The Campa Cola housing tragedy is not just about the displacement of residents, but also about the regularity with which unauthorised construction occurs

The woes continue to mount for the 96 families living in the unauthorised apartments in the Campa Cola housing complex in Mumbai. With no regularisation or correction in sight to the illegal construction, demolition appears imminent. The Supreme Court order has directed the families to vacate the buildings by May 31.

This tragedy is not entirely about the displacement of the residents, but also about the depressing regularity with which such unauthorised construction occurs. The lurking truth behind the inability to prevent them is that urban governance is collapsing. Non-compliance, pathetic enforcement, and unfair and exploitative building practices exist in not only Mumbai but in all Indian cities.

Two decades ago, when the Supreme Court upheld orders to demolish the eight floors (of the total 36 floors) that were illegal in the Pratibha Cooperative Housing in Mumbai, many promptly criticised the slack enforcement of building rules. The question was: how was it possible to build eight excessive floors without the Corporation knowing it? Enquiries were initiated against officials who connived with the builder and permitted such a blatant violation. Attempts to retain the unauthorised apartments by proposing to demolish one-bedroom and servant quarters on all the floors were found unacceptable. The demolition of the illegal floors followed. The Supreme Court optimistically remarked that such action should be “a pointer to all the builders that making of unauthorised constructions never pays.” If it thought that its firm decision would deter builders, it did not.

Builders continued to find building violations not only lucrative, but also easy to accomplish. Unauthorised construction was possible in the Campa Cola compound because the Corporation turned a blind eye to it. Officials served stop-work notice in 1984 when they first noticed the illegal construction but did not follow it up, thus allowing the construction to proceed. Adarsh Housing Society, another towering violation in Mumbai, would not have been possible without officials intentionally overlooking it.

The Supreme Court’s perceptive conclusion in the Friends Colony Development Committee vs State Of Orissa, an often-cited case, sums up the situation. It observed that the builder is under the impression that he or she “would be able to either escape the clutches of the law or twist the arm of the law by some manipulation.” The builders know well that presenting illegal construction as a fait accompli and pleading on the emotions that residents would face severe hardship would prevent demolition. Hence, the strategy has often been to delay early action against unauthorised construction.

In Tamil Nadu

If corruption-induced slack enforcement is one reason that emboldens, frequent regularisation of building violation is another. Tamil Nadu is an infamous case in point.

In 1999, the Tamil Nadu government decided to use its discretionary powers to regularise a large number of building violations in Chennai for a fee. When a civic group challenged this, the Supreme Court upheld the powers of the State to exempt, but made it clear that regularisation should be a one-time measure. Exemptions should not be the rule was the message.

State’s defence

The State government, which agreed to implement regularisation only once, went against its commitment. It announced more schemes in subsequent years — the most recent being the scheme introduced in 2012, which regularises illegal constructions completed before July 2007. The fact that building violations had to be repeatedly regularised clearly showed that the approach improved neither compliance nor enforcement. The State often cites two reasons in defence of poor enforcement. One, the development authorities and local bodies do not have adequate institutional infrastructure to monitor construction activities. Two, the planning norms are unrealistic, and do not meet the demands for more space and induce violations. In the Pratibha Housing controversy in 1991, the Mumbai Corporation pleaded that it was unable to oversee building activities in the city. Similarly, in 1999, Chennai too admitted to its inability to regulate. Even after two decades, city officials continue to give the same reason.

Despite knowing that unauthorised construction is a rampant problem, the local bodies have neither improved nor invested in their regulatory infrastructure. They have also ignored suggestions to set up an independent, well-equipped and empowered enforcement section along the lines of the vigilance department. New methods such as using remote sensing data to track violations remain unexplored.

Development authorities periodically review building norms to meet changing needs. However, violations persist even after the rules are relaxed. It is greed, not need, that principally drives building violations. If need is the reason for regularisation, slums would never be demolished. On the contrary, they often face brute evictions. For instance, in Delhi, the luxurious farmhouses that have violated planning rules sit comfortably on the landscape while slums along the Yamuna river are uprooted.

Gullible buyers

In many cases, gullible buyers are unaware of violations. However, there are also instances such as the Campa Cola housing complex, where the residents were aware about the illegality before purchasing the apartments. When the corporation demolishes a building, buyers face double jeopardy. They not only lose money but are also traumatically displaced. The only option left for them is to recover their money by suing the builders, many of whom have either left the project or shifted to a different city.

The key to prevent such tragedies is to stop unauthorised construction in the initial stages. When the local body issues stop-work notice, it should ensure that construction does not proceed. If need be, it should amend the Acts to support this. A zero-tolerance policy, committed enforcement and effective deterrents are equally important. What is at stake is not only individual property, but also planned development of the city, environment, and well-being of other residents.

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