Two Sundays ago, the environment ministry did what I thought was the unthinkable: order demolition of the 31-storey building, Adarsh, located on prime real estate in Colaba, south Mumbai. Most of us believed, till then, that the building, which has come to reflect everything that is wrong with the Indian system, would survive after a rap on the knuckles; like it usually transpires in such an instance of fait accompli.
Clearly, there is yet hope. Seen thus, it may well be the turning point in the battle against graft, which most of us, at least among the urban middle class, are now cynically beginning to accept as a way of life—resulting in the gradual erosion of faith in every institution in the country. It would be a huge signal that the system is not entirely rotten and that it can fight back; though this struggle is going to be both difficult and extended and not for the faint-hearted.
Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Demolishing Adarsh would be a body blow. If the Congress party handles it well, it could well be the turning point to claim a pole position in its bitter battle with the principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
For those who believe that this is an extreme step, revelations by environment minister Jairam Ramesh should suffice. According to Ramesh, who is fast acquiring the reputation of a green warrior, not only did the building—which was originally cleared for six storeys and after completion ended up overlooking vital installations of the Indian Navy—violate the “spirit” of the 1991 coastal regulation zone notification, but it did not even bother with the mandatory clearances.
This brazen lack of regard for the law, Ramesh felt, was sufficient reason to rule out the two half-way house solutions—demolish only part of the building or the government take it over for public use—that were available to him.
The building was conceived for the widows of the defence personnel who died while fighting off Pakistan-sponsored infiltrators in the Kargil war in 1999. Instead, the prime piece of Mumbai real estate ended up being apportioned mostly between top bureaucrats and politicians. The entire episode gained national attention after Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan had to quit after it was discovered that one of the beneficiaries was his late mother-in-law.
Development of the building is a reflection of the overall malaise. Every time someone gets away with graft in public office, they only feel more emboldened and raise the bar as it were. Progressively, it takes over our mind space, leaving most of us vulnerable and helpless. It is a reflection of our political leadership that a Lokpal Bill to fight corruption, first initiated in the late 1960s, is yet to get approval in Parliament.
While the Congress has dominated the polity, there is no question that rival political formations, no matter how short their stint at the Centre, have been found to be equally wanting. The law would allow for greater accountability as citizens will be free to sue the government. Without such a powerful deterrent, the ruling class will be the judge and jury of its misdemeanours, thereby precluding fairness.
The government would now have us believe that the Bill is likely to be moved before Parliament. A group of ministers is at present deliberating the contours of the legislation and taking political inspiration from the recent utterances of heir apparent and Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi and of those by party president Sonia Gandhi at the 125th anniversary celebrations in December. If indeed this is true, then Ramesh’s decree on Adarsh would be a perfect lead off in the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) battle against graft.
In retrospect, it comes across that virtually everyone in authority associated with the project came to own a piece of this controversial building. No wonder then that it was allowed to violate mandated provisions with such audacity. It was a classic example of crony capitalism, evolving into a monument to corruption.
Once again, bringing it down would appear to some of us as a waste of resources. Indeed, it would be wasteful spending, but a small price to pay in the overall scheme of things. Think of what it would achieve for us as a nation as we are ravaged by alleged acts of corruption. I am a deep believer that the corrupt are a minority, but wield disproportionate clout to dominate the majority of the billion populace of India. That would be the political economy of demolishing Adarsh.
In case the authorities rethink their stand at this stage then it would be more than just a setback. It would reflect what a UPA representative admitted candidly: a regime of vested and wasted interests.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com