(De)constructing the ‘Illegal’ City: Official Logics in Vasai Virar

By Iain Payne on March 12, 2020

Faced with the profusion of illegal construction in Vasai Virar on the northernmost periphery of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, civil bureaucrats in the Vasai Virar City Municipal Corporation (VVCMC) must integrate the official logics of property and law with tacit ‘extra-legal’ knowledge and discretion to construct, and at times deconstruct, the city. These informal logics of governance are often in tension, even conflict, with formal legal processes. 

A video circulated by the VVMC to spread awareness about unauthorised construction.

While the categories that find their way into the daily practice of governance draw their definitional contours from state and local legal instruments, the ways in which the urban local body (ULB) engages with and addresses each is shaped by the complex interplay of party politics, corruption, and the responses to and relationships with citizens, among other governance imperatives. As staff in the Town Planning Department (TPD) discuss ‘illegal construction’ a threefold categorisation emerges. 

 

‘Irregular’ buildings

The first type of illegal construction is found on the VVCMC’s rural fringe. These villages, which long pre-date the establishment of the VVCMC and ‘municipal’ governance, were constructed before the existence of strict town planning regulations. As one TPD employee explains, ‘not even one per cent of the old houses would have been taken with the proper permissions. There was no planning authority back then. But you cannot call these “illegal”’, she continues. ‘“Irregular”, yes, but not “illegal”. How can they be “illegal”? They were built before there was a law!’

While in clear contravention of building regulations, the ‘irregularity’ of these rural buildings does not, in the minds of TPD employees, present an existential threat to the Municipal Corporation. And, thus the regulations are not strictly applied. Rather, staff allude to the injustice of a strict imposition of the black letter law on the region’s historic inhabitants; the legal frameworks are rationalised as unfit for purpose, placing inappropriate constraints on rural populations who have inhabited the region long before the ULB existed. 

 

Illegal-illegal buildings

The slums, or bastis, are a second type of ‘illegal’ construction. These are, in the words of the Municipal Commissioner, ‘illegal-illegal’ because they are doubly unauthorised: the occupant neither has valid title to the land, nor is the building compliant with building regulations. VVCMC staff see the bastis as a much greater existential threat to the ULB. As the Commissioner says, these settlements are the ‘most challenging’ because they are a kind of illegal construction that ‘cannot be totally eliminated… only controlled’. 

While bastis continue to be demolished en masse and at a regular pace, new settlements spring up overnight. Parallel to this deconstruction, the slums are in continual processes of consolidation. Under the orchestration of corporators and the region’s dominant political party, the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA), the ULB funds many public goods—supplying electricity and water, contracting out the collection of solid waste, and providing employment programs—to these communities. In addition to this consolidation, the possibility of legal formalisation through the various slum rehabilitation schemes provides a pathway for ‘illegal-illegal’ to become ‘legal’. A new line is drawn between the eligible and the ineligible. 

 

Illegal-legal buildings

The final type of ‘illegal’ construction consists of newer buildings built in contravention of the VVCMC’s own building regulations. This most commonly occurs where a builder constructs a building with more floors than permission has been given. While the owner has legal title in the land itself, the building is non-compliant. Such buildings are, in the Commissioner’s conceptualisation, ‘illegal on legal’.

According to the generally accepted narrative, opportunistic builders ‘lure in poor desperate people’ and sell them undocumented dwellings—built in contravention of regulations—at discounted prices. After making a quick profit, the builder ‘disappears in the night’ out of the ULB’s reach leaving the purchaser to bear the cost for the unapproved structure. To counter this, the VVCMC runs Facebook and poster campaigns imploring residents ‘not to be the victim of unauthorised construction’. 

Clearly, however, predatory builders alone are not the sole enablers of illegal-legal construction. Indeed, the BVA’s political opponents link this kind of construction to the corruption and co-option of the VVCMC bureaucracy by the BVA and its associated building mafia, claiming that builders are able to obtain unchecked building approvals through a combination of pressure placed on TDP staff by corporators and bribery. However, these same opposition politicians, it is claimed, utilise right to information (RTI) requests to extort BVA-aligned contractors who have constructed buildings in contravention of the regulations, making RTI one of the few tools to challenge the BVA’s monopoly on power in the city. 

Recently, increasing middle class public moral panic has spurred the ULB ‘take control’ of the burgeoning illegal-legal construction industry. With a new city Commissioner and the removal of the notoriously corrupt head of the TPD, VVCMC employees claim a new chapter in the ULB’s commitment to combatting illegal construction, pointing to the demolition of illegal-legal buildings and the introduction of the Corporation’s regularisation policy.  

As official and tacit logics interact, civil bureaucrats develop new categories for defining and governing the construction of the city. These are born from, and enable, a pastiche of strategic decisions and discretions: choices when to and when not to apply the letter of the law; when to actively frustrate its implementation; and when to exploit the law for personal gain.

These categories rely on and reinforce differing narratives of illegality. Slum dwellers are perceived to be a nuisance and therefore the slums are cleared. In contrast, middle class purchasers of illegal on legal properties are preyed on by devious builders and thus perceived as primarily in need of educating.

Moreover, the path to legalisation is different. Regularisation, the mechanism to legalise Illegal on legal buildings, is completed by the owner or builder—and an unknowing owner can petition a court to compel a builder to regularise on the owner’s behalf. In contrast, owners and occupiers of illegal-illegal buildings do not have formal agency in the legalisation process; they are dependent on the contents of the various state and federal government policies underpinning slum rehabilitation.

In reality, the official legal solutions aimed at making the illegal legal are far from effective. Only a relatively meagre number of buildings have been regularised and hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers are not provided for in the narrowly conceived slum rehabilitation schemes. The ULB is thus compelled to rely on extra-legal solutions: turning a blind eye to building code violations and supporting the delivery of goods and services into the slums.

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