The saga of illegal constructions in the city continues. The latest twist in the story is the High Court of Madras striking down two Government Orders (GOs) passed in 2012. These were hastily passed to overcome the Supreme Court ruling of the same year which ordered the demolition of all illegal structures in the city constructed after July 27, 1999. The GOs sought to move the cut off date to July 1, 2007. The High Court, rightly interpreting this as giving legal sanction to a whole host of illegal buildings constructed in the interim, has come down heavily on the administration-builder nexus. But that does not mean that Chennai which, at a conservative estimate, has over 100,000 illegal buildings, is going to become free of them overnight.
The Consumer Action Group was the first to take this matter up seriously and bring it to the notice of the High Court. This was in 1999, when the Government declared a one-time amnesty to the violators whereby all defaults would be condoned after the payment of a fine. This by itself was questionable, as money can never set right environmental wrongdoing, but what was ironic was that the Government repeatedly sought to extend the deadline for the amnesty. And when the High Court struck down the amnesty, the Government sought to issue an ordinance whereby a status quo would be maintained on all illegal structures. If this was not an instance of Government protecting law-breaking builders, what else can be?
There has been a sense of satisfaction among activists that the Court has struck down the GOs and demanded action. But there is also a lurking and a very real fear that there will be very little action. As has come to light during the trial, there are strong links between the builders and the authorities. It is in the interests of these groups that such structures survive and more such are built. They are not concerned with long-term effects of such constructions on the environment and the populace.
Despite several judgements by the High Court and the Supreme Court, all in favour of sealing and demolishing the illegal structures, no action has been taken under some pretext or the other. One of the most laughable excuses given by the Government has been that the interests of hawkers would be affected. This despite the fact that no judgement even mentioned hawkers, and violations were all by big names in business. Yet another argument was that those employed by the establishments operating from these illegal buildings would be thrown out of jobs. Whoever comes up with these excuses knows clearly the way our governments indulging in populist schemes work. There is also a fear that immediate action would further depress the recession-hit construction industry. Certainly, none in the administration would be willing to take decisive action on demolition, especially in an election year. It is reliably learnt that, even now, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority is only contemplating legal advice on how to extricate itself from the mess. The question of outright compliance with the demolition orders has not even come up.
It cannot be denied that it is the common man/woman who suffers. Those who bear the brunt of such rampant illegality are the residents of the neighbourhood, the shoppers who come to such buildings, and the employees who work there. They are all innocent people in good faith and, surely, it is not fair that they should pay for the misdemeanours of powerful vested interests. But that has been the way our city is run for several decades now, has it not?