Saturday, January 26, 2008

Farewell Dr. T

The recent controversy involving the resignation of Dr. T. Chandrashekhar reflects a new low for Mumbai. Clearly, Slum redevelopment is, arguably, the most remunerative, the most rewarding thing for any politician (MP, MLA or corporator). It is also, arguably, the biggest ever property scam that Mumbai has seen in it's lifetime.

Here's my idea of how it works.

1. First the Slums - Encroachment is immensely profitable for politicians (MPs, MLAs, corporators, etc.) because (a) it creates a vote-bank and (b) it paves the way for rehab. No wonder then that the best value-added career move for a politican is to become a builder. No nexus there. The politician is the builder (think Marathi manoos flag-bearers Manohar Joshi and Udhav Thackeray, and ultra-premium developer Mangal Prabhat Lodha of Lodha Builders)

2. Then the rehabilitation - Politicians then "hand over" their slum land to builders (often themselves), raking in their money there. The builders get to build commercial and residential plots and also get generous FSI; they rake in their money there. The slum-dwellers lease out their new pad - raking their money there - and go back to stay in the slums (remember "Nayak"?). And anyone else in Mumbai wanting a piece of that money can fake him/herself as a slum-dweller and rake in money there too.

3. And finally MHADA - In cases where MHADA owns the lands where the slums have come up, it has to give a "no objection certificate" for slum re-development by the builder. And MHADA has gladly handed over these NOCs with gay abandon.

Everyone's happy and everyone's rich. After all Mumbai property is among the most expensive in the world.

And what happens to anyone who threatens to upset that well-oiled, age-old machinery? Here's what

Dr. T. Chandrashekhar holds held three positions. (1) Officer on Special Duty for the Dharavi Re-development Project (2) CEO at the Slum Rehab Authority and (SRA) (3) CEO of MHADA.

As the CEO at MHADA, he recently hiked MHADA's ready reckoner rates (i.e. prices at which MHADA sells flats for lower-income and middle-income groups). I'm not sure what impact this would have had because no land in Mumbai gets sold at a discount. In all probability, the land would have been sold at market rates, with the administration pocketing the difference between the ready-reckoner rate and the market rate. So, the move to hike ready-reckoner rates would only be a move towards transparency. And yet, it would knock off a big part of the politicians's income.

As CEO at the SRA, he revoked some slum rehab proposals that were being handed over to private builders, instead of MHADA which - he believed - could benefit from the same re-development. After all, MHADA is owned by the Government.

He basically set himself up. It's bad enough that you "raise MHADA rates making houses more expensive for Mumbai's lower-income and middle-income groups" (nice spin, right?). But then how dare you "impede progress by stopping re-development?". No wonder then that he first got fired from the SRA post and today has resigned as MHADA chief as well. Some newspapers suggest that he's thinking of quitting the IAS altogether, choosing to move toward corporates instead.

Why am I writing so much about him? I think he's the only one person I can think of who has done something for Mumbai's infrastructure. Remember he comes with a track record of transforming Nagpur and Thane. In Mumbai he helped in resolving the impasse over the Mumbai Metro project's viability gap funding, resulting in at least the contract being awarded. When he was the head of the MMRDA he had roads and highways developed as part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project.

Sure, there are also enough stories of his "arrogance", his "closeness to a group of builders" and allegations of poor treatment for the people rehabilitated for road-building work under the MUTP. And yes, all projects under the MUTP and MUIP were running late. Dr. T also wanted to ban the Tata Nano because he thought it would mean chaos for Mumbai's traffic.

But here's the thing to wonder. Can you think of anyone - and I mean politician or bureaucrat - that has done something, anything tangible and visible for Mumbai in the last three to five years? And more so, someone with a track record? Someone that the people of Thane came out on the streets to support when the Government wanted to shunt him out? Someone who actually took on the builder lobby?

Do let me know if you can think of someone.

The point is not of adulation or praise for Dr. T. Chandrashekhar. The point is that if we demand performance from the leader/executor of a project, then he was someone who delivered. Those are the facts. Think of all your BMC Commissioners and Chief Secretaries. Think of your corporator, your MP, MLA. Think of anyone who you expect to deliver results.

Can you? If you can, then you better hope that he's still around. Because we just lost one damn good man.

Farewell, Dr. T. Chandrashekhar. Here's wishing you all the best in your corporate avataar. I hope you join the ADA Group. At least then we can hope Mumbai's Metro would actually be built.