The Union Cabinet cleared the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill on June 4, 2013. The passage of this Bill has been heralded as a move in favour of real estate buyers. The Bill has been in the works for more than six years now, that tells us how serious the government has been on making it a law.
There are several provisions in this Bill that point out towards the same. Real estate developers can launch new projects only once all the relevant permissions are in place. These permissions are to be displayed on the website of the developer and only then can construction begin. If the promised home is not delivered on time, the buyer will be entitled with a full refund of the amount he has paid along with interest.
Separate bank accounts are to be maintained for every project. Developers need to ensure that the money taken from buyers is used for that particular project and not diverted elsewhere. While advertising developers will have to use photographs of the actual site. Failure to do so will attract a penalty.
The Bill also seeks to establish a central appellate tribunal and individual states will be responsible for establishing state level regulators. Further, the Bill does not allow developers to take more than 10% advance from the buyers without a written agreement. This provision it's felt will help curtail the amount of black money that goes into real estate.
All these provisions put together will help the buyers, seems to the major view coming out. But as the old English saying goes there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Bill applicable only to new real estate projects
First and foremost the Bill as and when it becomes an Act will be applicable only on new real estate projects. Hence, the real estate projects which have already been launched will not come under the aegis of the Act. This means that buyers of those real estate projects which have been delayed will continue to face problems.
The recent past has seen real estate developers launching more and more new projects and use the money thus raised to pay off their past loans. This has led to a situation where there is no money left to build the projects which have been launched. In order to get the money required to build these projects, newer projects are launched. So this modus operandi has led to a situation where projects are rarely delivered on time and are endlessly delayed.
The buyers who are facing trouble because of this will get no relief as and when the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill becomes an Act. (You can read a more detailed argument here).
Establishing a regulator in every state is a long-term process
The Bill also talks about establishing a real estate regulator in every state. This is a very long term process. It calls for the recruitment of a lot of people who understand specific real estate regulation. The question is are there enough such people going around?
Also, any regulator takes time to become effective. Take the case of the Securities and Exchange Board of India(Sebi), the stock market regulator, which was established in 1988 and given statutory powers in the 1992, after the Harshad Mehta scam.
Even regulators don't stand much of a chance against big established business groups.
Immediately after Sebi was given statutory powers, the stock market had the vanishing companies scam, where companies raised money through initial public offers (IPOs) and disappeared. Sebi could hardly do anything about it and investors lost thousands of crores.
Towards the turn of the century there was the Ketan Parekh scam, which again caught the stock market and Sebi off-guard. It's only in the last few years that the stock market regulator has come into its own. So it's effectively taken Sebi almost 20 years to become somewhat effective. But even then Sebi has had huge problems dealing with Sahara.
The moral of the story is that even regulators don't stand much of a chance against big established business groups. So how will the real estate regulators go against real estate developers, who are known to be fronts for politicians?
Will the regulator really act in favour of consumers?
Then there is the question of whether the regulator will act in favour of consumers. The Insurance and Regulatory Development Authority, the insurance regulator, over the years has acted more in favour of insurance companies as an industry lobby than thought about people who buy insurance.
Implementation will be a problem
A major point in the Bill is that the developers will have to open separate bank accounts for each project and ensure that the money from the buyers goes into that particular project and not elsewhere, as is the case currently. On paper, this is probably the most important point in the Bill. But money is fungible, as anyone who has handled it will tell you. So the question is who will ensure that the money going out from the a particular project account is going towards that project and is not being used to by the developer to meet other obligations or simply being siphoned off.
This seems to be the job of the state level real estate regulators that the Bill seeks to establish. But will state level regulators be able to manage things at such a micro level? Will they have the required expertise? I have my doubts. Implementation of laws has never been a strong point with India and Indians.
Also this provision in the Bill has been significantly diluted over the years. As Dhirendra Kumar of Value Research writes in a column “Compared to the 2009, the government has weakened the anti-fund-diversion provisions of the Bill. In the 2009 draft, all funds collected from the buyers would have to be kept in a separate bank account, from which money could be taken out only for direct use of the project.” This has been diluted and the current version of the Bill allows developers to route only 70% of the money raised from buyers into a separate bank account. “This serves no purpose except to make it easier for developers to divert 30 percent of the funds,” writes Kumar.
Written agreements don't prevent black money transactions
The Bill does not allow developers to take more than 10% advance from the buyers without a written agreement. This it is said will help in controlling black money. This to me seems like someone's idea of a joke. When has any agreement prevented Indians from transacting in black money? Scores of developers across this country continue charging money in black separately for car parking, despite there being a Supreme Court order against the same.
The Bill also says that buyers will be entitled to a full refund along with interest if the developer does not deliver the project on time. This may not be of much help because even with the compensation, the buyer may not be able to buy a home. Home prices may have risen in the meanwhile. Also, after a project is delayed, you cannot expect the buyer to put money in a fresh project, which again promises to deliver a few years later, like the original developer did.
Buying a fully ready home may turn out to be expensive and beyond the budget of the buyer, even with the compensation. Given this, the buyer should be compensated either the price of buying a similar home in the open market, as promised by the builder, or refunded his money along with interest, whichever is higher.
Also, it is one thing to make a law which calls for the developer to pay up in case a project is delayed, and it is totally another thing to expect him to pay up. Take the case of DLF. The company was fined Rs 630 crore for abusing its dominant market position by the Competition Commission of India (CCI).
As an article in Governance Now magazine points out “The CCI pronounced DLF guilty for grossly abusing its dominant market position in the relevant market and imposing unfair conditions in the sale of apartments to home buyers in contravention of the provisions of the Competition Act, 2002. The CCI also imposed a penalty of whopping Rs 630 crore.”
But there has been no damage to DLF. “Ever since the order came out, DLF has paid zero to CCI. Not only that. They have launched four different projects since then, despite our continued objections to the CCI,” Amit Jain of the federation of apartment owner’s association (FAOA) told Governance Now. So if DLF can get away without paying a regulator, where is the question of developers paying the aam aadmi for delayed projects?
Politicians have already tweaked the provisions of the Bill in favour of the developers.
In fact, in the 2009 version of the Bill only those projects which were less than a 1,000 square metres and had less than four dwelling units were exempt from the provisions of the Bill. The current version of the Bill is applicable only to projects over 4,000 square metres in size with no limit on the number of dwelling units. Also there is a twist in the tale. As Kumar writes “Even more alarmingly...when a project is executed in phases, then each phase will be considered separately. This means that even very large projects could just be broken up into sub-4000 meters phases and escape much of the regulatory oversight of the Bill and the regulator.” So all we know, the developers might exploit this loophole to the hilt.
To conclude, India does not have independent regulators. And people who head regulatory bodies report to politicians. Even the real estate regulators will report to politicians. And many politicians have significant interest in real estate, ensuring that developers will do what they want to do. The law of the land be damned. Or as the old saying from the Hindi heartland goes “jab saiyyan bhaye kotwal to darr kaahe ka?(when my lover is the police inspector, what do I have to fear?).
So deep runs the politician-builder nexus.
And the Bill does very little to address this. To be fair, one cannot expect any law to end the nexus. But if the Indian real estate scenario has to improve it is this nexus that needs to be broken. And that is not going happen anytime soon.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)