Godzilla in mumbai

When does a law become a guideline? Perhaps when it enters the Indian metropolis, where policy and policymakers use words in so convoluted a manner that their roar is reduced to a whimper.

Take the infamous Adarsh apartment tower that surprised everyone by growing from six storeys to 31, in the heart of Mumbai, in gross violation of CRZ, EIA and even FSI norms. It doesn’t take a CBI report to detect the 25 “extra” storeys, which is like trying to find Godzilla in Lilliput! What is appalling is that instead of then trying to cut Godzilla to size, the norms will bend and even break, in an attempt to merge it into Lilliput or, worse still, allow all of Lilliput to grow to Godzilla’s mammoth size!

Jairam Ramesh, the minister for environment, denies that any “regularisation” is possible, and yet precedent suggests otherwise. Byelaw violations are consistently regularised to cover, bury, hide and appease both profit and profiteers. From the malls in Vasant Kunj, built on the forested ridge in Delhi, to the slums in Mumbai to the Akrama-Sakarma scheme in Bangalore, to make “regular” the unauthorised seems to be simpler than penalising the violators. In the process the very fabric of the city is torn to make place for ugly knots. The protrusions disrupt a seamless planned pattern reducing it to a set of abrupt geometries creating a “regular” irregular!

The point of these elaborate laws and byelaws that fill volumes and tomes, updated every few years, cannot be to provide employment to a few scribes, printers and government bodies but to actually translate into ground realities. Further, they need to be enforced. Unlike criminal and civil justice, building byelaws are more often seen as guidelines or suggestions that can be circumvented to suit the political or commercial aspirations of the situation. It would be preposterous to assume a case where a thief is let off for stealing if he returns part of his cache or, better still, if the law is twisted to permit everyone to legally steal “only” that particular amount! Yet the authorities responsible for density, infrastructure, environment and the skyline of our cities have been known to use similar tactics that render policy a toothless wonder. Every time an unauthorised settlement is authorised, every time a layer of floors is added to the residential index or part of our green belt and flood plains invaded, every time land use is changed, we make regular what should be irregular. In each instance we uphold greed over need and abandon urbanity for the deep well of apathy.

The consequences are far-reaching. Our cities take the tune of “democracy” to cacophonic heights where hardly anything is as per “master plan”. Policymakers make laws open to interpretation, based on plans drawn in two dimensions. On the plans all lines are clear, blocks are buildings, trees are circles and lampposts dots, but in three-dimensional reality none of this geometry is true! The buildings are not separated by setbacks but joined by ad hoc projections, the trees never grow on non-existent sidewalks and the lampposts are poles wrapped in exposed wire thanks to cable networks and phone and electricity tappers. Even when the law is comprehensible the lack of enforcement causes illegibility in both the reading and functioning of our cities. The strengthening of connections between policy, plan and the resultant built landscape via a cord of reason and enforcement is paramount for the good growth of our cities. Reason has to be established through collaborative and participatory processes involving citizens, stakeholders and specialists. They may mutate or change through mandate, and should never depend on urgent or latent political needs.

What happens at Adarsh remains to be seen. Will it be a textbook example of a law upheld through demolition, or will it fall prey to the status quo, remaining an unfinished urban monument sacrificed on the altar of corruption? The solution perhaps lies in making “regular” our byelaws so they may grow from guidelines to actually guiding the lines etched on the grounds of our cities.

Suparna Bhalla
Published on November, 20th 2011

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