When a Lie Scrapes the Sky

Niranjan Hiranandani was leased land to build affordable housing. Instead, he made flats for the rich. Now the Bombay High Court has ordered him to keep his original word
Reality Bites
THE GROUND BENEATH HIS FEET Niranjan Hiranandani (inset)

Niranjan Hiranandani is no ordinary builder, even by Mumbai standards, where builders wield enormous clout and property is among the most expensive in the world. Hiranandani constructs flamboyant projects—and gives them his family name. The city’s once obscure suburb of Powai has gained fame for two things: the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the builder’s palatial Hiranandani Gardens residential-cum-commercial complex, both located around a lake.

Hiranandani Gardens, a 230-acre township of high-rises erected on what was once a series of lakeside hillocks overridden with shrubbery, not only gave the name ‘Powai’ its upscale ring, it gave ‘Hiranandani’ immortality by reshaping the city’s landscape in a way that perhaps even Howard Roark of The Fountainhead never dreamt.

Back in 2007, I had interviewed Niranjan Hiranandani for a prominent daily. Hugely famous in Mumbai, he was in a black jacket, as conservatively stylish as his haircut. I had been expecting a celebrity given to throwing his weight around, but he had the quiet manner of a chess player pondering a checkmate in three moves. He seemed calm but somewhat preoccupied. He could’ve been an actor, even a statesman capable of altering the human consciousness. I resisted an impulse to bow. No, my objective was to confront him with the congestion of Mumbai caused by hectic construction. I asked him what he thought about the concretised uglification of Mumbai, about the fact that builders were cluttering the city for their own gain, and about their image. Some years ago, Salman Rushdie had written a novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which the world of the protagonist is destroyed by the machinations of a builder, among other things. What did he have to say about that? “What else is there?” Hiranandani had responded, with a look of pain on his face. I sensed an effort to control his voice. I had pierced his façade.

Understandably, he cut the interview short, and I couldn’t ask him to elaborate on his cryptic remark. But he was surely alluding to human ambition. What else is there? What else is there to do for a man in this world?

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Every man, of course, has a claim to immortality. For Hiranandani, his sprawling constructions are his means of carving himself onto the planet’s surface. If not his face, Rushmore-like, at least his thoughts can last forever. But as Hiranandani is now finding out, there are two kinds of immortality: glorious and inglorious.

On 22 February, the builder’s immortality was tainted by an order of the Bombay High Court. Hiranandani may now be remembered as a builder who was supposed to construct affordable housing in Powai for ‘weaker sections of society’, but who put up ‘palatial constructions’ for the rich in violation of an agreement with the Maharashtra government and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA).

In 1986, Hiranandani was given 230 acres there to build affordable flats of 400 and 800 sq ft. Such were the terms of the tripartite agreement between Hiranandani, the state government and MMRDA. The builder did construct flats of those sizes—but then let buyers buy multiple conjoined flats, tear down a few dividing walls, and turn them into larger flats that only the rich could afford.

Says the recent court order, pronounced by Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice Roshan Dalvi: ‘The developer has claimed that [family] members… of several flat purchasers booked and registered agreements for more than one unit and claimed to [have] amalgamated them. These were one too many. They incidentally booked adjacent units. They claimed to [have] demolished the walls separating the units. They claimed to have larger units. These were members of one family. They were generally husband and wife, father and son, or father and daughter. From time to time, the developer has made requests to the MMRDA for allowing [such] amalgamation. This appears to be endemic. The developer appears to have had clients and customers who largely needed only large flats. The very purpose of the tripartite agreement was to construct smaller flats for affordable housing. The developer as well as flat purchasers appear to have [ignored] this essential requirement.’

Seventy buildings have been built by Hiranandani in Powai, according to the court order, and instead of following his mandate, he constructed ‘palatial units of art-deco architecture. There is no mention of small units of 40 sq m or even 80 sq m offered to [buyers] as affordable housing. Consequently, the land which was leased on a pittance of Re 1 per hectare, came to be developed as a goldmine, [resulting in the realisation] from such an investment millions of rupees worth of real estate.’

Hiranandani was supposed to put up those compact flats within ten years of the 1986 land allotment. He did not. Thus, the court ruled, he has not complied with the terms of the agreement: ‘The permission is conditional. Hence the conditions under the permission would have to be complied [with].’ The conditions demanded that he ‘complete the construction over the entire land under the Powai ADS within 10 years as specified in clause 8 (1) of the tripartite agreement and as per the stipulations in the said agreement, i.e. of 40 & 80 sq m of equal number flats’, upon failure of which ‘the MMRDA is entitled to [repossess] the land.’

Surprisingly (or not), it took years and years for Hiranandani’s fudge to be legally exposed. The regal structures stood in broad daylight, but came under the radar of the state government and MMRDA only in 2008, and that too, only in response to a private citizen’s complaint against Hiranandani. In the period between 2008 and 2010, three Public Interest Litigations (PILs) were filed in the Bombay High Court against the housing complex. These were filed by four individuals, the left-wing activist Medha Patkar among them. The recent High Court order was a joint order in response to the three PILs.

Not that no action at all was taken all this while. In 2008, a penalty of Rs 3 crore was levied on Hiranandani’s company, which he deposited with the state government. This fine, in the words of the court order, was ‘an anticlimax’, perhaps even a way to help Hiranandani out of the mess. ‘It appears that the State sought to make amends on behalf of the developer, and, in the words of the petitioners, sought to shield the developer.’

To set things right, according to the court, Hiranandani must now build genuinely affordable flats—about 344,000 sq m in all, including 1,511 flats of 40 sq m (about 400 sq ft) and 1,593 flats of 80 sq m (about 800 sq ft)—and hand over 15 per cent of these to the state government at a rate of Rs 135 per sq ft, the rate prevailing when the agreement was signed back in 1986. This, in a locality crawling with Mumbai’s suburban rich where property sells for some Rs 15,000 per sq ft today.

An order, however, is an order. According to an MMRDA survey presented in court, Hiranandani’s Powai complex still has 113,000 sq m of vacant land to meet that construction target.

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Hiranandani has been unavailable for his comments. Perhaps he needs a few moments of contemplative privacy (what else?) It is a fair observation that he stands assured of ‘ridiculous immortality’, to use a phrase coined by the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. You see it in the faint smile with which people in Mumbai now talk about him. You see it in the contempt he inspires.

The case is far from over yet. In its order, the court said it was ‘leaving the petitioners free to take up the issue of corruption in a criminal procedure against any errant public officers and the developer’. Medha Patkar of the National Alliance of People’s Movements tells Open that she will file a criminal complaint against Hiranandani with the police, but also against the MMRDA and state government officials who’d failed to check if the Powai project was being executed in compliance with the agreement. She doesn’t stop there. “And what about losses to the government exchequer caused by the constructions at Powai?” she asks. “What about the existing buildings in the Powai complex? Surely, they are illegal, aren’t they? The huts of the poor are [routinely] demolished, and they are chased off with lathis for being encroachers. How about punishing the developer and authorities for the existing constructions?” She is determined to pursue the matter through further litigation.

Reality can have a sobering effect on someone given to dreaming skywards. As homebuyers of relatively modest means come to rub shoulders now with the ‘elitist’ (the court’s word) crowd of Hiranandani Gardens, instead of ‘what else’, Niranjan Hiranandani may need to think about ‘who else’ there is for a change.