A curious missive from Bharatiya Janata Party MP Chandrakant Raghunath Patil to the Surat Municipal Corporation asking it not to respond to queries made under the Right To Information Act – a Central law enacted in 2005 – has brought into focus the problem of rampant illegal construction in this port city of Gujarat.

In the letter, dated February 3, the MP from Navsari in Surat district alleged that most Right to Information applicants file frivolous queries in order to extort money from others using the information they obtain.

The majority of Right to Information queries made with the civic body in Surat concern illegal construction.

Citing this fact, Patil wrote: “After receiving the information, citizens blackmail the illegal construction owners or even give threats of demolition.”

Patil went on to instruct the Surat Municipal Corporation to not respond to such Right To Information applications, and asked it to prepare a list of its applicants and blacklist them. The MP also recommended that his recommendations should be discussed when the civic body’s coordination committee meets. The Surat Municipal Corporation circulated the letter to all its officials on February 3, and sent it to its coordination committee the next day.

Illegal construction rampant

Surat, considered to be the financial capital of Gujarat and one of its fastest growing cities, has seen rampant illegal construction over the last few years.

The matter is clearly of interest to its citizens.

“In 2015, 15,270 RTI applications were filed [in Surat] and a whopping 70% of them were about illegal construction,” said Ajay Jangid, a Surat-based Right to Information activist and a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. “Between 2011 and 2015, the Vigilance Department in Surat received more than 3,400 cases related to illegal construction. All of these cases were handed over to the Vigilance Department in light of the nexus between [municipal] corporators and builders.”

Illegal construction activity is more common in the older parts of Surat. It is often cloaked in the garb of restoration and renovation. “There are cases where a builder seeks permission to renovate an old building on paper and demolishes and rebuilds it instead,” said Jangid. “Thirty percent of the total number of illegal constructions are cases where property is built on a disputed piece of land. Another 30%-40% are cases where builders have added illegal floors above the sanctioned number of floors. Cases where the builders build commercial complexes in a property sanctioned as residential constitutes about 20% of the total number of illegal cases.”

Most of these illegal constructions do not follow safety regulations such as earthquake and fire safety-related construction guidelines. But the civic body has largely turned a blind eye to them.

Builder-corporator nexus?

In 2011, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat passed the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act, which it started enforcing the following year. The law provided for the regularisation of illegal constructions, subject to a few conditions, after the payment of what was called an “impact fee”. At that time, the government estimated that there were about 25 lakh illegal constructions in the entire state. However, the response to this proposal was poor as, in most cases ,the impact fee was as high as the cost of construction.

Hitesh Jariwala, a businessman, faced apathy by the Surat Municipal Corporation when he flagged illegal construction in a plot adjoining his in Mahidharpura, an area in the old city.

Because of the area’s narrow alleys, some of which are only three feet across, the height of buildings is limited to three floors. “In late 2012, when they started building above the third floor, I filed an RTI asking for information about the construction,” said Jariwala.

The Right to Information query revealed that the builder had flouted several norms.

“However, after I took up the matter with the then corporator of the area and other officials of SMC [Surat Municipal Corporation], they did nothing,” said Jariwala. “In fact, 15 days after my complaint, SMC sent me a WhatsApp from their online portal stating that the plan of the building was sanctioned.”

Over the next five years, Jariwala said that he knocked on several doors, in vain. Instead, the municipal corporation subsequently sent him two notices asking him to demolish a balcony on the first floor of his home because it encroached upon the lane.

The neighbouring building now stands seven-storeys tall.

“This is not an isolated case,” said Jariwala. “Currently, about 30 buildings are being constructed in Mahidharpura area alone and 98% of them are illegal constructions.”

Transparency needed

Many of these illegal constructions have been traced to officers of the civic body or to members of the ruling party in Gujarat.

In September 2015, the Surat Municipal Corporation received multiple complaints from residents of Chhaprabhata area of Katargam, a suburb of Surat, against a builder, Anil Janjmera, the nephew of Surat mayor Niranjan Janjmera. According to reports, the following month, the municipal corporation demolished three illegal under-construction buildings amid police protection.

In another instance last September, after some internal bickering, 26 out of 80 BJP municipal corporators submitted a memorandum to Surat Municipal Commissioner Milind Torawane seeking the demolition of an illegally-constructed office of BJP corporator Ravindra Patil in Limbayat area of Surat.

Ajay Jangid, however, is of the opinion that frequent demolition will not help curb the problem of illegal construction, which has led to corruption with builders bribing civic officials and corporators to turn a blind eye whenever they are sent a notice of demolition.

Instead, said Jangid, the Surat Municipal Corporation should get more transparent in its dealings with the public. For instance, he said, if the approved blueprint of all city buildings is available for any member of the public to scrutinise, the scope of civic officials using their discretion to sanction any illegalities later would shrink.

“Pune Municipal Corporation has all its documents archived and maintains a library where any civilian can avail any document every Monday,” said Jangid. “SMC [Surat Municipal Corporation] should also upload every sanctioned blueprint on its website and make the process transparent.”

‘Unconstitutional letter’

Meanwhile, following CR Patil’s letter to the Surat civic body, the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahal – an organisation that works to spread awareness about the Right to Information Act at the grassroots – has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan to protest against the member of Parliament’s attempt to malign Right to Information activists without providing facts to substantiate his claims.

“Such an act is unconstitutional,” said Pankti Jog, the organisation’s executive secretary. “We also started a mass letter campaign condemning the act and to send a message to our elected representatives.”

Patil explained why he sent the letter to the Surat civic body in a statement that said: “I have evidence of several cases where applicants having gathered information regarding illegal constructions [have] demanded demolition of the property. However after extorting money from the concerned builder, they always take back the demand for demolition. People have [the] Right to Information but it is misused in such cases here. Hence I had to write such a letter.”

Following the furore over Patil’s letter, last week, the Surat Municipal Corporation said in a notification that it did not intend to stop responding to RTI applications.