The dreaded extortion call from a bhai is unsettling for any construction star, but Mumbai’s builders are now quivering before far lesser mortals. The violations they indulge in, they gripe, are being ferreted out by a bunch of “professional complainants’’ with the help of the RTI Act, not to expose corruption, but to blackmail them.
Builders manipulating floor space index (FSI) or carrying out gross violations in their projects find themselves more susceptible to this phenomenon. “Unscrupulous builders flouting construction regulations are easy targets and are sometimes forced to shell out a couple of crores to keep extortionists off,’’ said an industry insider, who claimed that even those builders who tried to work within the ambit of the sanctioned plans found themselves at the receiving end.
“A false complaint to the BMC could stall work for a couple of months. Any delay results in a loss. The builder would prefer to pay up,’’ said a developer.
Advocate-activist Y P Singh, however, said this was “inevitable collateral’’. When the statutory authorities themselves are sanctioning illegal plans, naturally, all kinds of unscrupulous people will want to jump on to the bandwagon,’’ he said. He added that sometimes tenants in redevelopment deals also dug out details of government-builder misdemeanors to get a better deal.
Several developers claimed that the sum demanded from them ranged from a few lakhs to Rs 3 crore for big projects. According to allegations, the former head of an ‘anti-corruption NGO’, a Malad based advocate and a Kurla slum-dweller are some of the highly successful ‘social workers’ who have brought powerful builders to their knees.
Builders alleged that some employees in the BMC’s building proposals department, which sanctions building plans, were hand-in-glove with extortionists and could well be guiding them. However, V L Joshi, the outgoing chief engineer of the BMC’s development plan department, strongly denied that some of his own staff in the building proposals department were involved.
NEW CON GAME
Mumbai: Extortionists posing as anti-corruption activists are targetting builders who violate FSI norms in their under-construction projects, and extracting large sums of money from them. Some builders allege that employees in the BMC’s building proposals department help the blackmailers, but the civic body denied this.
A senior official from the department at Byculla said his office received at least six RTI applications a day. “We cannot refuse information to anyone seeking it,’’ he said.
Sources said the most serious manipulations carried out by some builders were in projects where the BMC permits a car slot on each floor of the building which is free of FSI. This car park area, which could be as big as 2,000 sq ft, is then surreptitiously amalgamated into the housing unit and sold as a large apartment, for which the builder charges a premium. In such projects where the violation is blatant, the RTI specialists quickly move in for the kill.
A developer said that extortionists hired small architects to help them find violations in building plans. “If my file gets stuck because of a frivolous complaint, the commencement certificate will be stalled,’’ he said. Another builder told TOI that some also threaten to expose developers in the media. “It is better to buy peace,’’ he said, adding that this ‘business’ has been flourishing for the past couple of years. “It’s all done under the guise of curbing corruption,’’ he said.
“Building regulations are so convoluted that one can find something wrong with every project in the city. Today, every project requires about 60 to 70 approvals, and builders sometimes commence work without the necessary approvals. This is how developers are caught on the wrong foot,’’ said a builder from the western suburbs.
RTI commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said that when the act was framed, queries had been raised about its misuse. “But who can get blackmailed? Naturally, somebody who has done something wrong. And even without RTI, blackmail was possible,’’ he said. “Hopefully, builders themselves will stop taking short cuts when they realise it is not viable anymore.’’