Land scams and building violations are like sunsets or sunrises, whichever you prefer. Both occur every day. But we notice land scams / building violations and sunrises / sunsets only when they are particularly spectacular.
Thatâ€™s how we noticed an alleged building violation in the Koramangala area of Bengaluru on Saturday. A mudslide on Saturday caused the death of three labourers and endangered six buildings. Zed Constructions had dug up to 15-feet deep for the construction of a commercial complex, but had permission only for 10 feet, according to the BBMP. The BBMP claims it had warned the builder against digging beyond 10 feet, but had been ignored. Now, the residents of six houses adjacent to the construction site are stumped: the BBMP had asked to them vacate their own properties because the construction poses a threat to other buildings.
It is hard to believe that the BBMP really did its job, in the absence of being provided copies of notices issued to the company. Its track record on land scams and building violations is one of burying its head in the sand; eternally. Occasionally, pestering from activists, the opposition or the general public forces it to pull its head out of the sand and take notice. Thatâ€™s when commissions, task forces, and court-monitored special investigative teams are set up. But very little is achieved.
Just how big are land scams?
According to the AT Ramaswamy report about 35 sq km of land in Bangalore Urban district has been encroached upon. Below is an image of just how much land under the Revenue Department alone has been grabbed across the state. There does not appear to be any comprehensive estimate of encroachments of BBMP, BDA and Muzrai and Wakf Board lands.
In October 2014, the Karnataka Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act 2011 came into force. But nearly two years later, the special fast track courts to try case of land grab are nowhere to be seen.
Thereâ€™s more land grab?
The report of the Joint Legislature Committee on land grab in Bengaluru provided an opportunity for journalists to use the clichĂ©s they like â€“ damning, a harsh indictment and unearthed a hotbed of corruption. But not much progress has been made on this report either.
Several activists point to another unreported and under-reported scam in the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board (KIADB). One such scam was unearthed by the Lokayukta in November 2010, following which newspapers had reports every other day about the involvement of the then chief minister BS Yeddyurappaâ€™s ministers and other functionaries in the BJP government. Now however, itâ€™s all but forgotten. It ran up to Rs 6,697 crore.
Joy Ice Cream Company had been allotted over three guntas of land at Rs 4.34 crore, which was half the market value in February 2006, for establishment of software Technology Park. In 2010, the Karnataka Dalit Sangharasha Samiti alleged that the company had sold the land to Prestige Properties.
Such allegations have been made in several parts of the state, and the KIADB has set up industrial areas in all but one district in the state. Currently, the KIADB has issued notifications for the acquisition of several thousand acres of land. These are in various stages, and often exert a lot of pressure on people who have been issued notices.
The Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force was too good to last. Politicians actively scuttled it. But by then, the BMTF had chargesheeted 30 engineers for failing to check building violations. Big builders have routinely gotten away with fines, but a welcome exception to that was the Manyata Tech Park, which was forced to pay up fines after the BBMP carted away its furniture.
Real estate lobby
It was an open secret that the Reddy brothers and others poured huge funds into the elections in Karnataka. But with the Lokayuktaâ€™s report on illegal mining, the whole empire unraveled. By the next election in the state, the real estate lobby had replaced the mining barons.
Bengaluru is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, but the growth is toxic. As the Ramaswamy report noted: â€śThis scramble for land has resulted, especially during the past twenty years, encroachment on government and public land and land grabbing by powerful builders and land Mafia with active involvement of persons in power â€“ in politics, administration, and real estate.â€ť
Is there a way out?
Karnataka was recently shocked by the murder of RTI activist Vinayak Baliga on March 21. He was said to be investigating both land grab and alleged building violations by powerful people. Although the suspects including the main accused have been arrested, the police are yet to ascertain the motive.
The Mangaluru police recovered a cache of RTI documents from Baligaâ€™s house, which run into about 1,000 pages. The documents are believed to pertain to a number of building violations and a land scam involving the Venkatramana Temple in the city, but at present no one knows the full extent of their contents.
Earlier this week, two news websites launched the Baliga Files, an endeavor to place before the public the documents that Baliga had unearthed. The first two stories are out, published by Samachara.com in Kannada, and One India in English. Journalists at the two news websites are collaborating on bringing out more such stories. A source provided journalists with copies of the documents which the police recovered from Baligaâ€™s house.
Promoter of Samachara.com Prashanth Hulkodu told The News Minute that it was an endeavor to further the practice of journalism beyond the ordinary. â€śMany RTI activists have been killed in the past. As journalists, we usually report on the event, and then follow up on the investigation. But we wanted to do more than that. Baliga collected documents which are in the public domain. We want to make sure that the public has access to these documents.â€ť