This is the third story in a series about a wide road, 126 kilometres long, that will wind through NAINA, a planned city in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Part one of the series can be found here, and part two, here.
NERE – Some years ago, when the village of Nere sold common land on a pahadi – a hillock – to a builder, the village panchayat decided that each married man’s share worked out to Rs 2.5 lakhs. Most used the windfall to purchase cars, phones, and other ephemera. The Chorge brothers, four in all, pooled their share to buy a plot abutting a road within the village boundary. The gram panchayat, which consisted of people they had known all their lives, oversaw matters that affected the village. The use of land was among those concerns. They gave the brothers permission to build.
“All our lives we saw our father struggle,” one of the brothers told me. The father was uneducated, and had raised a family by cultivating the five acres they owned in Nere. For meals, he foraged for radish in jungles. The brothers decided not to buy “a four-wheeler” or a phone with a large screen just yet.
By 2014, they had erected a building. It was four floors high, on a raised plinth that almost made it five. The walls were painted mustard, sky blue and lime green.
On the same plot, one of the brothers, Deepak, built a home he was proud of: the yard in front was strewn with plants, and the walls were covered in tiles. The upper floor gave it away; when villagers saw it, they saw a maadi, a sign that the family inside had done well.
Deepak drives a black and yellow rickshaw between Nere and Panvel. On a typical day, passengers complain about state buses running late, and Deepak gets them to squeeze in a little to make room for a straggler. Last July, Deepak remembers, he was in line at a taxi stand in Panvel, waiting with other drivers to pick up a fare, when someone said to him, “Isn’t your house going?”
“I said, ‘what do you mean my house is going?’ ”
An urban development plan for the region had been published. A white stripe that represented a major road, a transportation corridor from Virar to Alibag, snaked across the blueprint. In one of the colour-coded fragments, Deepak saw his home and the apartment block — two rectangles, not half a centimetre across. And he saw two roads – one 126 meters wide, the other 45 metres wide. The two rectangles that represented all he and his brothers owned were in the crosshairs the roads formed.
The plan arrived without notice. People had heard about something called NAINA, but not what it would do. Now the residents of the 23 villages in the first part of NAINA’s unfolding realised what the orderliness of an urban plan would entail: chaos. Stories like Deepak’s played out over the region. One man’s plot was to be turned into a park. Another froze in shock when he discovered that all his land would be taken. Residents began looking for buyers who would take their property off them.
NAINA’s officials announced, on the internet, a deadline for what they called “suggestions and objections”.
Long after the official deadline had passed, complaints poured into NAINA’s offices at CBD Belapur, a long white office block rising above a railway station. The twenty-three villages, which included Chorge’s Nere, altogether had 65,063 inhabitants in 2011, the last count. Between the villages and the builders, the officials received nearly six thousand complaints.
“So what should we do?” town planners asked the rickshaw driver
Last November, in a hall above the station, public hearings about the urban plan took place. Large cameras filmed the angry audience. A cluster of planners sat with impassive faces at a raised stage. The additional chief planner of NAINA, V Venugopal, tried to speak, but his sentences were interrupted by shouts and curses. The police collected at the crowd’s edge, looking to the stage for a sign. When the glaring, crying congregation pushed forward with arms raised and fists clenched, the police formed a firewall. The villagers demanded Venugopal speak with them on their turf, and they left without listening. In the empty hall, Venugopal took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
Scenes like these played out over and over. Eventually, the planners called each aggrieved party separately.
Deepak’s turn came at 4pm, two days before Christmas. He remembers meeting the planners in a room above the station. “There were four-five people at a table. They showed a map on the TV, and told me to show them where my house was. I showed it to them. They asked me, ‘When you made your house, did you give anyone a letter?’ ” He told them the local gram panchayat had approved his plan.
“So what should we do?” they asked him.
“I told them, ‘it’s all up to you’.”
In the following months, NAINA’s officials went quiet. No one could say, with any certainty, what was going on.
When NAINA took charge of the area, the responsibility came with administrative control of all construction work, as well as land transactions. The gram panchayats were told they could no longer provide building permissions. “There were lots of projects under construction here,” a financial professional from Nere who requested anonymity said. “The housing finance institutions got notice first that NAINA was in charge, and that its permission was necessary before they gave loans.” These institutions informed regular builders, whose only source of capital was the housing finance companies. “Then the builders told buyers that permissions were compulsory,” he said. “Now the builders’ money is stuck. That means regular people’s money is stuck.”
A member of the Nere gram panchayat, Prakash Gopalghadge, said, “Builders’ files are waiting. There are lots of files to be sorted through. You can’t say if you’ll get permission after two months, or after four months.”
Actually, the delays run into years.
This May, a farmer from Nere village told me that NAINA’s bureaucracy swallowed his building application in 2013. (He did not want to be identified, for fear of recrimination from NAINA’s officials.) The process took too much time, and he did not want to wait. So he did what builders around here do: confident that the permissions would come eventually, he started constructing his home.
This was a mistake. NAINA envisioned an ordered city, not small buildings sprouting in unmanageable clusters. The farmer thought that a bribe – “a little managing” – would get his files approved, but he couldn’t be sure. This was because NAINA’s officials were doing the rounds here. They arrived without warning, took measurements of work in progress, and took off, leaving behind worried investors. Then they visited again, this time with bulldozers. Some days, they didn’t seem to be bribable.
When they razed a building nearby, the farmer grew alarmed, and stopped the construction work on his site. He had hoped to keep a few apartments for himself and sell the rest. On a warm evening, he held my wrist and pulled me to the site. Girders poked out of unfinished pillars. Strips of wood lay under an open sky. “I put forty lakhs in this. The rain will ruin everything.” After sunset he strolled around the material, keeping watch for thieves and officials. He looked around himself. It was a wistful, lingering gaze and it took in the ruin of his personal empire.
Meanwhile, newspapers reported on NAINA’s demolition of “unauthorised constructions”. The “chief controller of unauthorised constructions”, one story said, “had cracked down on several unauthorised constructions in the area without bowing to political pressure” in his previous job. I wondered about this often. The term ’unauthorised construction’ could mean a wilful avoidance of the law, and that was how the papers conveyed it. But a closer reading of the situation that farmers and builders faced revealed that constructions were unauthorised because NAINA held on to approvals while its planners decided what to do next. This was the imposition of a vacuum not just on builders, but on indigent people whose land was their most realistic path to prosperity.
One of the Chorge brothers took me to see a new building within Nere’s boundaries. He had his four-wheeler now, a white Scorpio that glided over asphalt and mud. On the road outside Nere there stood a new building, five floors high. The family who owned it had a housewarming prayer in June this year, he said, leaving unmentioned: That’s how new it is. They didn’t have permission from NAINA’s officials, the brother told me. They had muscle. “The family has ten boys. Sometimes it happens that the people from NAINA come here, and the boys come out to beat them up and damage their car.” (Vehicle reshaping, I was learning, was accepted practice.) They’ll think about the police and the case later. But they won’t let you break anything. Whether you are the police, or an official. They’ll beat you up first.”
Deepak sat on a stair. His son cycled in the yard. The television was turned to Doraemon. His aunt joined us. “It can’t go over our house,” she said. “There’s a house here. How can it go over our house?”
He smirked. “It’s going over our house.”
She stared at him, as if hearing this for the first time, and fell back on familiar reasons why it was impossible. Their home ran on Deepak’s rickshaw earnings, they had no other income. He had school fees to pay, and a family to support. Then it burst out of her, “I’ve heard it’s not happening. They have cancelled the plan.”
Looking at her, Deepak said nothing more.