30 years after ‘Pratibha’: Mumbai’s tryst with illegal buildings

Pratibha building,Pratibha Mumbai,Sophia College Lane

Rewind to March 1989. The headline-grabbing story in Bombay was the razing of top eight floors of Pratibha, the 36-storey tower in the tony Sophia College Lane off Breach Candy. The city’s most powerful and influential had booked the well-laid apartments in the building. It became the city’s biggest real estate scandal. The demolition made for high drama and relentless coverage in newspapers of the pre-television era, the drama heightened by slum residents nearby who marched to the site demanding that the entire building is razed just as their illegal shanties had been.

As news trickled in this week that the remaining floors of the tower were being demolished, ostensibly to make way for a new tower in keeping with revised and liberal building laws, it was impossible to not note the dramatic change in 30 years. From demolishing illegal floors and buildings to regularising them as part of government policy, Bombay/Mumbai had come a long way, indeed.

Through the late 80s, Pratibha was the shorthand reference for brazen illegalities, especially the “FSI scam”, in real estate. The modus operandi was simple: A builder would overstate or inflate the area of the plot in his applications so that the Floor Space Index (FSI, the ratio of the built area to the plot area) available would be higher, and his profits would soar. In the case of Pratibha, the builder had inflated the plot area by nearly 30% which gave him an additional 25,000 to 27,000 square feet to sell.

The inflation should have been detected by the Building Proposal department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Either it was not or some officials allowed it to pass. Arun Bhatia, Mumbai collector, who later became an anti-corruption crusader, had unearthed this during his scrutiny. There were a few hundred ‘Pratibha’ type violations and risked similar action. It seemed Bombay’s real estate sector would be cleaned up. Instead, it sunk even lower through the 90s when the underworld got mixed up with it as never before; that’s another story.

Cut to 2019. Pratibha’s FSI scam seems innocuous given the large scale of illegalities in the construction of buildings since. But we are in an era when the government believes that violations should be condoned and illegalities regularised – for a fee. There is an actual government policy since 2017-end to regularise illegal buildings, illegally constructed floors, use of extra FSI, flouting of coastal regulation zone norms, use of open spaces mandated around buildings, and so on.

The Devendra Fadnavis government fixed the cut-off date as December 31, 2015. Illegal buildings could apply for regularisation by paying penalties. It was a move far ahead of what its predecessor Congress-Nationalist Congress Party governments had even considered. As if this was not enough, the policy was tweaked last year to reduce the penalties and rename them as “compounding charges” which the BMC would use for public amenities, utilities and services.

This policy is now part of Mumbai’s Development Plan 2034 especially for buildings constructed while the DP was being drawn up. The government’s justification was that apartment buyers should not be made to suffer for transgressions of builders. But, essentially, illegalities had been officially made legal.

How widespread are the illegalities? In the five years up to 2014, the BMC had identified more than 56,000 structures (including slums) with a range of violations of which 100 buildings or towers had major FSI violations. Add to this the BMC’s refusal to issue Occupation Certification – which signifies some illegality – to nearly 6,000 buildings. The stupendous scale becomes clear.

Such a brazen policy entrenched the builders-politician nexus and turned urban planning into a mockery. It also exposed the government for its duplicitous policy making: Protect builders and apartment buyers, send bulldozers to slums built after January 1, 2000, the cut-off date set by previous governments and fixed by the courts. Why, indeed, would builders go by the rule book if they can cover up illegalities later with a fee?

Pratibha looks a quaint case now, a sign of more innocent times when the illegal was still illegal.