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Mumbai's great slum robbery

Mumbai's great slum robbery

Author: Chitrangada Choudhury & Gigil Varghese
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: February 22, 2007
URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_1935078,000600010004.htm

It has now been four months since Maharashtra Police officers asked the state government for special investigators to probe a swelling tide of complaints into what they see as a builder-bureaucrat nexus crippling Mumbai's grand plan to remove slums.

The Congress-National Congress Party government has rejected the request, putting the onus of a criminal investigation on a retired bureaucrat, Bal Kumar Agarwal.

Five months ago, the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) raided a builder. News of the raid triggered an avalanche of complaints - 189 of them so far - to various agencies.

On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court admitted two petitions - one pleading for a special investigation team, the other asking that the project be scrapped. Advocate-general Ravi Kadam told the court: "The rehabilitation complaints are more complex than the [Telgi] stamp paper scam." The court said petitioners could pick any 10 complaints, which Agarwal would then examine.

Agarwal, 64, will have no support staff when he conducts his inquiry. He told HT that he was "no sub-inspector" and would only "verify complaints".

An HT investigation, conducted by a team of reporters over the past two months explores what has happened to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority's mega plan. It was to build 4 million tenements between 1995 and 2000. No more than 65,000 are ready. At least 6 million people, more than half Mumbai's population, live in sprawling shantytowns.

This is how the project is supposed to work. A slum is handed over to a builder, who bulldozes the area. He is required to build tall buildings in an area in which horizontal shanties had stood till then. In these tall buildings, he is supposed to have units in which he rehabilitates the slum-dwellers.

The builder is then left with a vast sprawl of land in which the slums had before stretched horizontally. That land is a goldmine.

Here he is allowed the right to build more tall buildings. In these, he constructs apartments that he can sell at market value.

But the complaints say things turned out differently. They say that the builder lists more people in the slum than actually live there. He does this because the greater the number of people in his list, the more apartments and units he gets to proportionally build.

He builds these units - in the building meant for rehabilitation - as well the apartments in the one that has flats for sale at market rates. He moves some of the slum-dwellers, the complaints say, into the units meant for them. The other slum-dwellers find themselves out on the streets.

The builder gives away (or sells at reduced rates) the remaining units to people who have endorsed the fraud, the complaints say. And the apartments (more of them than there should have been because of the inflated number on the list) go at market rates.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh - who heads the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) overseeing Mumbai's scandal-plagued slum removal programme - told HT: "If we have a police investigation into every complaint, SRA will come to a standstill. Officials are already scared of verifying documents for slum-rehabilitation projects."

The letter conveying the government's rejection of a special investigative team (SIT), received by the ACB on January 31, is written by a Section Officer in the Home Department.

Commenting on the decision to not have an investigating team, Principal Secretary (Home) AP Sinha said: "It is a collective decision taken at the highest level of the government."

The home department, headed by Deputy Chief Minister RR Patil, asked the housing department, headed by Deshmukh, for its comments.

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