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My orders to stop illegal constructions in Kolkata not carried out, admits mayor Firhad Hakim

The civic chief says though KMC ward councillors have no legal locus standi in allowing construction, some do interfere

Jayanta Basu | Published 02.04.24, 12:32 PM
The house that collapsed at Garden Reach on March 17 night and (right) mayor Firhad Hakim

The house that collapsed at Garden Reach on March 17 night and (right) mayor Firhad Hakim

File photographs

Mayor Firhad aka Bobby Hakim has been under the scanner since an illegal under-construction building, part of which had apparently come up filling up a waterbody, caved in at Garden Reach in the city’s southwestern part, killing 12 people.

The accident, within sniffing distance of the Lok Sabha elections, has quickly turned into a major political potboiler, and media breaking news, with accusations being traded thick and fast. The lid has also been blown off one of the worst-kept secrets in the city — rampant filling up of its water bodies and building.


Jayanta Basu spoke to Firhad Hakim at length on the incident and subsequent developments.

The Garden Reach incident has happened sometime back but the scars are still raw. What are your feelings?

  • Hakim: I have hardly ever felt so sorry for an incident, not only because 12 helpless people have lost their lives as a result of the accident but also for the learning of my life that I had received on that fateful night. When they approached me, once I reached the spot after the incident; I expected people to be angry, to criticise me but they told me that we depend on you for the resurrection of our future ... I felt extremely sorry; and it was a major learning for me as well. KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) is contemplating what can be done for these hapless people, also those who were occupiers of another illegal building nearby that was demolished for being risky, under Banglar Bari Scheme or anything else. We will make a decision after the election process gets over.

The accusation of illegal buildings coming up in the city, often by filling up of water bodies, is nothing new. There have been several complaints in the past but clearly nothing much has been done. As mayor of the city, how would you respond to this?

  • Hakim: Since becoming mayor of Kolkata, especially in this term, I was receiving several complaints of water bodies being filled up and illegal construction especially through the programme Talk to Mayor. I have been repeatedly asking my commissioners and senior officials to stop the mushrooming of illegal buildings in the city and filling of water bodies. I asked officials to ensure that our staff should monitor on ground and record the violations in a logbook, and complain to police … I know that sometimes local political people or even goons create problems but told clearly that I would be taking care of those. I was under the impression that actions have been taken but now I find that my order has not been carried out at the ground level. It’s my mistake that I depended entirely on the officials.

(interrupting) … you also earlier said sometimes back that police and municipal corporation workers would be taken to task in case of any violation, but still it continued …

  • Hakim: We have already taken action in the Garden Reach incident. You know that I had also written to the city police commissioner asking to take steps against the illegal water body fill, it is unlikely that OC (officer-in-charge) of an area does not know about such violations ... We have taken some actions and will work harder to ensure that such violations do not continue.

You mentioned police but your comment about councillors not being responsible for mushrooming of illegal buildings, has come under criticism. The normal belief is, it is impossible for an illegal building to come up without the councillor’s involvement … Will you clarify?

  • Hakim: Let me … when I say councillors are not responsible, I meant that they have no legally permitted locus standi to interfere and give clearance to a building. Of course, the councillors can try to influence and keep track if interested, and few must be doing but legally he or she has no role to play. In fact, I often see a few new constructions coming up in my ward but do not know the details. You know that earlier councillors’ NOC (no-objection certificate) was required for drainage, but now we have done away with the process. We have also tried a few other things to turn the trend. Often it was said earlier that lack of communication within the block land records office with KMC allowed the violations to prosper especially in added area wards. I brought the process within KMC and gave BLRO an office close to our building department. People complained that some people were taking advantage of complications in the Thika Tenancy Act and filling up water bodies or constructing illegal buildings, the process has now been simplified and brought under the wings of KMC.

Despite all these, water body filling has continued to be a menace in the city…

  • Hakim: One must understand the dynamics of water body filling in Kolkata. Most of these are happening in the slum areas, in added areas and adjacent regions. You will find, in these areas, people mostly live in khola bari (open house); meaning clusters of small rooms surrounding an open space. Often these people want to have a bigger space, with families increasing and likewise, but do not want to leave the native place for a range of reasons. In come the local small-time promoters … goons also play a role …and offer to build a multi-storeyed on their plot and give a bigger space and other advantages; and people fall for it. They sell the additional floors to people at a price less than the market one. In the whole process, rules get completely flouted, and safety and security get compromised. Mostly the economically poor live in such buildings and it gets very difficult to evict these poor people once they take possession. Hence, I keep on telling my people to stop these illegal constructions at the very beginning. Lack of awareness of the people also play a role; for example, many of those living in colonies in Park Circus and elsewhere often think that no permission is required to construct within such areas.

Clearly, as you say, there has been pressure on a section of poor and market dynamics also play a role. Is it not possible to acquire privately owned water bodies at market price from those who do not, or cannot, keep those; to save them from being filled up?

  • Hakim: Though we have taken management control of several privately owned water bodies, which could not be maintained by their owners, it is not possible now to acquire those. It is a good idea but we do not have the resources to do this … you know this central government has held back our legitimate share of Rs 2 lakh crore as being regularly mentioned by our chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

What happened to the Jalatantra programme that you had proposed earlier where people were supposed to move on bicycle and monitor the water bodies?

  • Hakim: Yes, we thought about introducing the idea for on-ground monitoring of water bodies of the city but did not get enough people … and volunteers … to execute the programme. However, we have started mapping the city water bodies, and expect to complete the process as soon as possible.

You have also held the Left front government responsible for filling up the ponds after the Garden Reach incident but the Trinamul government has been in power for the last 13 years …

  • Hakim: All I wanted to say is that this trend of water body filling had started during the Left era, and gradually got bigger. I already mentioned about the large-scale violations within the colonies and added areas like Jadavpur, Garden Reach, Behala etc; in the thika tenancy land areas and slums. Apart from those, major violations had occurred within East Kolkata Wetlands … not only small buildings, huge housing complexes came up violating norms. Ditto in the city proper.

Do you expect things to really change for the better …

  • Hakim: I sincerely hope ... and feel ... so. We do not have an option with environmental pollution and degradation has been increasing so rapidly. As I told you earlier, we owe it to our future generation. The corporation will definitely be more vigilant in coming time to stop water body filling up and construction of illegal buildings. We have already set up an app where complaints about illegal constructions will be recorded. As of now, the app will be used by our staff and record wherever they will find irregularities but in future, we will also give access to common people for documenting violations, if they come across any … Let people of Kolkata become more vigilant to save the city.
Last updated on 02.04.24, 12:47 PM

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