Are demolitions of illegal buildings that come up in collusion with the sanctioning authorities a solution at all, or a colossal, unimaginative waste of resources? Even if one were to argue that such blatant flouting of the rules must be punished, why are some buildings taken down and not others? Why are no government officials ever punished for wrongdoing of this order when bribes are likely to have been paid by unscrupulous builders? Even bankers of public sector units serving and retired are rarely prosecuted when they collude with borrowers who decamp with millions of taxpayers’ money.
It is hard to determine whether this lack of public accountability is more reprehensible or the wrongdoing of builders and their cohorts. Is it because there are powerful political figures operating via government officials and bankers and investigating the minions will expose the overlords? How much rot is truly operative in the system at the expense of the honest taxpayer and the common man?
Humpty Dumpty, the short, clumsy person in the original avatar, also a drink of ale mixed with brandy, and even an allusion to the humpbacked King Richard III, was not at first an egg at all. He was something of a scapegoat that is brought down to protect other villains. Mostly, he cannot be restored to his former stature, but not for being a broken egg. Humpty Dumpty can be an innocent rather than a ‘rotten egg’, a front for loot and plunder of the public with multiple shadowy participants. A political victim.
Supertech says it has lost Rs 500 crore in under 10 seconds as their twin towers in Noida, part of the NCR, were brought down. Nearly 4,000 kg of explosives were used in the implosion that reduced the over 100 metres tall twin towers into 80 tonnes of rubble, three storeys high. It will take months to clear the debris. Why is this portrayed as a triumph instead of a tragedy? How much hypocrisy is being absolved behind the arras?
It cost Rs 20 crore to accomplish the demolition itself and had to be done with the help of a specialised expert firm from South Africa. The litigation costs on all sides were extra. The time taken ran into over a decade. The human anguish caused to the prospective buyers, their families, the builder, his suppliers, creditors, etc, is incalculable.
These were the tallest luxury residential buildings brought down in India so far.
The foreign press took note, describing the demolition as that of India’s Petronas Towers, the iconic buildings in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur: there a proud landmark featured in the movies, here, wilfully destroyed.
Earlier, a similar judicial decision on grounds of flouting norms had two up-market towers illegally built in the Cochin backwaters, too close to the water line, also demolished in a similar manner. There are threats of demolition in the tourist destination of Goa for buildings too close to the shoreline, under present laws, but some of its first five-star hotels built during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s hosting of CHOGM, were right on the beach. There were no rules to stop it then.
The Supreme Court ordered the Supertech demolition months ago, upholding a similar decision of the Allahabad High Court. The builders had been trying to find suitable demolition experts that could do the job without damaging power and gas lines, or indeed the neighbouring, fully occupied, towers. It is ironic that the media keeps assuring us that the destruction of the buildings will not in any way add to air or water pollution. How can it, when the Supreme Court ordered the destruction?
The petitioners were the concerned RWA, who discovered on a map, while the towers were going up, that they would have had a legitimate green patch where the illegal towers stood. The Residents Welfare Association pursued the case against the builders Supertech, and the Noida Authority that approved the illegal structures, for over a decade, bearing their own legal expenses. So, obviously, there were a lot of delighted residents who had crusaded against the illegal construction and finally won. People also came from far and wide to watch the spectacle of the towers coming down on a Sunday, the 28th of August, 2022, albeit from a safe distance.
Other moral activists opined that it would caution other builders from undertaking such blatant illegality in collusion with the approving authorities in future. Meanwhile, there were poignant pictures of the demolition engineers praying inside the doomed towers, tears in their eyes, to beg forgiveness before they pressed the button. Indians, even those employed by South African demolition experts, are not insensitive or irreverent atheists with legalese in place of their spiritual core.
Many homebuyers who had booked and paid for flats in the erstwhile towers had been partially paid back in some cases, with 12.5 per cent interest, but not in full.
The reparations included the allocation of plots or flats in other untainted Supertech projects in Noida. Others have not been that lucky and continue in limbo.
There is no one addressing the plight of these buyers as it stands, the legal position being the buyer needs to beware, (Caveat emptor). “He should have made his own investigations before investing in the project,” is the position. That this is callous does not seem to faze the government of Uttar Pradesh, which has made no comment or issued any assistance or relief measures. The Supreme Court likewise has refrained from looking at anything beyond the illegalities of the builder and the Noida administration in arriving at its confirmation of the High Court order.
There are allegedly 22 Noida officials who had colluded with Supertech nearly two decades ago. Of these, two have since died, and 20 others are in comfortable retirement. There is no word on punishment for these allegedly erring officials. No threats of demolition of their property. No famed bulldozers to punish them for their alleged perfidy.
So, as it stands, this demolition appears to be a very one-sided thing. The RWA went after the builder with its legal suit, and the builder has been duly chastised.
Nobody, including the current government of Uttar Pradesh, has pursued the officials that allowed and sanctioned the illegal construction. These officials, now retired, let a 35 to 40-storey set of twin structures come up over a construction period of seven years.
The present officials of Noida were defendants, clubbed together with Supertech, and lost their case alongside.
The buildings have been mothballed since about 2010 when the RWA began its litigation. Some say they may have become unsafe anyway.
It is possible logically that there will be a phase 2 of the saga now that the structures have been brought down. But since the Noida administration as it is presently constituted fought the case against the RWA, perhaps it will be held culpable, and not just the retired individuals.
How did Noida officials give a revised sanction to a 35 to 40-storey structure when the original sanction was for 14 storeys? How did they allow the buildings to come up just 9 metres, 30 odd feet, away from the other towers?
There is another notorious building, still standing, 31 storeys tall, the Adarsh Housing Society in the Colaba Armed Forces area, near various accommodations for Naval officers and staff in Mumbai. It was originally sanctioned for the families of the Kargil martyrs. However, a number of senior government ministers, including three chief ministers of Maharashtra, senior politicians, bureaucrats and professionals managed to buy flats in this building.
There has been talk of demolition in this case too, but nothing untoward has been sanctioned so far. There have been violations of environmental regulations as well. Perhaps, because of the multiplicity of powerful people who have sanctioned the project, bought and occupied the flats, sometimes via family members and proxies, nothing has been done. The matter has been a scam since 2010, but apart from some senior defence personnel who have been arrested and let out on bail, there is little progress in the case.
It is scandalous that wrongdoing across the board is only selectively punished.
Certainly, the government holding itself blameless when it comes to prosecution smacks of a two-tier form of democracy with the lawgivers placed above the law. Take it or leave it.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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