A case of too little, too late

After years and years of dithering, the Government finally cracked down on several high profile shopping establishments in T Nagar, all of which had been merrily carrying on trade in buildings that had become a byword for exceeding sanctioned area limits. The question is, why was the Government, no matter which party was in power, silent for so long? And why did several steps taken by the Government actually strengthen the hands of those doing the violations?

In its time it was the first properly planned district of the city, in the modern sense. And yet, Theyagaroya Nagar or T Nagar, the showpiece of Madras in the 1920s, is today a classic example of how faulty planning, poor implementation of building regulations, the real-estate-builder-government nexus and rampant exploitation of land with no concern for anything else, can create an urban disaster. The area had become notorious for its ambient air having the highest particulate matter, far beyond what is permissible. The congestion caused by illegal high-rises was never questioned by those who had the authority to check it. These structures were never inspected while work on construction was in progress and their violations were never considered worthy of demolition. While the businesses flourished, the area went to seed. Residential streets became parking lots and rubbish tips, arterial roads were choked with traffic and poor safety norms resulted in fires and stampedes causing loss of life. But with those in power turning a blind eye, business, and violation of norms continued merrily.

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 when the Government declared a one-time amnesty to the violators whereby all defaults would be condoned by the payment of a fine. This by itself was questionable as money does not 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?

Despite several judgements by the High Court and the Supreme Court, all in favour of sealing and demolishing the illegal structures, no action was taken under some pretext or the other. One of the most laughable excuses given by the Government was 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. And when the matter of T Nagar’s congestion was ever discussed, the suggested solutions took the presence of these illegal buildings for granted and always tried to work around the problem rather than tackle it head on. An example was the now aborted plan of building aerial walkways to provide easy access to all the shopping establishments.

Now that some action has been taken, what is ironic is that everyone involved in the constructions is taking credit for the sealing and demolition. The CMDA, the Corporation, the real estate developers and builders are all claiming that they have always been calling for punitive action against errant property developers. There is also a section of the media, which is trying to drum up sympathy for the workers who have lost their livelihood with the establishments being closed down. The owners of the affected establishments are seeing a way out of the mess by using this as a convenient excuse. This is an instance of taking up the right cause for a wrong reason. The future of the poor workers is at stake and for that the Labour Ministry in the State has to intervene and ensure that suitable compensation has to be paid to those losing their jobs. The shops and outlets cannot be reopened on the pretext of the workers not getting their wages.

The last chapter in this drama is yet to be written. The commercial establishments are sure to try and find a way out. And yet nobody appears to have to learnt a lesson from T Nagar. Other parts of the city, Mylapore, Purasawalkam and Adyar are rapidly commercialising and it appears that no check is being applied in these localities either. Does it have to require the intervention of the Court in each and every instance?