Noble Mansion

Location, location, location

When large infrastructure projects are planned for a place, who gets to know about them first? And what happens next?

Rahul Bhatia
Reporter

One.

Between 2007 and 2008, prospectors began to stalk the countryside around Kon, a small village at the crossroads of a national highway and an expressway a few kilometres south of Panvel. The reason for this invasion was an “in-principal approval” by the union government for an international airport ten kilometres away.

Agents inquired about the vast patchwork of land that spread behind the huddled homes of the villages. These were fertile fields. A decent year provided a year’s food. A good one gave two. But only a third of them were employed, and the prospectors’ interest in their land promised a life transformed. Each 100 square metre plot was worth approximately Rs 20,000 when the invasion begin, and it climbed steadily to Rs 50,000, then Rs 100,000, and then past Rs 200,000 within three years.

Several landowners decided to sell. Although they were at the edge of Panvel, the benefits of urban life had not yet reached them. The place, if it could have a collective description, was industrial in nature. Behind the sprawling multi-coloured container terminals that faced the village, the Patalganga Industrial Estate housed a Reliance polyester research and manufacturing division over 30 acres. Across the road were manufacturing facilities for Bombay Dyeing and Cipla. Their processes flavoured the air — a hint of baking one moment, the suggestion of a burning tyre the next. Humans were tucked behind high walls. Life paused after dark, except for the dance bars, which were lit up in the darkness like casinos in Vegas. The only other sounds were automotive; namely the clattering of cargo trucks.

 

Into the nothingness came a buyer who seemed to accumulate as many parcels of land as the landowners at Kon were willing to sell. The buyer’s legal name was Diana Infrastructure Limited, but locals referred to a more familiar name: Indiabulls. In 2007 and 2008, the real estate developer purchased 116,000 square metres spread across nearly six dozen plots of land.

They were interested in more. Bittu Sharma, the proprietor of a roadside restaurant for cargo truck drivers, said that Indiabulls’ representatives often came over to ask if he was interested in selling his plot of land. It was worth over one crore easily in today’s money, he figured. But he turned them down each time. “My food and water would have disappeared,” he said. After some time had passed, and we were just hanging out, it occurred to him to ask what I was doing there.

I began, “Ajeeb jagah building banayee hai… (They’ve made this building in a very strange place),” and stopped, in case I had offended him by calling the place he lived odd.

To my relief, he said, “Ajeeb hi jagah hai. (Oh it is a strange place.)”

 

Indiabulls Greens rises behind Bittu Sharma's truck stop at Kon

Two.

In 2005, decades of concern over the reversal of Mumbai as a place to live and work were channeled into a World Bank missive: “The Government of India has asked the World Bank to assist it with the preparation of a strategy designed to reverse the decline of the city, helping it to assure, in particular, that the strategy be based on a rigorous and sustainable business plan approach.” The bank and the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) decided to commission a ‘Comprehensive Transportation Study’ – the first in 25 years – on the premise that a better transportation network would increase mobility, resulting in “lower household costs and greater employment opportunities”.

On 19th May 2006 and then on 8th November 2007, the consultants working on the study, titled ‘Transform’ — and informally called ‘The Bible’ — met with the government to share their findings. In March 2008, the MMRDA presented Transform’s recommendations, contained in three hefty volumes, to the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Deshmukh.

Transform’s authors had spent months watching how people commuted by cars, buses, and trains, and just how many of them walked to work (an unusual 50 per cent). They found that 78% of ‘person trip travel’ within the metropolitan region was on public transport. But when kilometres travelled was accounted for, public transport’s share rose to 90 per cent.

Sometimes the disparate anonymous voices of the various authors burst through with some effect. In chapter 6, a question stood out: “How much choice can society afford in urban transportation?” And on that very page followed another prescription: Potential corridors for public transit and private automobiles — thick wavy strips that ran north to south, growing larger with each eastern corridor, like ripples to Mumbai’s epicentre. The inner ring road and the outer ring road, for example. They are nonexistent today, but will slowly impose themselves on the city’s consciousness.

This is to say that there were great plans for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region in 2007, but nothing specific apart from a series of recommendations. To some planners, though, one of the corridors held promise. Named ’H6’, the 34-kilometre-long road began at Bhiwandi and ended at Panvel, and was budgeted at Rs 612 crore (USD 94 million). The engineers at the MMRDA were told to produce a feasibility report on the corridor. The year was 2008. Two years later, the study for the “development of a Multi-Modal Corridor from Virar to Alibag” was ready, despite the objections of the “land-use people,” a planner aware of the discussions told me. “The land-use people said it was not necessary because it served a rural area. The corridor is a bypass. It passes through the area.”

The Multi-Modal Corridor is the first ring road planned for the Mumbai Metropolitan area.

As the studies were being prepared, Diana Infrastructure purchased a cluster of land sandwiched between a cargo terminal and a construction equipment contractor at Kon. The nearest main road was nearly a kilometre away. Phase one of the Indiabulls Greens project was located at the southern side of the plot, overlooking the terminal. Never mind; unbothered by the location, investors purchased apartments at Rs3000 a square foot — a number that seemed to escalate every two days in the belief that no price was too steep for a building close to an upcoming airport. (Buyer’s remorse came in heaps later: “I never thought in September 2009 that the wait for the flat would be so painful and prolonged,” a purchaser wrote in May 2015 on an online thread about Indiabulls Greens.)

In August 2014, a section of the proposed Multi-Modal Corridor was published as part of an urban plan for a new city, east of Mumbai, called NAINA. The corridor was 99.7 metres wide, with enough space for a metro line, separate lanes for personal automobiles and cargo trucks, service roads, and parking. “You can travel from Virar to Alibag at one hundred and twenty kilometres,” an engineer said, on a note of triumph (the journey takes 4 hours at present, and is expected to take 90 minutes on the corridor).

But the locals who lived on the land only saw a thick white stripe in maps, suggesting trouble, and then markings began appearing on roads across the countryside, confirming trouble. The unease grew, fed by the absence of clear information. Unknown to them, the engineers who made these marks came silently and left quickly, worried about their own safety. Information was the last thing on their mind with “an old lady throwing stones at you,” a deputy engineer said to me.

Within this vacuum, a sense of isolation in the face of government-sanctioned development gnawed at the small farmers and first-generation office-goers here. The corridor, they believed, avoided properties purchased by political operatives when prices were low, and instead ran over agricultural land owned by villagers for generations. At the heart of this discontent lay the belief that men and women who set infrastructure plans in motion later personally benefited from them. Their friends too.

The claim was difficult to ascertain. Much of the land was empty. But not all of it, and here questions arose. As the road turned south, past Panvel, and then swerved to the west, threading between Kon and its neighbouring villages, the corridor shaved the northern edge of Indiabulls Greens. The construction company, known for its deep political links, had lost 5 per cent of the land it had purchased, but was now, in a stroke of good fortune, right beside a corridor that an MMRDA transportation planner described to me as “the backbone” of the region’s eventual transformation.

 

A container terminal near the Indiabulls residential project. There are others close by

Three.

I met Warren Monteiro, the associate vice president of Indiabulls Greens, at a sales office near tower ‘C’. A mint white swing gate opened to a green lawn. Sunlight streamed in through large French windows. The unearthly rattle of cargo trucks leaping over potholes outside was inaudible in the cool rooms. Monteiro took a seat near the window, and told me about the project. “There were huge land parcels which developers purchased earlier. The only way for Mumbai to develop is to go vertical. You’ve heard of redevelopment in Mumbai. Have you heard of redevelopment in Navi Mumbai? Never! But development is happening in a 35-kilometre radius around the airport.”

It took me a while to realise Monteiro was referring to our remote location south of Panvel as if it was Navi Mumbai, a distinct city 20 kilometres away. The imaginative leap distracted me momentarily. “The Multi-Modal Corridor is something that we’re promoting in our connectivity map, because it’s coming right in front of the Indiabulls project,” he said. I mentioned that the corridor was travelling over a small part of Indiabulls’ land. “The road is passing over a small land parcel,” he said, “and we’ve had talks with the government about [increasing] the floor-space index.”

I asked Monteiro if the choice of location was based on the corridor. “No. The road came much later.” I pressed him for more. Why here? There was nothing here. “See, the government is coming up with an airport, and obviously if you’re coming up with an airport you’ve got to provide connectivity for that airport. So while there is the trans-harbour link which connects central Mumbai, who is going to be connecting [this part of] Mumbai? That would be the Multi-Modal Corridor. Any developer will always choose frontage.”

Monteiro said he was unaware if Indiabulls had considered other sites. “You’ll have to ask the liaisoning team, the acquisition team.” I thought this was a good idea, and he changed his mind: “No, they don’t talk.” Monteiro said that the land had been acquired “well before” 2008. “At the time, when MMRDA was [the authority] here, and we had discussions with them.” Phase one of the project — the towers to the south — only began after meetings with the MMRDA, the government department overseeing the Multi-Modal Corridor.

The corridor is part of a larger plan to create new “growth areas”, according to a senior planner at the MMRDA. “This area,” – the planner said, drawing strips around the corridor — “will be developed. It will boost empty lands.” The cost of the corridor is estimated at over Rs 14,000 crore (USD 2.1 billion). The planner believed that “the returns will come from the sale of land. It’s not for now. It’s for the next 50 years, the next 100 years.”

This vision came from above. According to the plan, Raigad, which hosts the new airport and the corridor, will be transformed. Between 2009 and 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the Navi Mumbai airport; the plan for a new city, NAINA, was initiated; and the corridor’s exact route took shape. The vision was accompanied by frenetic buying below. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, in the 2009 Maharashtra Assembly elections, 13 of 3496 candidates disclosed assets in Raigad. In 2014, the number of candidates increased by 12 per cent, but there were now fifty declared owners of assets in the district, an increase of almost 300 per cent. While government made big infrastructure decisions, politically aware incumbents and candidates purchased land for themselves in the region.

Some picked their location well. Two members of the Maharashtra legislative assembly, Mahesh Baldi and Ashish Shelar — also the president of the BJP in Mumbai — created Sarveshwar Logistics Services Private Limited in April 2010. In July 2014, Sarveshwar was granted permission to build “agro-based industries and crop storage” on 55,000 square metres at Digodhe, a village south-west of Kon. The village was two kilometres from the corridor’s planned route.

 

“Mumbai hai ye,” a transportation planner at the MMRDA explained, “abhi bachcha hai udhar kuch?” (“This is Mumbai. There’s no land left there.”) “MTHL saala pichle saath saal se ho raha hai, ek-ek crore hai land vahaan pe. It is artificial. There is nothing there.” (“The Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link has been planned for sixty years, and the land there costs Rs 1 crore” – USD 150,000.)

He said people feel politicians are at an advantage because “desh hi aisa hai. Jiski lathi, uski bhains. Pehle se hi chalta aa raha hai. Isme kya hai, na, saab, ki koi-koi alp-budhaar hote hain. Choti-choti land parcel. Agar meri ek acre hai, aur woh jaa raha hai, to mere liye takleef hai, na? Main MMRDA mein baitha hoon. Woh apne gaon mein baitha hai. Main kya kar raha hoon usse pata hai? Usko toh do time ka khaana chahiye na yaar?” (“The country is like this. The cow belongs to the man with the stick. I’m sitting here, in the MMRDA. A small landowner in a village wants his two meals everyday. How is he to know what I’m up to here?”)

Distance is not the only barrier to information. To take the Transform study home, to truly understand what it contains, sets the reader back by Rs 30,000. The MMRDA does not lend it, and reproductions aren’t allowed. The landowner most affected by its prescriptions is unlikely to afford it, even if he knows it exists.

 

Four.

When Indiabulls and other high-profile builders purchased land for themselves, the price of land went up fast. In neighbouring villages, the rising value of their assets made farming look like a silly thing to do, and so many locals sold what they owned and constructed buildings instead. This caused a unique problem. Between 2008 and 2010, the MMRDA’s engineers charted the corridor’s course on Google Maps (most images on Maps are between one and three years old, Google says), instead of an on-ground survey to capture spatial data.

The engineers marked an off-ramp for the corridor a kilometre from Kon, at a village called Borle. The bow-shaped exits crossed over five buildings when the Google Maps survey was completed in 2010. This meant that only five owners would need official resettling. When engineers finally visited the village years after the survey, one told me, “there were ten more buildings there. People know there is a road coming, so they build their RC structures. They won’t sell now. They are protecting their land.” The engineer didn’t seem to know what would happen next.

Borle is a quiet village that lives in peace with the noise outside. It exists close to a toll gate to the expressway between Mumbai and Pune, and is so remote that people who worked a kilometre away had never heard the name. On a recent evening, trucks charged down the smooth approach roads, whipping the foliage on either side. I slowed down near a narrow opening, and turned onto a rough driveway towards a small building with tiled exteriors. The owner heard me out and summoned a friend whose house would be acquired one day for the corridor. “All of it,” he said. “And my land too, because it’s right behind the house.” Other friends came. They were glad to have an ear.

“What to say? Since I heard the news my food doesn’t go down the way it used to. I can’t sleep. When it will come? When we will go? Where will we go? I have a family. One kid is twelve. The other is eight. If you give us something good, we can do something with it, no? If you give us less money, what will we do? You’re giving us the money once, right? My acre is going. It’s in a line.

“Who do you talk to? They don’t come in front of us.

“I don’t get sleep. And there’s no earning. Just one job at this toll. I get six thousand a month. What can you do with six thousand? Whatever money I had, I put in the house. I made it with my hands. My wife was pregnant. I watered the foundation with my hands. I was exhausted. We’re tired. They’ve made it like a noose. Neta-log are supposed to save us. But if they are being managed, who do we go to? Fighting with them achieves nothing. You need a person with power on your side. And if they decide not to stand with you, how will we ever know? Isn’t that correct? I’m just saying. There was a meeting at Nere last month. You know? Were you there?”

I was.

“Both the MLAs were on the stage with the other officials. They were telling the farmers to keep quiet. What do we do? What do we do? If the man above is not with you, then you’re dead, right?”