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How politicians have hijacked the Thane building collapse to their benefit

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Lucky Compound building in Mumbra, outrage over such constructions swelled and one thought people would take no more of it. At a meeting, Mumbra’s outraged residents decided to fight illegal constructions in their suburb and demanded action against those who had promoted and profited from them.

The political class came forth with the usual knee jerk reactions, including the extreme one, that illegalities should not be countenanced. The police picked up a few builders, a lone politician and some civic officials. The civic body went into a huddle and came up with a plan to carry out large scale demolitions. Those who opted to join the team were even given promotions to enthuse them.

At that point in time, it appeared to be a productive channeling of the disdain and anger over the large-scale illegal constructions in the state’s cities, especially Mumbai’s large metropolitan region – which is nine times the city's size and with a third of the population. It was as if the inflection point had been reached, and the future would be different.

But within ten days, the picture changed entirely, at least in Mumbra.

Will the building collapse prompt rehabilitation of other illegal structures? AFP

Will the building collapse prompt rehabilitation of other illegal structures? AFP

What started off as a protest over illegal constructions and their impact on human lives, given the collapse killed 74 persons including children, changed into a campaign that pleaded for a completely different cause: to save the illegal buildings.

The reason for the volte face by the political class, on the face of it, appears logical, even humane. Where would the residents of such housing go if the bulldozers moved in? Shouldn’t they be moved to transit camps till they can get legal housing? And, since the residents of such houses had nothing left after having paid for them, could they be expected to pay for newer apartments?

It is hard to beat that argument.

However, such lucid, rational reasoning is actually a ploy to protect the business of illegal business of real estate instead. By first promising refuge and then finally accommodation in free alternative housing, the entire solution is rendered complicated. Given the snail’s pace at which governments work at all levels, it is as good as bunging the spanner in the works. The intentions are different.

One argument has been that people have lived in, even if they are on forest lands, for decades. Another argument has been– and quite justifiably so – that the victims were not at fault except that they accessed illegal housing, mostly because it was lot cheaper than the legitimate formal housing and cannot be evicted.  And a third argument is that all illegal housing built prior to 2010 be legalised for those same reasons.

Once the classification is accepted and eligibilities determined, the long-winded process would commence with surveys taken up to categorise buildings into those built before and after 2010 varieties. And with appropriate but wily moves, even those built after 2010 can be legitimised. The civic bureaucracy is quite adept at such fudging. The result: all occupants, and more importantly, all builders, escape.

It is quite significant that no politician worth his salt has as yet raised a voice against the builders for their cheating which has actually given rise to a distinct class of real estate business, that is both widespread and acceptable to buyers who find prices of the other variety absolutely untenable. No politician has demanded the scalp of civic officials, except for routine calls in the legislature.

That is why the initial, impromptu mobilisation of citizens sick of illegal housing became a bandh backing the demand for rehabilitation. No doubt the shutdown was total in Mumbra and it is quite likely that what the people wanted and what the politicians seek are different, but the government's decisions will gradually swing in favour of those sought by lawmakers. For, the politicians have clout, the citizen does not.

In a scenario such as this, the government's action is ultimately to the benefit of the builder-developer community, which has a deep and abiding relationship for mutual gain with the politicians and the bureaucrats. A cluster development, eventually, would bring in builders who would build sub-standard accommodations for rehabilitation and lick away the cream (possibly extra Floor Space Index) offered to subsidise the free component.

This has happened and is happening in the metro region’s slum rehabilitation schemes which look at the issue not as centric to the slum dwellers interests, but is designed to meet those of the builders. The same is likely with cluster development, which the state’s chief minister sees as the most likely option, but it may benefit builders even more.

Thane city’s swankier or even moderately genteel spaces are more or less choked and Mumbra, though slum-like, is not exactly a Dharavi, and a cluster redevelopment if sold as a new Thane could find higher acceptability. Buyers may not necessarily frown at their neighbourhood as they do elsewhere in the slum schemes.

And when such profits are likely, the political class knows how to monetise their own benefits. No wonder they think of their future and speak as if they favour others, but lay the road to their gains. Politics, as business, is a game of patience and real estate is developed slowly. They know how to nurse the goose with the golden eggs..