195 apartments to be demolished, Mr. Minister? You must be joking

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By Sandeep Sahu

In the normal course, the announcement by the Housing and Urban Development (H & UD) minister Pushpendra Singhdeo in the Odisha Assembly on Friday that ‘directions have been issued’ for demolition of no less than 195 ‘illegally constructed’ apartment blocks in Bhubaneswar should have sent the occupants – and builders, if they are still unoccupied – of these apartments into a tizzy, perspiring profusely about the dreadful possibility. But in reality, no one, simply no one appears to be losing any sleep over the prospect of these being razed to the ground, secure in the knowledge that the threat is never going to be carried out.

There are two basic reasons for this nonchalance. The first of these is that those in the H & UD department , including officials of the Bhubaneswar Development Authority (BDA), responsible for giving approval to these apartments or closing their eyes while they were being ‘illegally constructed,’ will make sure the threat remains just that to save their own skin. Illegal construction on this scale is simply not possible without the backing of powerful people in the government. It is unrealistic in the extreme to expect those who facilitated this illegality in the first place to act against those who were at the receiving end of their favours.

The second reason for the complacency is the court. Given how generous courts are in giving stay orders on matters involving property, it is extremely difficult to get the demolition order, which is certain to be challenged (if it hasn’t already been challenged, that is), ratified by a court. Even if such an order is actually secured, it can always be challenged in a higher court. After all, those who have invested crores on these projects can hardly be expected to watch their painstakingly built high rises turned into rubble in a matter of hours. They would obviously pull out all stops and pull in all their resources to drag the case as far and as long as they can. [And we all know how damn easy it is to get an adjournment in a case, don’t we?] Thus, the final order could take several years coming by which time the claims of the ‘illegal’ occupants would have been further strengthened. It goes without saying that the order cannot be implemented while the case is ‘sub judice’.

In charting the possible course of the case through the various layers of the judiciary above, we have taken one thing for granted: that the government would fight the case in all sincerity with an objective to secure a demolition order from the court. But the experience of the past suggests that the government is often less than keen to pursue such cases to their logical conclusion. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that there are many cases that the government fights in the court to lose rather than win (and no prizes for guessing why it does so). This is certainly one such case because an order of the court sanctioning the demolition cannot possibly come without the concerned officials being prosecuted for their acts of omission and commission. So the builders/occupants of the illegal apartments don’t have to fret over the threat issued by the minister today. They know the government, which issued the demolition order, would do everything possible to ensure that the order is never carried out!

Even assuming that the highest court in the country does ratify the government order, the actual demolition would hardly be a cakewalk. We have all seen how difficult it is for the authorities, armed with court orders, sufficient police force and all bulldozing equipment, to carry out eviction/demolition of even a slum in the face of people’s protest. And these are big apartment buildings, which make things even more difficult for the authorities – again assuming that they are keen to demolish the structures in the first place.

We have all seen what happened to the case of massive and long running scandal of dubious allotments of plots, houses and flats in the Twin City under the ‘discretionary quota’ (DQ), which dominated the headlines for weeks together last year. More than a year down the line, no one really knows what happened to the much discussed report of the Task Force headed by retired bureaucrat Tara Dutt and its unambiguous recommendation for cancellation of all such allotments since 1995 –save a few notices issued by the BDA and CDA.

Make no mistake. The case of the 195 illegal apartments is set to go the way of the DQ case.

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