory functionaries to perform their obligation under the Act.”

The enforcement mechanisms of the CMDA and the Chennai Corporation have not been overhauled. Nor have they been made more accountable. The demand for a dedicated monitoring force on the lines of a vigilance department has been consistently ignored. Equally intriguing is the fact that the recommendations of the High Court to treat residential buildings leniently, but take strict action against high-rise commercial buildings has been put on the back burner.

If the government announces another regularisation scheme in 2015, it would not surprise Chennaites. Vested-interest groups may be even banking upon it. But miracles can happen and Chennai can transform – if there is willingness to make it happen.

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