Residents of the Campa Cola society, a high-rise building in Mumbai, have riveted national attention in their fight against the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is trying to evacuate them and demolish the construction, which it holds to be illegal. But there are hundreds of similar buildings, all of which can be moved against whenever the corporation decides. What is the way out of this pervasive illegality?
Mumbai is one of the most expensive cities in the world in terms of real estate, because of the topographicalconstraints it faces. Much central land is frozen, as former industrial areas have not been put to other uses, while absurd rent-control keeps many buildings out of the market. What’s more, it has not been allowed to build upwards, because of unusual floor-space index restrictions (a fraction of those in comparable cities). This has distorted urban patterns, forcing middle income people to live in squalid housing, making long commutes from the suburbs inevitable. The land and housing market is riddled with controls, and has allowed a builder-politician-official mafia to thrive, with little incentive to remove the distortions. Even though some of these, like the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act that made public lands inaccessible, have been rolled back, the state government has been unable to recover many of these apartments from builders.
The Campa Cola society incident calls up the obvious questions about the arrogance and entitlement of the builders and residents, the way they have tried to beat back the BMC for decades (the first notice was sent in 1984), and their full awareness of the fact that they were occupying an illegal space. It also invites comparisons with the way low-income settlements and slums are casually and arbitrarily razed by civic authorities, unnoticed by the public.
But the fact remains that Mumbai forces degrees of illegality upon all its inhabitants, middle class or poor, because of this web of regulations on real estate. Data found by urban planners in Mumbai has revealed that more than 4,000 police constables come home to extra-legal settlements — upholding the law in their day job, forced to subvert it in their daily lives. Informality of residence, the awareness that they live in a legal limbo, is a daily presence for many in Mumbai, and it is worst for the poor who have no access to publicity or the will to litigate for decades. Even when political parties step in on their behalf, the support is erratic and conditional. In other words, the Campa Cola drama is only one manifestation of the blight. Policy bankruptcy and corruption are the problems that Mumbai must confront.