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Baiting Land Sharks

Riled by Gujarat's second impact-fee ordinance, Jagmohan decides to take on the builder lobby

Baiting Land Sharks
Prashant Panjiar & T.Narayan
Baiting Land Sharks
Union urban development minister Jagmohan is busy personally undertaking an exercise which is being dubbed as the most serious offensive against builders and other fly-by-night operators for faulty and grossly illegal constructions which killed thousands in the Gujarat quake. He's reportedly upset with last fortnight's decision of the Gujarat government to re-levy the impact fee by passing an ordinance. This is the second time in six months that such an ordinance, which literally legitimises illegal constructions, has been introduced.

Jagmohan, if his ministry officials are to be believed, is peeved with the manner in which the Gujarat government, with blatant disregard for public opinion and outrage, has gone ahead and promulgated the controversial impact fee for a second time: in other words, the flat owner would have to pay an impact fee for illegal and unauthorised constructions hit by the quake and not the builder or the real estate promoter, as many people in the state had hoped. On November 22, 2000, the Gujarat government had promulgated an ordinance that regularised unauthorised colonies on payment of an impact fee. The ordinance, which was to have lapsed on April 29 this year, was not taken up for discussion by the state assembly on the grounds that "time was too short". Hence the fresh ordinance.

But the charged atmosphere that currently prevails in the state has led to a serious scrutiny of the political ramifications of such an ordinance. Even while the cabinet was discussing it, several influential ministers opposed the decision tooth and nail. Among them were minister for jails Jaspal Singh and home minister Haren Pandya. The latter is also said to have warned the cabinet that such an act could be suicidal for the bjp government. Political observers see in this an indication that home minister L.K. Advani may himself be veering to the view that it would become difficult to hold on to his Gandhinagar seat if public perception of a pro-builder government persists.

The state government, meanwhile, has promised a lot of action against builders, but has done little in real terms. Says Deepak Babariya, convenor of the Ahmedabad City Earthquake Affected People's Association: "The people are just where they were on January 26. Just about 10 or 15 per cent people have received relief. And now the impact fee is there again." Already, a pil has been filed against the ordinance in the Gujarat High Court, which is quite willing to take the state government to task over illegal constructions. Clearly, bjp leaders at the Centre as well as in the state are worried over what could happen to them in their very own laboratory.

At a seminar last fortnight in Delhi, Jagmohan expressed his displeasure with lack of laws to ensure safe buildings: "In Gujarat, hundreds of deaths could have been prevented if the public in general and builders in particular had even a modicum of realisation of the dangers embedded in violations of norms of structural safety and municipal bye-laws regarding floor area ratio, setback lines and soil conditions."

The outcome of such thoughts have resulted in action. The next session of Parliament will see the introduction of the controversial Builders Bill, which is currently being worked upon by a team of experts from the urban development ministry, hudco, architects' associations and the housing industry. The proposed, exhaustive bill will focus on (a) how to define a builder; (b) registration or licence of builders; (c) rating of builders as per their assessed worth; and (d) clear-cut penal provisions in case of violations.

Says an urban development ministry official: "For the first time in India, there is going to be an organised attempt to rein in the powerful and somewhat arbitrary construction industry. After all, it is the only business which is out of the government's purview." According to him, the new bill may change all that.

Jagmohan indicated his mind at the seminar. The need of the hour is a comprehensive legislation to license builders, promoters, structural engineers and architects to ensure proper regulation of activities of all those engaged in real-estate and construction work. "At present, two main professions—that of architects and structural engineers—are virtually non-regulated and there is no coordination between them. Many quacks have also appeared on the scene," the minister said.

In what is being seen as a pilot project, the urban development ministry has already proposed far-reaching changes in the Delhi Apartment Ownership Act of 1986. This will be the model for altering the various ownership acts in Gujarat. A note prepared by Jagmohan's ministry says that the act had "failed to elicit a favourable response from lease-administering agencies, promoters and flat owners", and that the act needed a complete overhaul to clarify certain provisions and provide for deterrent punishment for non-observation of obligations. Its main recommendations:

  • The central government will have the authority to notify the officer or authority to discharge functions.
  • More teeth to the legislation by imposing penalty on errant promoters, apartment owners or associations.
  • Setting up of an appellate authority to settle disputed cases.
  • And consequently, to bar the jurisdiction of the civil courts to entertain or decide any question relating to matters arising under the act.

    Quite predictably, opposition to Jagmohan's plans has come in from his own officials, partymen as well as 'vested interests' who fear that such a legislation will cut down on speculation which has led to a near-continuous spiralling of prices. In the Indian real estate business, the demand for flats and houses have far outstripped supply leading to manipulation and, very often, even blackmail by operators allegedly masquerading as property developers and construction agents.

    While officials are not willing to go on record, the broad parameters of the proposed legislation have already been put in place. On March 21 this year, Jagmohan's ministry amended the building bye-laws for Delhi. Says an official: "Copies of this amendment have been sent to state governments and local municipal bodies and the overall consensus emerging is that this could well form the backbone of the Builders Bill." The main provisions of this amendment include:

  • The structural designs of buildings have to adhere to the Bureau of Indian Standards.
  • A certificate has to be submitted along with a drawing of the building, satisfying safety requirements as per the existing building bye-laws.
  • A certificate—that the structural design, including safety from natural hazards based on soil conditions, has been incorporated in the design of the building—is also needed.
  • Another certificate, at the time of obtaining the completion certificate, which states that the building has incorporated the provisions of structural safety as specified in guidelines, is required.
  • Names, signatures and addresses of the owner, architect and structural engineers who have completed and okayed the project is also supposed to be on record.

    All these provisions have been framed with good intentions, no doubt, but on the ground it has to be implemented by state governments and local bodies. If the Gujarat example is anything to go by, bringing around state governments will be no mean task. But Jagmohan enjoys considerable support among Gujarat MPs who are of the view that lessons need to be learnt from the January 26 earthquake and that the builder-politician nexus should be broken.

    Jagmohan, for one, believes that "people have to lend their support to those who take firm action against land and building mafia operating in our cities". The people of Gujarat are more than willing to heed Jagmohan's suggestion and would definitely back Keshubhai Patel to the hilt if he cracks down on the builder mafia. But given his government's position on the matter till now, the big question is, will he?
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