On the contrary

The Campa Cola syndrome

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Empathy for illegal flat owners and disdain for illegal slumdwellers
Life is tough—it becomes self evident sooner or later. There are all kinds of dangers waiting round the corner for perfectly good people. The State’s role is to ensure that such shocks are kept to a minimum, and when they do happen, you get justice. It has no business, however, compensating those who willingly endanger themselves.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the rest of the country has forgotten about Campa Cola, a soft drink of the 70s and 80s. In Mumbai, the brand name has been screaming itself from the front pages of newspapers over the past week, but it has nothing to do with cola. In 1962, the Municipal Corporation of the city leased out land to Pure Drinks, the company that owned Campa Cola. The land was specified for ‘commercial’ purposes. In 1980, the company got the terms of land use altered so that it could construct and sell residential flats. Permission was granted for six buildings, each of which could have a basement, ground floor and five upper floors. Later, this was extended to nine buildings. The company outsourced the construction to builders, and by the time they finished, the five-floor limit had gone for a toss. They did seek permission to breach that limit, but when it was denied, coolly went about adding floor after floor—until one building was 20 floors high, and another, 17.

The BMC, whose officials can reasonably be assessed to have been part of this racket, has been trying to get the illegal floors demolished. Last year, it almost began doing it, but the Supreme Court gave a last-minute reprieve to the buildings’ residents till the end of May 2014 for them to move out. The demolition squads are now out again, the SC has refused an extension, and the flat residents’ electricity, water and piped gas supplies have now been cut off.

The most striking aspect of all this is how middle-class observers have reacted to it—the extraordinary sympathy that abounds for about 80 to 90 families in a city where slums often get demolished, turning thousands onto the streets. In such minds, there are two strange categories: of rich victims in illegal homes who get cheated by the State, and of poor non-victims in illegal homes who cheat the State. Their inference, then, is that the former deserve protection only because their flats cost Rs 5 crore apiece.

The sole reason that the middle- class finds so much empathy for one and disdain for the other is the idea that ‘it could happen to me’; so slumdwellers are seen to be encroaching on ‘my land’, while what the Campa Cola residents did was forced upon them by shoddy State regulation.

This convenient self-delusion is why every time one reads about someone duped in a chit fund, a stockmarket scam or a housing fraud, it would be a good thing to pause before sympathising. An educated well-off victim was, in a majority of cases, equipped to be more diligent before signing up for the venture. But something obfuscates judgment, and it is usually greed. It is said that Campa Cola flats went cheaper than the market price precisely because their papers were not in order. That should make for caution, not opportunity. What their residents are going through is tragic, but it doesn’t lessen their own responsibility for the tight spot they find themselves in.