Molding the law to suit your needs

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.

  1. Raj said:

    Wow. With all of these regularized distortions, building codes sound pretty irrelevant for people with money. I think this is ripe for more documentation, whether a map or a mocked up invoice for fees incurred or something else.

    • nraman said:

      Yes, documentation. I am interested in doing it, but I am not sure how to begin. For example, to make a really interesting map of unauthorized constructions, either on an individual house level, neighborhood level, or city wide level, what sorts of information would you need to have access to? Approved building plans, maps of the city, revenue maps, all of these things are kept under strict lock and key by the Indian government. This fact is telling (and I think I’ve mentioned this on the blog before): one of the major recommendations to come out of a 1994 meeting in Delhi to determine whether Master Plans were useful was a request to the government to release spatial information to the PLANNING DEPARTMENTS (!!!!). Apparently, government departments that had spatial information refused to share it because of safety concerns. So please help me think through this – how can I come up with an image or a graph that can illustrate the absurdity of the existing situation, considering the constraints on information that I have?

  2. Raj said:

    Maybe a series of anecdotal maps, collaged from what scraps of documents or fantasies of construction you can find? This westerner thinks it would be interesting to see a map that communicates the frustration of wanting to represent information but having as resources only one’s conversation, hearsay, second-hands and imaginings. A map that represents a lack of information while striving to communicate.

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