Monday, February 11, 2013

Maverick's Project in Bangalore: Il-legalising the poor


In an article entitled “For 11 days of Glory” I wrote about 20 years ago, I argued that the Karnataka Government's plan to construct about 1000 flats in the wetlands between Koramangala and Ejipura was fraught with various illegalities: the decision was blatantly violative of land-use norms, would result in destroying forever a critically needed open space in a thickly developing area, amounted to a corrupt practice, and so on. The title of the article was drawn from the State's justification for building these flats: provide housing for athletes who would turn up to participate in the National Games held over 11 days!

It was quite obvious that the welfare of the athletes was not of concern to the State here; instead, it was the contracts that flowed out from the mega civil construction of those times - mega malls, and mega-flyovers, and mega-IT corridors were all yet to come. The place where the massive National Games Township rises tall was an open expanse then – a lake with massive potential of being turned into a critically needed ecological and social space for all. From across the road, people living in the Ejipura slum used this space in many ways. Kids ran around the expanse playing cricket or football, washer-people dried linen, shepherds grazed cows and sheep, and a fairly substantive area was also mucked up with Bangalore's sewage flowing through en route to Byramangala lake.

Several of us were deeply concerned over this unconscionable decision of the Government and organised protests. When we rallied for support there were distinctive responses. Communities living in the slum came in large numbers, really large numbers. But those who lived in upper class Koramangala, a stone's throw away, refused to turn up. It appeared as though the cause of protecting this wetland, a public open space, was merely that of the poor and that only they cared to protest against illegal developments in the city.

As the protests built themselves into massive action, the media gathered and there was plenty of reportage. Since the project was being implemented by the Karnataka Housing Board, there were questions raised why its meagre resources were being invested in promoting housing for the middle class and the rich, for the flats were designed to be sold at high value after athletes used them for 11 days. Why was the agency's scarce resource not being invested instead in re-building poor people's flats at Ejipura, which the same agency had built a decade before, and were on the verge of collapse? And why were these new flats being outsourced to Nagarjuna constructions, a contractor who then was cornering all government contracts?

There wasn't anyone in the Government willing to respond to these legitimate questions. So the protests continued to grow until, one night, there was a fire. It raced through the Lakhsman Rao Nagar slum in Ejipura. Hutments disappeared: thatched, tin, tarpauline clad structures which to thousands was home, were a smouldering mess the next morning.  Kids and women waded through the rubble attempting to recover anything recoverable, crying. Men stood there and watched with dead-pan expressions.

People who lived inside these structures which to them was home, were the ones who had turned up in the protests. Such exercise of their democratic Right had cost many of them their daily wages for several days, which they did not mind at all. But now, their homes had disappeared.

Then Chief Minister Devegowda turned up to offer his condolences to those who were burnt alive, and had not died. It was a gruesome sight to see a woman narrating to him how she was sleeping, and woke up to find her arm aflame. Ritual compensation was offered, promises were made, including that the poor-peoples housing project, those flats teetering on the edge of collapse, would be rebuilt, renovated, made livable again. And that the entire area would be dedicated to housing the poor.

National Games was held but the flats were not ready for the athletes. The apartments were eventually built and sold off, or allocated as residences for Judges and various high officials, and even gifted, to then Indian cricket captain Azharuddin and others such deserving housing.

Two decades later, Maverick Developers swings a deal in the last remaining open space in Ejipura, where poor people live. The space does still beholds those teetering flats, some of which have collapsed killing residents. Maverick claims that they will transform the lot of the poor into something more respectable. They will build them flats, yes, new ones that will be sturdy and nice, and livable. No Lakeview apartments these would be, but still, a flat owned by a poor person in the middle of Bangalore is something! Especially when it is in hep and happening Koramangala! The deal is sweet and too difficult to reject for those now in Government; part two-thirds of the landto Maverick to build a Mall, and in exchange receive flats for the poor in a third of the area! The deal is sold as a win-win deal for a funds starved Government working with rich Corporates willing to do some public good, a grand example of Public-Private Partnership! 

Yes this is the very same Maverick who when Mr. Jairaj was Commissioner of Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (it was not yet Bruhat then) in 2006, had assured that the building that was coming up on public lands at Magrath road, off prime Brigade Road, a place which then was used to park garbage trucks of BMP, was going to be a public utility multi-storey parking lot. But quite magically it had turned into a mall – Garuda Mall. This caused ruckus in the Council forcing the then Mayor Mumtaz Begum to write to Jairaj the following: “Earlier, you had ordered a detailed inquiry into the case and also assured that the portion of the building with deviation would be demolished and strict action would be initiated against the erring officials. However, you have not come out with the action-taken report.” 

As is to be expected, the ruckus was momentary, almost ritualistic. No action was ever taken thereafter, it appears, for Garuda Mall continues with business as usual.

Which brings us now to the decision of the Shettar Government in which the incorruptible Mr. Suresh Kumar is the Urban Minister, and Mr. Ashooka, Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, and also Minister in-charge of Bangalore, have collectively awarded the very same Maverick this killer deal (borrowing some corporate jargon). Prime land is parted away for a song without any due diligence or business valuation. For Maverick its too sweet a deal as its projected commercial benefits accrued over decades from the Mall are worth every paisa of the marginal capital investment in poor people's flats!

How such deals are struck is very simple to understand. It is first concluded in an office where there are no 'people', except those who matter. A convenient policy is invoked. What else, Public-Private Partnership - an ubiquitous tool which corporations across India are generously employing to ruthlessly steal from the poor and gratify the rich and powerful. A policy to which a Government surrenders meekly its very raison d'être, enunciated quite lucidly in Chapter IV of the Constitution of India detailed as Directive Principles of State Policy; in simple terms what the State has to do to justify its existence. But then, deals struck with Maverick are far more sacrosanct than anything etched in the Constitutional conscience of the country. Such promises have to be delivered, and delivered they are, with death-blow force.

In the way of this sordid sell out stand, like two decades ago, poor people of Ejipura, again. They have been protesting this deal for months now and even unsuccessfully tried to secure justice legally.  The response of the State backing Maverick is ruthless.  Bulldozers raze through the apartments and other living quarters through a cold mid-January night. The teetering flats collapse with feeble resistance, leaving the rudely awakened poor residents with no plan B, not even the option of using the pavement as temporary 'home'.  They are beaten, arrested, scattered. Most are poor, working class tenants, informally employed, and have nowhere to go. Overnight, they are all illegal encroachers of public lands, now in the custody of Maverick! Their reason to exist is insignificant before a grand public project: the Maverick Mall! 

This new dawn of 2013 meant at least 5000 people went homeless overnight. An old woman died in the cold, of the cold. Hundreds of little children, tens of pregnant women, youngsters, old people, and men and women alike, found themselves homeless. HOME-LESS.

For Mr. Haris, the sms-happy MLA of the region, even extending water and food to these folks constituted a gross illegality. Papers have reported how he came to the place and threatened dire action against several volunteers who gathered to organise relief, or also protest this dastardly act. A threat he probably executed as many were brutally arrested with demonic vengeance by the police soon after. The same Mr. Haris who feeds the poor in thousands to celebrate his parents' wedding anniversary. The same Mr. Haris who will sell the poor dreams of a better life to come if they would vote for him, once more, in the coming elections.

As this tragedy unfolds before our very eyes, we may choose to look away if it troubles us, or because we don't care. Perhaps even invent a justification for this collective behaviour, like say “They were illegal residents no?” No textbook will capture this travesty of social purpose, for Governments want students to read only about how Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life so we could all live happily ever after.

This episode will be forgotten, at least in the same way that we do about slums that were burnt down to make way for Shoppers Stop two decades ago, killing a pregnant woman and an old woman in the fire.

In the meantime, corporates are falling head over heels to “Wake Up Bangalore, Clean Up Bangalore” in Freedom Park! The project here: segregate waste at source and ensure Bangalore becomes a clean, world-class city. But these corporations that endorse such projects as a part of their 'corporate social responsibility' ventures are nowhere to be found in Ejipura. But you will find them once the Mall comes up. Waking up Who Exactly?

Land designated for housing the poor will soon house a grand temple of consumerist indulgence of the middle classes and the rich – the Maverick Mall! The poor, meanwhile, will be segregated out of the city, where we are told they belong, according to advocates of Public-Private Partnerships in Government and beneficiary Private Corporations.

11 February 2013 

16 comments:

  1. Leo, This article is so illuminating. Thanks so much for bringing in history long forgotten. A lot has indeed been written about the history of the EWS quarters, but then you've managed to add a whole new perspective to it.

    Ironically, for some of the relief volunteers who have to dance around the police while evading their long arms and lathis, the National Games Village is the only place of temporary shelter!

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  2. Thank you for this article. Very insightful and informative.

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  3. Thank you for writing this, Leo. Sincerely, Aruna

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  4. I am still curious re. why the Feb 2009 court order referred here http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/article3626629.ece?homepage=true was flaunted? or is it merely a matter of insisting accountability from different authorities, like BBMP and HUDD, legally?

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  5. Thanks to Leo for this piece of writing. Let us unitedly fight to ensure justice for these unfortunate families. At the same time let us ensure the non-sense of "government has no money - hence, PPP is needed" is for ever abandoned. PPP is a method of transferring people's assets to private hands. All those who support this must be exposed. The tamasha of "Wake up - Clean up Bangalore" is yet another PPP game. The problem of SWM is lack of management compounded by corruption. Let us wake up to this reality.

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  6. i agree with Leo, in Environmental matters,i endorse his knowledge in this field. We worked together with GOI and GOK for NICE cases.

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  7. Very sad reading and quite depressing. I feel that the corporate greed along with corrupt officials of governments all over the world is like a huge boulder which is rolling down a hill gathering speed as we watch helplessly, destroying everything that comes under it! :( Where it will all lead us...is a scary thought.

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  8. Chanced up on this article, Leo. Very illuminating. Thanks!

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  9. Chanced up your blog. Very illuminating. Thanks!
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