| In Mumbai parlance, Balbir Chhib was sitting on the proverbial gold mine. His restaurant in Juhu, one of Mumbai's prime areas would be worth nothing less than Rs 10 crore. In 2002, however, Chhib's restaurant Sea Magic was razed to the ground following a notice sent by the collector's office claiming that the restaurant was illegal. But thanks to Right to Information Act (RTI), Chhib now has papers from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corpor-ation which show that he is the legal owner of the land. Moreover, Chhib didn't think that the construction of a private road leading to a posh new residential building in place of his demolished restaurant was a mere coincidence. However, Himmat Udan, additional collector says, "During the Juhu beautification drive, we found that his documents were not appropriate. So we served him notices and then finally demolished the property. The matter is pending in court and we shall do as per directed." |
Chhib is just one of the many faces that represent the ugly war for land in Mumbai. Greedy real estate developers have found a new victim in small shopkeepers and residents of old buildings in the city. If you own a property in a prime location in Mumbai, expect the friendly neighbourhood builder or his goons to drop by, advising you to move out. As the Mob would say, it is an offer most cannot refuse. Those who do, find their shops razed or damaged, while such residents are subjected to routine intimidation by the bailiffs. The National Crime Report 2005 states that property crimes accounted for 21.3 per cent of the total crimes registered under the Indian Penal Code. According to Mumbai Police records, around 34 senior citizens, most of them living in upmarket areas, were murdered in the city over the last three years. Eighty-four-year-old Olive Miranda was found murdered in her Khar house in January 2007 after being allegedly harassed by land sharks to vacate her bungalow. Miranda's daughter-in-law Helen has now alleged that it is the handiwork of builders who were forcing her to vacate the bungalow.
In this fracas of land grab, the builder-politician-police nexus has many a times resorted to gunpoint to vacate old bungalows for redevelopment. In many cases, harrowed residents have complained to the police, but to no avail. In the case of 80-year-old Domingo Santos, harassment has crossed all boundaries. Having refused several builders the permission to bring down his Rs 15-crore bungalow in Bandra to build a residential tower, he invited trouble in disguise. Santos claims that he was conned into signing a sale deed for the bungalow by a property dealer for a mere Rs 35 lakh. However, still unwilling to vacate the bungalow, Santos claims that he is now being harassed by a broker named Jerimiah D'Souza. His electricity connection was disconnected for 15 days and there is not even a drop of water in the taps of his house. The broker has even installed a set of armed guards in the premises who shoo away people who want to visit the frail Santos. "The police didn't pay any attention to the complaint. They all seem to be hand in glove with the builders. An encounter specialist of the Mumbai Police has even threatened me," says Eric Mathias, who is trying to help Santos. But, Santos refuses to give away his ancestral property. "I have memories of my childhood ingrained in this house. There is no way I am going to sell it," he says. D'Souza, on the other hand, says he is the one who is being harassed. "The matter was in the high court twice and the judges had ruled against Santos. I am offering him Rs 35 lakh along with a flat in the building that will be constructed. He is not the sole owner of the property and has sold me his share in the property. In fact, I am being threatened by gangsters who have been employed by him," he says.
Joint Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik agrees that the nexus is strong. "There is no doubt that policemen are in tacit agreement with the builders and local politicians. However, we have issued strong circulars asking our men to be strict in such cases," he says.
The battle for land is not restricted to owned bungalows. The archaic Rent Control Act (1948) that regulates rented accommodation in Mumbai has also created ample chaos. In Mumbai, 19,642 rental properties have the protection of the Rent Control Act, which has virtually frozen the rent to 1940 levels. However, in 1999, the Maharashtra government paved the way for the redevelopment of these "cessed" buildings with the consent of 70 per cent of its tenants. The tenants would then have to be aptly compensated or provided alternative accommodation. But with liberalisation also come loopholes. In most cases, private developers chose to provide less compensation for the rented out property. For example, if a builder were to build a six-storey structure on a 2,000 sq ft property in Bandra, he would make a minimum profit of Rs 50 crore, after keeping aside the cost of construction and the compensation provided to the owner of the plot. Since the money is quite good, the developers use their creative means of making the tenants leave the property in case they refuse to humour them.
Sixty-four-year-old Ermine Furtado lives with her daughter Violet Texeira and has suffered a nervous breakdown due to the harassment she faces to vacate her quaint bungalow at the sea-facing suburb of Versova. According to Violet, landlord Ralf Almeida, in connivance with a builder, is trying to evict them from the modest 560 sq ft bungalow. He has been trying every trick in the book to make this happen. The harassment began when the builder partly demolished the toilet outside their bungalow. The women are now forced to use this half-broken toilet that is open at several points and which even the labourers use. "I have seen men walking out naked after having a bath in our compound," says Violet. She finally approached the High Court last month and got a stay order. Almeida, however, denies the allegation that he wants the women to leave their home.
Builders and developers on the other hand say that redevelopment is necessary for the future of the city. "Although tenants have their reasons which seem valid, they must realise that it is for their own betterment that they need to be shifted from dilapidated structures into proper buildings," says Pujit Aggarwal, MD, Orbit Corp and spokesperson for Property Redevelopers Association.
However, many tenants hesitate from vacating their properties, as they are not given the required compensation. Another example of this is 94-year-old Dinshaw Dastur who lives with his bedridden wife Pillow in his 3,000 sq ft apartment in the plush Colaba area and has been facing harassment from his landlord. "Piles of garbage is dumped outside my house everyday, the small garden we built was destroyed and no repair of the ailing balcony is being allowed," says Dastur who has suffered two heart attacks in the past. Dastur's four children have now taken the matter to the court. Landlord Rajan Mehra denies the charge and says, "I have been staying on the fourth floor and am facing problems due to the lift myself. I can't be expected to provide for the maintenance from my own pocket. The debris in the garden, in fact, is from Dastur's balcony which he was trying to repair."
Although the Government has resolved to provide the landlords relief from the Rent Control Act soon, it is the tenants who would be left in the lurch. Meanwhile, even though the paucity of land is a reality in Mumbai as is the need for developers to build new properties, it is the manner in which the entire business is being carried out which is questionable. "Land grab is going to be a constant challenge for us in the future," feels Patnaik. Until the police crack a whip on such harassment and the administration tries to stabilise the realty industry, these old property owners will continue to be handicapped by the mine of wealth they reside in.