Legal battles looming as Chennai plans to regularise 10000 buildings

Under guidelines issued by the Urban Development Department, all unauthorised buildings built before July 1 2007 can be regularised upon payment of a penalty.

Even as legal proceedings continue over the issue, in June the Housing and Urban Development Department of Tamil Nadu notified rules and guidelines for the regularisation of unauthorised structures under all urban local bodies in the state. The rule allows the regularisation of unauthorised buildings built before July 1 2007, upon payment of a penalty amount to the municipal authorities.

While the Greater Chennai Corporation is yet to open the online application process for house owners who have violated the building byelaws, there seems to be growing dissent against the government decision. And this dissent among citizens may, in all probability, lead to yet another court battle.

VBR Menon, a PIL advocate from the Madras High Court has expressed his disagreement with the scheme of regularisation of unauthorised structures and has warned of taking the issue to the court.

Calling the scheme “ridiculous,” Menon, who is an expert in building and property matters says he has two major contentions against the regularisation rule. One, the government can  not indiscriminately approve or regularise unauthorised structures without taking setback and deviations into account. Two, the government’s claim that it is a one-time measure is merely a farce, given the background.

Explaining his stand on the matter and why he wants to approach the court, Menon says the government cannot approve any building with any extent of violation without imposing certain minimum terms and conditions. “The regularisation system has been made so simple that any building/house owner, with any extent of violation, can pay a fee and get the building regularised. This will send out a wrong message. There should be a ceiling on deviation that can be regularised,” he tells.

On the government’s claim of it being a one-time measure, the PIL advocate says the government of Tamil Nadu had undertaken similar regularisation once in 1999. “When the issue reached the Supreme Court at that time, the government gave an undertaking that it is only going to be a one-time regularisation and they would not allow it again. The apex court allowed the government to go ahead on the basis of that undertaking. But the government went on revising the cut-off date for regularisation later, which was struck down by the Madras High Court,” he says.

According to VBR Menon the regularisation process will lose its sanctity if the government keeps throwing such opportunity at the citizens again and again. “House owners will tend to assume that the building will be regularised anyway, hence they don’t need to follow the building byelaws at the time of construction.”

Menon believes it’s a dangerous thing to allow people to violate the building byelaws. “How can buildings with no proper ventilation and parking space be regularised?” he asks.

Regularisation issue since 1999

Building regularisation in the state has a long and contentious history. There has been a long court battle on regularising unauthorised buildings. After declaring building regularisation as a one-time measure in 1998, the Tamil Nadu government kept on breaking its promise by revising the cut-off dates from 1999 to 2000, to 2001 and and then further to 2002. This was done by amending the Town and Country Planning Act.

In 2012, the government passed an order that allowed regularisation of illegal constructions upto July 1, 2007.

But, two petitions were filed in the Madras High Court against this extension of cut-off dates for regularisation. The two petitioners were citizen activist K R Ramaswamy alias ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy and the Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG). Hearing the case, the High Court quashed the government order that had extended the cut-off date to 2007.

However, the court granted liberty to the State government to look into the issues through a committee formed in 2007 headed by retired Supreme Court judge S Mohan or a different committee.

While upholding the power of the State government to bring in a new rule, the High Court also directed the government to frame new regulations for regularising based on the recommendations of the Committee. It reportedly lashed out at the authorities for their lackadaisical attitude which allowed such an alarming number of illegal constructions to materialise in the first place.

The petitions, meanwhile, are still pending before court. ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy, speaking to Citizen Matters says that he will question the government order (GO 110 on rules for regularising unauthorised buildings) because it is against the law. “They cannot regularise buildings that were constructed after February 28th, 1999. I will question this in the court.”

Cases in the neighbouring State

The story of regularisation is not limited to Tamil Nadu alone.

In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, too, the State government introduced a regularisation scheme (Karnataka Town and Country Planning (Regularisation of unauthorized Development or Constructions) Rules, 2014) popularly known as “Akrama Sakrama.” But citizen activists were unhappy about the scheme for various reasons: for the rule not making the erring officials who let the violation happen accountable and the rule not considering the sentiments of the neighbours of building byelaw violators.

The issue was taken to the judiciary in Karnataka too. Though the High Court upheld the rule, the Supreme Court granted a stay in January 2017. With it, the implementation of Akrama Sakrama scheme saw a setback.

VBR Menon who is aware of the case status in Karnataka, says he will place the SC stay order before the Madras HC when he files the PIL.

10,000 buildings to be regularised in Chennai

Dissent and legal battles notwithstanding, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) is all set to invite applications for regularisation.

A senior official from the Town Planning section of GCC told Citizen Matters that they will soon declare the online application process open. “We are already receiving applications for regularisation of unapproved layouts and plots and the the online system for receiving applications for unauthorised buildings too will be open for the public in a week or two. The rule gives six months’ time for citizens to apply for regularisation. That is, they have time till December,” the officer says.

On asked if the department has statistics about the total number of unauthorised buildings eligible to be regularised under the scheme (built or sanctioned before 2007) in GCC limits, he says they have estimated it to be 10,000.

“That is a tentative figure based on the notices that we have served to the house owners over the years,” he says.

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