A man made crisis


Official apathy caused the Mumbra tragedy

Until recently, one refrain of a song in praise of slum dwellers was on most Indian lips. The refrain, Jai Ho-Jai Ho, had attracted so much attention that it fetched an Oscar Award. What the song conveyed was how those who were on the margin were doing their best to come up, without challenging the society. There was no demolition of houses or buildings which had come up illegally. The worst came only a few days ago.

True, natural calamities are hard to avert. But what happened at Mumbra, in the Thane district of Maharashtra, could well have been avoided but for the administrative inadequacies. It was more of a man-made crisis. Greedy real estate owners, contractors, politicians and bureaucrats, who maintain their regular liaisons, will have to share the blame for the tragedy which took the toll of 74 people and injuring 61 others.

When an eight-storey tower for slum dwellers comes up in a record three-four months, it is understandable how the building may have been raised. It is not easy obtaining approvals from civic authorities or getting a plan passed, let alone going ahead with the construction of a multi-storey building. It takes several rounds of trips to the municipal offices, spread over months, and that too only after greasing the palms of officials can one think of obtaining approvals from various officialdoms.

This brings us to the basic problem that most metros in the country face today: acute shortage of housing. Obviously, the cake is small and the number of people wanting a slice has been on the increase. Had the size of the cake grown larger there would have been something for everybody to take home. But those in Mumbai know that the tragedy was due to the acute need for housing in Thane and its suburbs and the flourishing land-grab business patronized by the powerful politico-builder-police-civic official nexus. The nexus makes it easier for the builders to ‘manage’ things the way they want.

Apparently, in the Mumbra case the builders have made all arrangements, including providing electricity and water to the residents, without any legal paperwork so that the flats can be occupied by the unsuspecting owners. But such a thing became possible only when the builders have had on their side the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) officials, who preferred to remain silent even after the locals had complained about an illegal building coming up in their vicinity.

This goes on to establish how the realtors and municipal officials in the state or, for that matter in any other part of the country where space comes at a premium, connive at each other. In the Mumbra case, the TMC officials just ignored the complaints that the tower had come up on tribal or forest land. One thing that has come out clear is that the building has come up on a reclaimed land under which ran a ‘nullah,’ which carried drainage water, after the TMC officials and a local contractor, who have now been arrested along with a senior police official, had helped. The two builders, who were slapped with culpable homicide charges, too have been taken into custody.

Understandably, chief minister Prthviraj Chavan has ordered an inquiry into the collapse. But what is tragic is that the chief minister became wiser after the event to admit in the state assembly that the building was completely illegal and may have come up on tribal or forest land. He further informed the house that Thane had 57 ‘very dangerous’ and 1,159 ‘dangerous’ buildings that were illegal and in which nearly 88,000 people lived. But if one were to take the entire figure of illegal structures in Thane district alone, as submitted by the state government to the Bombay High Court three years ago, it had touched the five-lakh mark. It must have multiplied into several more lakhs in and around Mumbai by now.

No doubt, the Indian real estate market is vibrant in nature. Since majority of people prefer to invest in real estate sector, more for long-term investment than for accommodation, those in real estate business are out to make quick bucks. The only solution to this escalating problem is a stringent law that will make builders wary of certain standards. In fact, the Union Housing Ministry has proposed a specific clause to be included in the revised Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill it is likely to introduce.

If the proposed bill gets the cabinet and parliament nod, the builders will have to utilize 70 percent of the money collected for a particular project to spend it in that project and it would to avoid delays. The bill seeks to establish a regulatory body for the real estate sector to ensure transparency in property or real estate transactions, besides other benefits which are aimed at protecting the consumers. But, as would one expect, there is a widespread opposition from the builder lobby.

What happened in Mumbra is not unique. There have been several such cases of official apathy in the past. One such instance that comes to my mind is another seven-storey structure that that came down like a pack of cards in the Lalita Park area of the national capital a few years ago. In this unauthorized East Delhi colony, the building had come up using substandard material. Thirty-four people had died and more than 60 people were injured in that accident. An inquiry was ordered by chief minister Shiela Dikshit then, but nobody knows what happened after that.

However, I do hope the probe ordered by Prithviraj Chavan does not meet the same fate. In most cases only a cursory inquiry is made and notices serviced on illegal constructors or, at worst, penalties levied. The builders after paying up penalties go scot-free. The builder lobby is so strong and powerful that politicians cannot survive without its patronage as they look up it to fund them during elections. Corruption and greed is such a deep-rooted disease in our body politics that it can’t be pumped out of our system overnight. It needs the biggest political will. But which party has the courage to bell the cat?

Still the remarkable thing about the efforts of living at the grassroots is the salutation to these people who have no resources. Jai Ho has become a salutation to a large extent. If the worst could be avoided, the slum dwellers would come out of the bondage of poverty as the days go by.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.