Monday, September 9, 2013

Bribe demands hold up building projects in Mumbai

MUMBAI: A civic circular issued early last year to speed up building approvals, curb corruption and fix responsibility for delays seems to have been conveniently buried. Clearances are delayed and "demands" from a section of officials in the BMC's building proposal (BP) department to clear files have, in fact, increased since last year, said sources in the building industry. The municipal commissioner's office grants clearances swiftly (within a week), but major obstructions are faced at the ward level, they added.

The January 2012 circular stipulated a maximum of 60 days for building plans to be approved and warned the BP staff that "any lapse" in approving plans within the period would be "viewed seriously". Former municipal commissioner Subodh Kumar issued it after complaints that officials delayed approvals by seeking irrelevant information, forcing builders to part with bribes.

Builders and architects who spoke to TOI said the approvals system has worsened since last year with demands for bribes increasing substantially.

Developer Sunil Mantri said the 'approval in 60 days' assurance was given by the civic administration when the development control rule was amended last year, to ensure more transparency and accountability. "Unfortunately, the reality is different. Approvals can still take close to a year," he said. Another prominent builder from the eastern suburbs claimed some officers demanded Rs 30 lakh to approve his proposal before December 31 last year. In January, ready reckoner rates are revised upwards. "I refused," he said.

Civic chief S J Kunte admitted the system is not working because it is difficult to track down the dates of entry in each file and fix responsibility. "We are moving towards a paperless office in the next few weeks. Once the file tracking system is up, every proposal will be automatically logged in by dates," he said.

"It is torturous corruption," complained a well-known architect, not wishing to be identified. He said he preferred the quick building approval system in Hyderabad and Chennai. "The speed money in these cities is around Rs 65 a square foot. But after that things get done smoothly," he said. In Mumbai, he claimed, the figure could be as much as Rs 500 a sq ft. "Procuring just the basic civic clearances for a small plot in Dadar could cost the developer Rs 40 lakh. It is becoming increasingly difficult to work with the BMC," he added.

Architect Shirish Sukhatme said the circular has been "thrown in the dustbin". "The circular is well-defined, yet refusals are routine. Submission of plans itself is a big headache. There is no accountability," he said.

Construction industry sources alleged some junior officials charge Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh just to put their signature on a file. In the western suburbs, a developer could be forced to pay Rs 15 lakh each for an intimation of disapproval certificate, commencement certificate and an unspecified amount for an occupation certificate. "Builders are frustrated. It seems if you are a plot owner, you have no right to develop it. You are at their (the officials') mercy," said developer.

But a senior civic official said some of this criticism may not be justified. "Many builders do not have their plans in order when they submit them. The delay could be due to that," he said.


It's not only rich builders who have to pay through their nose to get their work done. Experience shows that a section of BMC staff are quite democratic in this; rich or poor, a builder waiting to get his file cleared or a society resident complaining about illegal construction next door, everyone is fair game for the corrupt civic babu. It's unfortunate that the service due to citizens - not free but in lieu of the various taxes and duties they pay - comes at a cost. The BMC has seen some well-meaning senior officials; what has also been noticed is a conscious effort to cleanse the system. But the common Mumbaikar is still waiting for that effort to translate into result.