RA Rajeev, IAS, under whose watch as Thane’s Municipal Commissioner, the multi-storeyed building in Lucky Compound in the city’s fringe began to be built and collapsed, has spoken. He explained to a Marathi daily, Pudhari, why it was hard, or well nigh impossible, to cope with irregular and illegal constructions.
He may have a case, and yet…but more of it later.
So has the Chief Minister Prithivraj Chavan, of intentions he has. More of that too, later.
Inter alia, Rajeev said:
* When civic officials go out to deal with illegal constructions, they risk their life and limbs.
* Political interference can be sidestepped, but ‘personal interests’ and ‘vested interests’ come in the way of any action.
* To deal with 5,500 legally flawed constructions, the civic body does not have manpower. Mumbra has only a four-personnel strong team for these actions and each action needs 25-30 officials which meant deploying them from other wards. This was not possible on a daily basis.
* The Police do not cooperate. When a building is sought to be pulled down, it is the job of the police to get the residents of such buildings out of it. Several times notices have been served on the police. But the police keep insisting that the civic body not to initiate any steps without asking/telling them.
* Ashok Barpulle, an Assistant Commissioner, almost faced death when he was on the field during a ‘drive’ to demolish some structures. Even at that time, the police were not helpful.
More specific to Mumbra, he told the Indian Express some more:
* Ninety percent of Mumbra’s structures were illegal and figures were difficult to collate but in the last few years, an estimated 2,000 had ‘cropped up.
* When one was demolished one and another cropped up ‘nearby’. They are ‘so daringly built so close that one can walk from one roof to another”. The cranes cannot reach there builders prefer small alleys.
* Mumbra was ‘communally sensitive’ and ‘builders engage politicians and locals to create trouble’. During demolitions, families organise Namaz.
* He sees cluster development as a solution and his proposal specific to Mumbra is ‘stuck’ at the government level.
In other sections of the media, Rajeev has been quoted as saying that the ill-fated structure was on forest land and that he had twice intimated them about the illegality but no action had been forthcoming at all. Even the state-owned power distributor had been asked to disconnect the supply to the building. But nothing happened till the building itself collapsed and triggered a new row.
Those are explanations, post facto.
While he can and would be pilloried – already demands for his scalp have been heard in the Maharashtra’s legislature – for all he did, did not, or said or not said, there is one commendable aspect to managing the crisis after is it suddenly developed. He had the wisdom to call in the Natural Disaster Response Force.
Arguably better trained and equipped, they did a better job than all the policemen, fire brigades and civil defence teams, they helped save several lives in what is, again, arguably Maharashtra’s biggest disaster in the genre of building collapses. Had he not, he would have spent more time coordinating a disparate force with mixed up lines of command and come out worse.
Thank you, Rajeev.
Now, on to Prithviraj Chavan who had a few things to say and do in the legislature on the same issue, as did his other subordinate colleagues:
* Thane city had 57 ‘very dangerous’ and 1,159 ‘dangerous’ and buildings which were also illegal and housed 80,000 persons, and echoing Rajeev – naturally, he would have briefed the CM—nine out of ten buildings in Mumbra were illegal.
* He planned to “compound or club” illegal buildings, and take them up for redevelopment.
* A ‘brownfield’ project for illegal buildings was being thought of which is rather curious, for it relates only to to land in a town that was previously used for industry and where new buildings can now be built.
* A Deputy Commissioner of the civic body was suspended for ‘negligence’ and a police inspector for ‘collusion’.
It would be wrong to take these averments at their face value.
But Rajeev, though he was talking about Thane city, and more pointedly about Mumbra, he was pointing to systemic issues. Chavan was also talking about something else, implying that what you can’t cure, try to live with it but make illegalities legal – regularise, provide higher FSI which makes the builder-developer industry drool.
Obviously, over five lakh illegal and irregular buildings in a metro zone around Mumbai is too large a slice on any CM’s plate. Sharad Pawar, a chief minister when Sairaj Apartment, built on a nallahs collapsed in 1998, had said all illegal buildings would be used as police quarters. Police personnel, it happens, also live in slums and many in chawls.
Chavan, however, has not said a word worth mentioning about how this menace of illegal buildings could and would be curbed henceforth, for once the clubbing and compounding over, those hungering for accommodation, any accommodation that is affordable, would plump for it. Axiomatically, cheap housing also means poor quality. That explains why another intractable problem persists: slums.
The collapse of this building in Lucky Compound happened in Rajeev’s regime but what Rajeev did not explain – or perhaps the newspapers did not ask the right questions – was how come, illegal buildings were spotted only after they were completed, even sold out? How come, for instance, a commercial building of some 16 floors right on the Easter Express Highway, Dev Corpora, was ordered demolished for illegalities including alleged stealing of land meant for a metro station after all was over?
Why is it that the civic body, now and in the past have remained quiet till so many structures surfaced and are occupied when the civic body’s mandate is to be hawk-eyed and nip them in the bud even as the layout is marked? How come correctives only mean sending a notice, nominally breaking down a part of the wall? Negligence at every level added up to the huge stock of illegal buildings, not just in Thane but elsewhere too. In Ulhasnagar, streets were appropriated to an extent that some lampposts were taken into the outer wall of the buildings. Many a civic city in many a city would have a lot to explain.
Rajeev laid bare the systemic flaws – including builders engaging politicians – but did not touch upon the connivance of the handpicked compliant civic staff are also engaged by builders and also by politicians to the misery of a city as a collective of all its residents. There was no explanation as to how, if demolition of a building on a forest land was the job of the Forest Department, would securing compliance to the building code also be the responsibility of that department? Town Planner has to do the job.
Forest Department does not have a building code, and the activist who vainly tried to blow the whistle on the building which later collapsed has now come up with documents purportedly indicating that only a small chunk of the land was under forests, perhaps only technically. Another explanation is due – how was a police inspector in ‘collusion’? He has no role in these, unless, he refused to assist at the demolition of the building before it collapsed, if it was proposed by the suspended deputy civic commissioner.
Thane has opened up a Pandora’s Box, not necessarily for the first time. More than looking at the past, while it would be helpful to punish those who played mischief and rendered most cities into unplanned urban spaces, it is also the opportunity to look to ending this malaise. But the thrust has to come from politicians, who, Rajeev tells us, can be engaged by builders. He was also discreet about the ‘personal interests’ and ‘vested interests’. Who are they, at least in general?
So who rules? Mr Prithviraj Chavan, do you have something to say?