‘Illegality’ cannot be sole criteria for demolition of buildings in India

The flashing of the image of falling of Supertech twin towers in Noida in a matter of a few seconds brought back teenage memories of an unrelated and incomparable incident from two decades back that happened in another continent when the eponymous building came crashing down due to a deadly terror attack. The two images […]

The flashing of the image of falling of Supertech twin towers in Noida in a matter of a few seconds brought back teenage memories of an unrelated and incomparable incident from two decades back that happened in another continent when the eponymous building came crashing down due to a deadly terror attack. The two images have little in common apart from the name of the buildings and the spectacular and cinematic nature of the image of such mighty structures falling down. Spectacular moments can be extremely useful in the history of societies if they are made into moments of transformative interventions. To my mind the moment of 2001 was that of a lost opportunity because we did not see introspection by the American state into the structural causes of the phenomenon of terrorism.

Cut to August 2022. The demolition of Supertech twin towers in Noida is an extraordinary and an equally spectacular event. This is not a usual demolition of a squatter settlement (locally referred to as jhuggi-jhopri) or parts of an unauthorized colony which is a common phenomenon in both Delhi and the National Capital Region. It is the first time such a tall building was demolished by the order of the honorable Supreme Court because of the Public Interest Litigation filed by a Resident Welfare Association citing the illegal violation of building norms. To put it differently, it is the first time that a structure built by a real estate tycoon which can be called to have a ‘world-class’ look was brought down because of its illegal violation of planning norms. A similar instance is that of demolition of apartments in Maradu, Kerala in 2020 but it pales in comparison to the mighty twin towers located near the capital city. The videos of the demolition in Noida show crowds cheering as the buildings were coming down. The popular discourse is celebrating the fall of the ‘building of venality’ or the ‘epitome of corruption’. The falling of this building seems to be setting a precedent that ‘if you are illegal you can be razed to the ground!’ While sending a strong signal to the builder lobbies may be an important step in the road to justice, it is more important to go beyond the spectacle of demotion and examine the problem at hand.

The falling of the twin towers in Noida, to my mind, presents an opportunity to look at the larger structural problem that has led to this demolition. This is the ‘problem’ of ‘illegality’, flouting of building norms, and peculiar dynamics of urban planning in Indian mega cities. I argue that demolition of buildings is not a solution for postcolonial cities where ‘illegality’ is the norm rather than exception. Gautam Bhan, a well-known urban studies scholar, in his Economic and Political Weekly article in 2013 quoted from the Delhi Economic Survey, 2008-9 that 75 per cent of the city was living in housing that was ‘unplanned’. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, 3/4th of the capital city of India would have to be demolished in case ‘illegality’ becomes the reason for demolition. Thus, I further argue that the solution lies in unpacking the structural dynamics of urban planning in India rather than being stuck in narrow-binary understandings of legal-illegal, formal-informal and planned-unplanned.

One may wonder, what is the reason for the proliferation of ‘illegality’ in India? A partial answer to this question lies in the fact that different parts of the state themselves are heavily invested in maintaining the processes that give rise to illegal violation of norms. Ananya Roy, a renowned scholar of planning theory has argued that ‘India cannot plan its cities’ because state in itself acts in an informal way over here so that it can change the land use of any piece of land as and when required, a process that she calls ‘territorialized flexibility’. Similar arguments about ‘flexible planning’ and ‘informality’ in the rural-urban frontiers of Delhi have been made about Gurugram in the works of another prominent urban anthropologist Shubhra Gururani.

My own doctoral research on Khora colony, an urban village and unauthorized colony at the border of Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad revealed that rather than the formal plan made by Noida authority, it is the informal exchange of information, money and capital between development authorities, politicians, real estate developers, brokers, property dealers and citizens that is responsible for the unfolding of urban development. A similar argument has been developed by Sanjay Srivastava, a well-known scholar of urban sociology, analyzing the case of Supertech twin towers in which he traced the roots of the present situation to the 1980s when due to the monopoly of the Delhi Development Authority on land and housing development in Delhi pushed the private players to the neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. He deftly pointed out that a nexus developed between real estate lobbies and state in which opaque transactions, plan alterations and illegalities became a norm.

To conclude, it is parts of the state and the legal planning regime that is responsible for the large number of unplanned developments in our cities. Some of the illegalities are a result of economic compulsions of the poor. The lack of affordable formal housing for the migrant poor, forces them to squat illegally on public, and sometimes private land. It is therefore a fact that most of the ‘illegal’ housing stock for the poor has been ‘auto-constructed’ by the poor themselves. The illegalities of the rich, on the other hand, are a result of nexus between various powerful state and private actors. Instead of large-scale demolitions, we need to find differential ways of addressing these illegalities to ensure that our cities are inclusive and just. To do this it is important to ensure that not only the state-real estate nexus does not proliferate to reproduce inequality in urban spaces but also the state actors responsible for the same are brought to book. One of the ways this can be done is by making sure that the laws that are being made to regulate real estate such as Real Estate Regulatory Authority Act are unambiguously designed to establish accountability. If we do not seize this moment to reflect on transformative interventions and just celebrate the spectacle of demolition then we will again be losing a tremendous opportunity like the world did in 2001.

Shruti Dubey is Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science, Banaras Hindu University. Her research work is on urban informality in Delhi.