Four pubs have shut shop in Indiranagar recently. While bar owners blamed activists, residents alleged that the pub owners violated norms, and that the BBMP failed to effectively implement laws.

Pubs in Bengalurus Indiranagar are shutting down but was a crackdown long overdue
news Civic Issues Thursday, November 28, 2019 - 13:54

It's a fact that hardly anyone speaks about. Most buildings in Bengaluru’s core areas are a fire safety hazard and 85% of them do not have occupancy certificates, admit Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officials. But it’s only over a year ago that the civic body began cracking down on commercial establishments, in particular pubs and bars, that did not have this mandatory certificate.   

In the last few weeks, several pubs have shut down in Bengaluru, with four in Indiranagar alone. These establishments were unable to procure an occupancy certificate either due to violation of building bye-laws or not meeting the fire safety norms. The first casualty as a result of these closures has been jobs, with scores of employees - waiters, bartenders, kitchen staff - now out of work. 

So, who is to blame? Was it the negligence of the building owners? Did the BBMP fail to enforce the laws or are the residents who sold or leased their properties to commercial establishments at fault? In order to understand the issue, one has to look into the various rules that were changed and how it affected Indiranagar’s landscape. 

The beginning

In the 1970s, when Indiranagar was conceptualised as a residential colony, defence personnel and civil servants lived in bungalows in this suburb of Bengaluru. However, the landscape of the area changed in the 1990s, and 100 ft road and the areas around HAL 1st and 2nd stage transformed into an upscale residential area. The problem, however, was that several low-rise buildings had violated building bye-laws and many did not have occupational certificates (OCs), BBMP Additional Director of Town Planning, B Prasad said. 

In the early 2000s, Bengaluru still largely consisted of residential zones.  Due to rampant unplanned constructions in the years prior to 2003, Bengaluru had to face the reality of living with small roads. Taking into consideration Bengaluru’s existing infrastructure, the Revised Master Plan for 2015 was drawn up in February 2003 by the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA). But BBMP officials alleged that the proposed Master Plan ended up increasing unplanned and rampant construction of commercial buildings. The BDA under then Chief Minister SM Krishna  introduced the 'mutation corridor' and made way for commercial establishments to come up along wider roads. 

This master plan created a backdoor entry for commercial establishments to come up in residential zones, alleged Indiranagar resident Swarna, a member of civic rights group I Change Indiranagar.

“After this, it was an unspoken thing that commercial establishments would inadvertently come up in residential areas if the roads were wider. This was because Bengaluru did not have big roads like other cities in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Sneha Nandihal, a resident of Indiranagar. 

The mutation corridor and the fallout

It was during SM Krishna's regime that the Domlur flyover connecting 100 ft Road to Koramangala was approved for construction. Soon after the construction began in the early 2000s, residents of the area soon saw an opportunity to make tidy profits by selling their land to those interested in developing commercial buildings. By 2005, the property value on 100 ft Road had skyrocketed and at the same time, clothing stores and banks began opening branches in Indiranagar. However, there were also residential buildings in the area. 

"Some homeowners on 100 ft road sold their properties. Some decided to lease them out to people who wanted to construct commercial buildings. It is a mixed bag," said Satish Rao, a long-time resident of Indiranagar. 

Where the problem began

Once the land transfer occurred, most of the developers of these commercial buildings, BBMP officials alleged, blatantly violated the sanctioned building plans and went ahead with constructing structures that were unsafe to begin with. 

"Initially commercial establishments could not come up in residential areas. Now, when it became legal in certain areas, it became necessary for establishments to ensure that a new building plan was drawn up, sanctioned and also built as per the norms. This never happened," said Prasad. 

He alleged that in many cases, commercial establishments did not even get building plans sanctioned and went ahead and constructed these structures. 

"There are many restaurants, bars, clothing stores and other commercial establishments that don't have sanctioned plans. In such cases, they have violated the approved plans and constructed entirely different structures," a senior BBMP official said. 

Why the laxity?

According to Apurv*, an architect registered with the BBMP to approve building plans, in the 1990s and early 2000s, BBMP or the then Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) engineers were responsible for sanctioning building plans. At the time, he alleges, corruption was rampant in the BBMP's town planning department. 

"Engineers at the ward level would not go to sites to inspect the construction work. They would not go and see the site before issuing a commencement certificate. Most of them were also prone to accepting bribes and looking the other way if a resident or owner of a commercial building was violating norms. Those constructing these buildings were also blatantly violating norms. They would choose to pay fines and move on as long as they didn't waste even a square inch of space. There were no mechanisms to take stringent action against violators. That's why we now have so many buildings that don't have OCs," he explained. 

These rampant illegal constructions had created such a huge problem that the state government was left with two options -- demolish the illegal structures, which would obliterate 85% of the core areas in Bengaluru, or regularise them. 

The BJP government under the then Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda introduced the Akrama Sakrama scheme in 2011 to regularise illegal constructions to a certain extent. Under this scheme the state government was willing to regularise violations of building bye-laws that were not extreme. This matter has been under litigation since 2013, when the Congress government under the leadership of Siddaramaiah approved it and no action has been taken against illegal constructions since the matter is sub-judice.

The occupancy certificate

According to the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act and the BBMP building bye-laws, an occupancy certificate is issued to building owners after the construction. This is issued only if the building is constructed according to building bye-laws. 

The building bye-laws make it mandatory for structures to have set-backs so there is space that defines the periphery of the building for fire safety reasons. The size of the set-back varies depending on the area of the site. Most of these buildings, officials said, have not given set-backs and are connected to each other wall-to-wall. 

“If set-backs are not given and a building catches fire, the building next to it will also catch fire. This is hazardous,” Prasad pointed out. 

Another common violation, BBMP officials said is the lack of fire exits and outdoor stairs. “The stairs are inside the building and not outside. There are many rules which they have circumvented. How can we issue an OC?” the official questioned. 

According to BBMP Chief Health Officer Vijayendra, another common violation in the pubs and restaurants in Indiranagar is that the kitchen area is not located away from the seating space. 

“Kitchen is where fires start generally. If you see, they have not even kept it away from the seating areas. If there is a fire, customers will be at risk. There are a lot of violations while constructing these buildings. There are numerous bye-laws that have been violated. How can they blame BBMP if they have not followed the rules while constructing?” Vijayendra questioned. 

These violations, BBMP officials said, went on unchecked for over a decade and it was only after the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai in December 2017 followed by the death of five employees at a bar in Bengaluru's KR Market in January 2018 that the BBMP began enforcing the rules stringently. 

Speaking to TNM, Devarajaiah, BBMP Assistant Executive Engineer, Town Planning Department, East Zone, said that the OCs were not issued to around 60-80 commercial establishments in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar including Monkey Bar, due to three broad reasons.

“Mostly, these establishments did not adhere to fire safety norms. The BBMP health department had conducted several inspections after the Kamala Mills incident. There were no fire exits in most places. The buildings did not have set-backs. They did not have parking spaces as it has been established that commercial buildings with more than three storeys or more must have underground parking space. Some have underground spaces but they are not used for parking but to install generators and store supplies. These are violations and so we didn’t issue many of them occupancy certificates,” he said.

The fallout of violations

In this context, the violations have been perpetrated by those leasing out the buildings to commercial entities, the owners of these commercial establishments and the BBMP officials who were supposed to enforce the rules, alleged Swarna a resident of Indiranagar.

On November 25, when employees who lost their jobs protested, the pub owners had blamed Indiranagar residents, who had repeatedly complained of the violations. Pub owners said that they were not able to obtain occupancy certificates due to which they were unable to obtain the Public Entertainment License. After the Supreme Court order was issued in January 2018, it became mandatory for restaurants, pubs and bars to obtain this license to play music that is live or pre-recorded. Since most of these places did not have an OC, they did not get a license and music is crucial to these types of establishments. 

“The closure is because we are unable to get a Public Entertainment License owing to the demand of an OC. The license meant for ‘live bands’ has come to cover pre-recorded music too. The Police Commissioner has the full authority to rationalise this order, but that has not happened. The list of documents required to procure a license to play background music are untenable, especially given a majority of them are in the purview of building owners and not the tenants. Now the tenants are being penalised after having invested heavily in these spaces," Manu Chandra had told TNM when Monkey Bar announced its closure.

With several bars shutting down including Humming Tree, BTDT, BFlat and Monkey Bar, pub owners accused the BBMP and the residents of not allowing them the space to run their businesses freely.

However, Indiranagar residents like Satish Rao, argued that people’s lives were more important, pointing out that no lessons have been learned since February 2010 Carlton Towers fire, which killed 9 people and injured 70. “Why should we be blamed? Why have we not learned our lesson after Carlton Towers fire? If there is a fire here in any of the bars, it will easily spread to houses. Many of these establishments don’t have fire exits and they have exits just like Carlton Towers did. Are these bar owners not putting the lives of the employees at risk? Why are they making those who lost their jobs pawns here?” he asked. 

Residents said that they do not have a problem with commercial establishments operating in the area, but say that violations of the law must stop.

“Most of these commercial establishments do not have sound proof walls. They do not segregate their garbage. They do not have parking spaces and customers end up parking near our houses and creating a huge ruckus after getting drunk. We want this to stop. They can operate within the rule of law. No one is stopping them,” Swarna added.

*Name changed to protect identity

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