Before I began working in India in 2002, I thought property ownership was a straightforward thing. You own land if you have a government approved piece of paper saying that you own the land. You can sell this piece of paper to other people, and then they own the land. You can build on your land, provided you build within the local authority’s building regulations.
Nothing is so straightforward here. Questions of land and legality have been of interest to me for years, partly because these questions are central to understanding debates over forced displacement of slum-dwellers, but partly also because I’m just plain fascinated by the gulf between laws on paper in India and the reality they purport to describe and shape.
Two articles appeared side by side in the Bangalore edition of the Hindu last week which underscored the ways in which the line between legality and illegality in land ownership is blurry. Thanks to the construction of the new airport in Bangalore, land prices in the nearby area of Chickballapur have skyrocketed. The local Tahsildar (the administrative head) conducted a survey and found that 70 acres of government land had been illegally constructed upon by land developers, some of whom were well-known wealthy men including a former municipal councillor and a film producer. The land grabbers had built residential developments, poultry sheds, and at least one mansion. They built on land on riverbeds, on existing roads, and even on a burial ground, using fake documents of ownership.
In another case, the Bangalore city government compared building plans sent to them for planning approval with the plans for the same buildings sent to the city’s electricity board for providing appropriate electrical connections. They found that at least 32 of these plans were different from one another. Why would this be the case? Builders built houses that did not conform to building regulations and submitted fake plans to get approval, but needed to submit the correct plans to the electricity department for getting appropriate electrical wiring.
The solution to this seems to be initially straightforward: demolish all the illegal constructions, right? It’s not that simple. Demolitions often require authorization from the courts, or explicit sanction from the state or local government, both of which are very difficult to obtain. Court cases usually languish for years before they are resolved and they are expensive to pursue, and both the state and local government can be bribed into turning a blind eye to illegal constructions. In the end, illegality is so all-pervasive that the government is simply incapable of doing anything. So planning departments just “regularize,” ie, they make illegal constructions legal after they are built, usually for a fee. Richer builders who own illegal constructions can afford to pay the fee. Indeed, the policy of regularization creates an incentive for richer builders to build illegally, since the fees are often much cheaper than what they would have paid for building legally.