Debating India

Counterpoint: Bring on the bulldozers

Saturday 4 February 2006, by SANGHVI*Vir

Did you weep into your cornflakes when you read about the sad plight of India’s top designers, left with one retail outlet less because the illegal shopping mall they favoured had been demolished? Did the tears roll down your cheeks when you saw them on TV, emotionally drawing parallels between the fall of the 1 MG Road shopping complex and the destruction of the Twin Towers?

No? Well, me neither.

As far as I can tell, the argument offered by the designers is not that the 1 MG Road complex was a legal structure and therefore should not have been demolished. They are prepared to concede that it might have been unauthorised - as well they should, given that everybody in Delhi has regarded it as a rather dodgily authorised structure from the time it opened.

Their point is that even if it was illegal and unauthorised, why pick on 1 MG Road when there are many other unauthorised buildings in the same area? Their shops were targeted, they say, trying to sound as humble and pathetic as is possible when your spiky-haired visage dominates Page 3 on a regular basis, because they are small people and soft targets. Why doesn’t the government target the big fish?

Even if this rare show of humility is justified by the facts (and I am not even sure that it is), their argument is seriously flawed. Even if there are big fish who have got away, this does not, in any way, lessen the culpability of those who built and operated shops from an illegal structure. To say that no unauthorised building should be demolished till all the others are also bulldozed out of existence is just silly. It is the equivalent of a small-time gangster claiming that it is wrong for the police to arrest him because Dawood Ibrahim continues to live in luxury in Karachi.

The truth is that even if Dawood remains at large, the small-time gangster still has a case to answer.

But are the designers small fish anyhow? Is one of Delhi’s most expensive shopping complexes deserving of our sympathy and our pity? Should we feel sorry for all the overpriced lehengas that will now not be sold from 1 MG Road?

For most of us, the people who run expensive shops are not small fish. The real small fish are those whose properties are routinely demolished by the authorities anyway. The designers hit the headlines and make it to TV. But what about the clerk who covers the balcony in his DDA flat to create a bedroom for his children?

Does anybody interview him when the bedroom is demolished? What about the housewife who puts a roof over the courtyard of her house so she can run a small tailoring business but does not make enough money to pay off the DDA’s inspectors? Nobody invites her to a TV studio when the roof is pulled down and her business collapses.

But why stop at middle class parallels? A month ago, if you had asked any of the designers and shop owners, who wept so prettily for the TV cameras outside the shell of 1 MG Road, how they would feel if somebody set up a slum colony near their homes, what do you suppose they would have said?

My guess is that they would have been appalled. They would have regarded the hutments as eyesores. They would have pointed to the security threat posed by slum-dwellers. And they would have been perturbed by the erosion in the value of their property once a slum came up next to it.

And yet, the argument in favour of allowing illegal slum colonies to exist is almost exactly the same as the one that the designers are offering to save their sleek little boutiques.

Besides, if we are talking about small fish and big fish, who could be smaller and less consequential than the hapless slum-dwellers of Bombay and Delhi?

For nearly 20 years now, I have received hate mail and abuse from NGOs and concerned Lefties because of the uncompromising view I take on the demolition of encroachments and illegal slum colonies.

In such cities as Bombay, slums can come up overnight. Hutment colonies can suddenly appear on vacant land. And once the first few shanties are up, the slumlords move in.

They take possession of the area, charge rent or protection money (depending on how you define it) from the slum-dwellers and make deals with local corporators and MLAs. Usually the deal is this: if the legislator can get the slum-dwellers on to the electoral rolls - which makes it difficult to ever demolish the slum - then they will guarantee that all the residents will function as his vote bank.

My view has always been that if you allow slums to come up wherever there is vacant land - and this is exactly what happens in Bombay - then you can forget about ever improving the quality of life in our cities. There are laws against encroachment and they must be respected. The slum-dwellers should be offered alternative accommodation.

And the nexus between politicians and slumlords should be broken. But no matter how harsh this sounds, we cannot allow people to set up slum colonies wherever they want to. And if there is no other way, then the encroachments must be demolished.

And yet, the human cost of following this policy is enormous. Anyone who has a heart must feel the pain and suffering of the slum-dwellers when the bulldozers arrive. Their homes are flattened within minutes. Their few possessions are scattered to the winds. And suddenly, their children no longer have a roof over their heads - even if this roof was only a sheet of plywood. As convinced as I am of the need to act firmly against encroachments, my eyes still moisten when I see photographs of slum-dwellers after the bulldozers have done their work.

The women sit quietly, devastated and wounded. The men glower sullenly, full of a silent rage at their own helplessness. And the children play on regardless, unaware in their innocence that their parents’ world has changed forever.

These are the real little fish: people who can lose everything they own with one sweep of the bulldozer.

So forgive me if I don’t weep quite so hard for the rich shopkeepers of MG Road. Or if I don’t feel sorry for the greedy builders who construct structures that they know are illegal simply because they think they can get away with it.

Almost everybody who took retail space in MG Road knew that there were questions about the legal status of the structure. They took the shops anyway as a calculated risk. They reckoned that the building would be regularised and they would end up with bargains - with space they had taken at lower rates, which would be worth much more once the authorisation came through. It is a calculation that went wrong - which is how business in India works. It is certainly not a human tragedy. Or a case of glaring injustice.

But the story of 1 MG Road is a microcosm of the story of the Indian upper middle class. We have no sympathy for those at the margins of our society and don’t give a damn about what happens to them. And yet we are content to open swanky shops in illegal buildings and to build stately homes in such dodgy colonies as Delhi’s Sainik Farms, convinced that we can use our influence to get the laws over-turned and the illegal structures regularised.

When we can’t, then we turn into cry babies and rush to the media looking for public sympathy.

Sorry guys, but you are not getting any sympathy from me. You took your chances. And you’ve paid the price.

As far as I am concerned, you got what you deserved.

Now, we should get the politicians, the millionaires with illegal office buildings and the fat cats with unauthorised country houses.

Bring on the bulldozers.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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