This column appeared in the DNA on the 14th of November
If Campa Cola had created so much buzz when it was a soft drink manufacturer, it would probably still be in business, selling aerated water to the consumer market. Alas, that was not to be the case. Campa Cola, for those born post the liberalization era, was one of the largest soft drink manufacturers in India. It made its mark at the time when Coca Cola departed India in the late 1970s. It was also one of the first victims of Pepsi and Coke re-entering India. The land allotted to Campa Cola was acquired by builders who constructed upscale apartments. The builders had permission to build apartment blocks of six floors each. Many of the buildings are much taller. The tallest one is 17 floors high. All this happened a long time ago, and like much else in India there was a ‘nod-nod, wink-wink among all concerned’. Banks give loans, owners buy properties, electricity connections are given, tankers supply water, and it all proceeds as though everything is normal and legal. The modus operandi is as follows: File a plan, get municipality approvals based on the plan, begin construction, violate all that is in the plan, and then pay a small fine to regularise the construction. It happens all the time. There are posh localities in the suburbs of Mumbai that still get water via tankers, five years after residents have moved in, because the entire complex is yet to get an OC (Occupation Certificate) from the BMC. And more often than not things like this gets regularised — someone knows someone, who knows someone, and for a little compensation (for greasing palms and getting through the bureaucratic labyrinth) everything gets fixed. Except that in the case of Campa Cola houses it did not. The current fracas is over 35 floors that were constructed without permission, occupied without an Occupation Certificate, and which was ordered to be demolished by the BMC.
Naturally, the residents were shocked. They refused to move out. Upper middle class agony, expressed in fluent English and anglicized Hindi makes for great news television. It makes audiences identify with those portrayed. And, more importantly, it makes news anchors outrage in an even shriller manner. Suddenly, the residents of the Campa Cola Compound were no longer the educated, well-heeled, well-connected individuals who had access to lawyers and could check contracts and building paper work, but innocents who were duped by a corrupt system. And once the media got into the fray, so did the politicians. To give him his due, Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan refused to pass an ordinance that would halt the demolition. But, the rest got onto the bandwagon, including his own party members. Suddenly, a bunch of people who should have known better while they were busy breaking the law, were portrayed as babes in the wood. The very same people who would otherwise rant when illegal slums and pavement dwellers began using the same analogies to defend their illegal constructions. ‘we have always lived here’ ‘our children grew up here’ ‘where will we go’ ‘our entire community is here’.
Any house owner in Mumbai (possibly elsewhere too) will tell you that buying a flat is fraught with tension. The chain of ownership is often vague, and very often there are situations where buildings have neither Occupation Certificates, nor No-Objection certificates. Most of us are not used to reading technical documents in archaic technical language, and most just glance at the requisite paperwork to see if it is complete before buying. But, ignorance is not a defence against breaking the law. And when you strip the Campa Cola Compound case of all the emotion, the tears and the angst, all you are left with is one thing: The law was broken, and those who broke the law may get away with it, with the media whipping up outrage to dissuade the law from taking its course. At the time of writing this column, the Supreme Court — reacting to media reports — has stayed the demolition.
In April this year, the residents of Golibar, a slum in Mumbai, were protesting for the same reason.Their homes were being demolished to make way for buildings. They had occupied the land since the mid-1960s. Television news did not care. Demolitions are proceeding as per plan. In June this year, slums at Ejipura in Bengaluru were demolished after residents were evicted in an area they had lived in for decades. Media coverage was nowhere near as sympathetic.
It seems that the middle class likes the idea of the rule of law when it is applied to others. It is quite comfortable breaking the law, and sheds copious tears when it is caught. The sentiment is simple — the rich get away with it because they have influence with those in power. The lower middle class and poor get away with breaking the law because they are the mass, and political parties need mass votes. Given that the middle class have neither the political influence nor the numbers, it does the next best thing — use the media, made up of people like them, to amplify issues. And it has worked. While in the occasional case like a Jessica Lal when the media got it right, the fact remains that this sort of coverage of raw emotions has repercussions in terms of the rule of law. Think back to the hijacking of IC 814 and ask if the media had not constantly broadcast and amplified the heart-rending anguish of impacted families would the Government of India have been placed in such a ridiculous position?
Two sections of India that most often talk about declining morality and increased lawlessness have in the last week gotten together to do both: The middle class and the media. It is pointless to point fingers elsewhere. If you want the rule of law, you start by following it, not by breaking it, because others do just that.