Maverick’s Project in Bangalore: Il-legalising the poor

By Leo Sadanha

In an article entitled “For 11 days of Glory” I wrote about 20 years ago, I argued that the Karnataka Government’s plan to construct about 1000 flats in the wetlands between Koramangala and Ejipura was fraught with various illegalities. For one, it was blatantly violative of land-use norms, would destroy a critically needed open space in another thickly developing area, amounted to a corrupt practice, and so on. The article was so titled because the State’s justification for building these flats was to provide housing for athletes who would turn up to participate in the National Games – which would be held over 11 days.

maverick bangaloreIt was quite obvious that the welfare of the athletes was not of concern to the State here; instead, it was the contracts that flowed out of such a huge civil construction – mega malls, and mega-flyovers, and mega-IT corridors, were all yet to come. At that time, the place where now the National Games Township rises tall was an open expanse – a lake, with massive potential of being turned into a critically needed ecological and social space for all. Across the road, people living in the Ejipura slum, used this space in many ways. Kids ran around the expanse, played cricket or football, washer-people dried linen, shepherds grazed cows and sheep, and a fairly substantive area was also mucked up with sewage flowing through.

Several of us were deeply concerned over this unconscionable decision of the Government. We organised protests. When we rallied for support there were distinctive responses. Communities living in the slum came in large numbers, really large numbers. But those who lived in upper class Koramangala, a stone’s throw away, refused to turn up. It appeared as though the cause of protecting this wetland and public, open space, was merely that of the poor; that only the poor cared to respond in protest against illegal developments in the city.

As the protests built themselves into massive action, the media gathered and there was plenty of reportage. Since the project was being implemented by the Karnataka Housing Board, there were questions raised why its meagre resources were being invested in promoting housing for the middle class and the rich, as the flats were designed to be sold at high value after athletes used them for 11 days? Why was this resource not being invested in re-building the poor people’s flats at Ejipura which the same agency had built a decade before and were on the verge of collapse? And why were these new flats being outsourced, to Nagarjuna constructions, a contractor who then was cornering all government contracts?

There wasn’t anyone in the Government willing to respond to these legitimate questions. So the protests continued to grow, until, one night, there was a fire. It raced through the Lakhsman Rao Nagar slum in Ejipura. Hutments disappeared: thatched, tin, tarpauline clad structures, which to thousands was home, were a smouldering mess the next morning as kids and women waded through the rubble attempting to recover anything recoverable. Men stood there and watched with a dead-pan expressions.

People who lived inside these structures they called home, were the ones who turned up for the protests. Such an exercise of their democratic Right had cost many of them their daily wages, for several days, which they did not mind at all. But now their homes had disappeared.

Then Chief Minister Devegowda turned up to offer his condolences to those who were burnt alive, and had not died. It was a gruesome sight to see a woman narrating to him how she was sleeping, and woke up to find her arm aflame. Ritual compensation was offered, promises were made, including that the poor-peoples housing project, those flats teetering on the edge of collapse, would be rebuilt, renovated, made livable again. And that the entire area would be dedicated to housing the poor.

National Games is held but the flats are not ready for the athletes. They are eventually built and sold off, or allocated as residences for Judges and various high officials.

Two decades later, Maverick Developers swings a deal in the last remaining open space, across the road, where the poor people live. The space does contain the teetering flats, but seems a minor detail. Maverick claims that they will transform the lot of the poor into something more respectable. Build them flats, yes, ones that will be sturdy, and nice, and livable. No Lakeview apartments these would be. But still, a flat, owned by a poor person, in the middle of Bangalore, is something! Especially when it is in hep and happening Koramangala! The deal is sweet and too difficult to reject for those now in Government; part two-thirds of the land that remained so Maverick would build a Mall, in exchange for flats it would build for the poor in a third of the area! A funds starved Government working with rich Corporates willing to do some good, a grand example of Public-Private Partnership! A Win-Win!

Yes this is the very same Maverick who when Mr. Jairaj was Commissioner of Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (it was not yet Bruhat then) in 2006, had assured that the building that was coming up on public lands at Magrath road, off prime Brigade Road, a place which then was generally used to park garbage trucks of BMP, was going to be a public utility multi-storey parking lot. But quite magically it turned into a mall – Garuda Mall. This caused ruckus in the Council forcing the then Mayor Mumtaz Begum to write to Jairaj the following: “Earlier, you had ordered a detailed inquiry into the case and also assured that the portion of the building with deviation would be demolished and strict action would be initiated against the erring officials. However, you have not come out with the action-taken report.” But the ruckus was momentary, almost ritualistic. No action was ever taken thereafter, it appears, for Garuda Mall continues with business as usual.

Which brings us now to the decision of the Shettar Government in which the incorruptible Mr. Suresh Kumar is the Urban Minister, and Mr. Ashooka, Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, and also Minister in-charge of Bangalore, who have collectively awarded the very same Maverick this killer deal, to steal corporate language. Prime land parted away for a song, without any due diligence or business valuation, based on projected commercial benefits accrued over decades for a marginal capital investment now!

How such deals are struck is very simple to understand. It is first concluded in an office where there are no ‘people’, except those who matter. A convenient policy is invoked. What else, Public-Private Partnership – an ubiquitous tool which corporates across India are generously employing to ruthlessly steal from the poor and gratify the rich and powerful. A policy to which a Government surrenders meekly its very raison d’être, enunciated quite lucidly in Chapter IV of the Constitution of India detailed as Directive Principles of State Policy; in simple terms what the State has to do to justify its existence. But then, deals struck with Maverick are far more sacrosanct than anything etched in the Constitutional conscience of the country. Such promises have to be delivered, and delivered they are, with death-blow force.

In the way of this sordid sell out are, like two decades ago, stand poor people of Ejipura, again. As bulldozers razed through the cold of a mid-January night, into the teetering flats of the poor at Ejipura, there was no plan B for those who were living in the flats – mostly non-owners, poor, working class tenants, informally employed, who had nowhere else to go. Overnight, they were all illegal residents of public lands! They lost their reason to exist as they were in the way of a grand project. This new dawn of 2013 meant at least 5000 people went homeless overnight. An old woman died in the cold, of the cold. Hundreds of little children, tens of pregnant women, youngsters, old people, and men and women alike, found themselves homeless. HOME-LESS.

For Mr. Haris, the sms-happy MLA of the region, even extending water and food to these folks constituted a gross illegality. Papers have reported how he came to the place and threatened dire action against several volunteers who gathered to organise relief and protest. Which probably he executed, as many were brutally arrested with demonic vengeance by the police, soon after. The same Mr. Haris who feeds the poor in thousands to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. The same Mr. Haris who will sell them dreams of a better life in the coming elections, were they to vote for him, again.

As this tragedy unfolds before our very eyes, we may choose to look away if it troubles us, or because we don’t care. Perhaps even invent a justification for this collective behaviour, like say “They were illegal residents no?” No textbook will capture this travesty of social purpose, for Governments want students to read only about how Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life so we could all live happily ever after.

This episode will be forgotten, at least in the same way that we do about slums that were burnt down to make way for Shoppers Stop two decades ago, killing a pregnant woman and an old woman in the fire.

Meanwhile, corporates are falling head over heels to “Wake Up Bangalore, Clean Up Bangalore” in Freedom Park! The project here: segregate waste at source and ensure Bangalore becomes a clean, world-class city. These corporates that endorse these social projects as a part of their ‘corporate social responsibility’ ventures, are nowhere to be found in Ejipura though. But you will find them once the Mall comes up Waking up Who Exactly?

Land designated for housing the poor will soon house a grand temple of consumerist indulgence of the middle classes and the rich – the Maverick Mall! The poor, meanwhile, will be segregated out of the city, where we are told they belong, according to advocates of Public-Private Partnerships in Government and beneficiary Private Corporations.

(Leo Saldanha is Coordinator/Trustee at Environment Support Group and writes a blog: http://leoonpublicmatters.blogspot.in/)