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Iconic Fall of the Monuments of Brazen Corruption
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
Last week’s grounding of the Supertech Skyscraper twin towers in Noida is not the first demolition of its kind in India but it is certainly remarkable and invites attention of every aware person for many reasons. The first and foremost being its rating as an iconic symbol of corruption in the recent times involving a deep nexus of the powerful and influential builder group, state government machinery comprising of politicians and officials and other allied agencies. During the last few decades, while Noida, in the national capital region (NCR), has emerged as a well-planned and modern city of Uttar Pradesh matching or even excelling over the national capital in certain ways, it has also been noticed as a place and source of rampant corruption and illegal money making for the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
The twin towers have been demolished under the orders of the apex court of the land for the reported violations in construction and obtaining corrupt practices but other remarkable features such as mere size of the building, capacity of luxury dwelling units, value in real estate terms, and the precision and swiftness involved in the demolition process.
Twin Towers, Legal History and Demolition
It was in November 2004, when the Noida (New Okhla Industrial Development Authority) Authority allotted a huge plot of land measuring approximately 48,263 square metre to the real estate giant M/s Supertech Private Ltd in Sector-93A for the purpose of developing a housing project at the site. Consequently, the Supertech mooted the plan of the Emerald Court Residential Complex in June 2005 submitting it to the Noida Authority with fourteen multi-storied buildings that included 3, 4 and 5 BHK (bedroom, hall, kitchen) apartments. Subsequently, the original plan was modified in 2009 with the addition of the twin towers namely the Apex and Ceyane in the Emrald Court project, conceiving a twentyfour-storey structure in a triangular ambience on the land originally proposed and approved as the green area. The building plan was once again modified for the third time in March 2012, with total 15 buildings, the number of floors augmented originally from nine to now eleven and twin towers up to fourty floors above the ground.
The Emrald Court housing project is located at a vantage point off the expressway between the twin cities of Noida and Greater Noida. The modified plan included the construction of luxury apartments in the twin towers which was approximately 103 metres currently at the time of demolition thereby exceeding even the height of the iconic Qutb Minar located in Delhi. According to the real estate estimates, the flats the housing project have a current valuation in the range of Rupees 10 to 30 million. Although the modified plan also included changes in the original proposed buildings, the latter additions viz. the Apex and Ceyane became the focal point of the controversy and decade old legal battle between the residents and builder. Owing to the ongoing controversy and legal battle, the two towers didn’t achieve the planned 40 floors with the building remaining unfinished and under construction. Out of the two, the Apex, tower had reached 32 floors while the Ceyane had reached 29 stories; the remaining floors possibly couldn't be built owing to the court orders, and some portion was even broken down manually well before the actual demolition.
The two controversial towers added later on invited a fierce protest and legal battle almost for a decade between the residents of Emrald Court and the real estate developer. Initially, a core group of four senior citizens of the Emerald Court Owner Residents Welfare Association (ECO RWA) dragged the developer Supertech to the court for the alleged illegal construction over the piece of land originally earmarked for the green area. Also this was not the first case as on many occasions the builder mafias have been blamed for the risky and illegal construction in connivance with the officials involved in granting approvals at different stages. In this case, M/s Supertech had earlier promised a ‘green area’ at the portion of plot in front of the Tower one but, instead, converted it into the ground on which the controversial twin towers were raised later on. The residents initially demanded from the Noida Authority to withdraw approval granted for the construction and then approached the Allahabad High Court through a petition calling for the demolition of the twin towers under construction owing to various illegalities involved. The Allahabad High Court found merit in the residents’ case and passed a verdict in April 2014 for the demolition of the twin towers.
The developer, however, appealed in the Supreme Court of India against the judgment of the Allahabad high Court. After a prolonged hearing, the Supreme Court finally passed an order upholding the decision of High Court on 31 August 2021 agreeing that the construction of the two towers indeed violated the country’s national Building Code (NBC) of 2005. In their order, apart from the demolition of towers, the apex court also directed the builder to refund the entire amount of the advance drawn from the home buyers along with 12% interest rate besides awarding a lump sum cost of Rupees twenty million to be paid to the Emrald Court Resident Welfare association (ECRWA). Following the Supreme Court decision, yet another review petition was filed by Supertech which followed more hearings inter alia including the safety concerns of the residents. However, the Supreme Court upheld its original order observing that the developer and Noida authority had engaged in nefarious complicity and the former must demolish the buildings at its own expenses under the guidance and supervision of the latter.
Owing to technical difficulties and other human considerations, the demolition task was delayed for several months and after due assessment, the date of demolition was fixed as Sunday, the 28 August 2022. The builder group had entrusted this task to a Mumbai based firm, the Edifice Engineering, which is well known for having successfully carried out such tasks in the past. The firm employed a technique called “implosion” whereby the targeted matter and energy collapses inwards rather than the usual outward direction so as to ensure that the buildings or any other structures in the vicinity are not adversely affected or damaged. As a preparatory exercise days ahead, the twin towers were rigged with nearly 3,700 kilograms of explosives inserted in approximately 7,000 holes in the pillars, beams and other parts through about 20,000 circuits set up in the building. According to a technical assessment, the quantity of explosives thus used could be equated with three conventional warheads of the Agni-V missile or four Prithvi missiles. As precautionary measure and protection, adequate clothing, perimeter curtains and nets were provided in three layers to protect nearby buildings from the debris and dust that was likely to follow on demolition.
In addition to the above measures, the firm had dug trenches surrounding the perimeter of the targeted building, yet another precaution and protective measure to protect the residential buildings in the vicinity from the shockwave of the implosion. Besides, a special dust machine was installed to monitor the dust and pollution levels and vigorous arrangement to spray and sprinkle water from the adjacent area/building for fast settlement of the debris and dust, and consequent pollution. The estimated cost of the demolition itself is about Rs 200 million. About 7,000 residents had been temporarily moved out from the neighbouring societies in the morning itself, gas and power supply in the adjoining buildings was stopped and the expressway connecting Noida and Greater Noida was to be closed for about half-an hour. The final check-up of all preparations was carried out by the team of Noida police and administration and the firm tasked to pull down the building at sharp 2.30 PM (afternoon).
Elaborate arrangements were made by the umpteen news channels of India for the live telecast of the fateful event and needless to mention almost every aware Indian was glued to the television to witness the pulling down of the skyscrapers worth several hundred crore rupees. The officials of the firm tasked with the demolition pressed the button precisely at the appointed time on 28 August (AN) and probably the tallest building structure on date collapsed within a few seconds generating a huge amount of debris, dust and smoke in the area for a short period. The entire structure was grounded flawlessly with absolute precision and the precious towers became a thing of history within no time without the news of any significant collateral damage, except possibly some window panes, part of a boundary wall, and unreported small birds, insects and vermin caught unaware. The entire debris fell vertically downwards like waterfall at 2.30 PM and the fateful and much awaited event was over in just about 12 seconds.
The teams from the Edifice Engineering, Jet Demolitions, Central Building Research Institute and Noida authority were present to carry out and supervise the entire operation. The Noida Expressway was opened for the commuters within half-hour and residents allowed to move back after 6.30 PM on the same date restoring the supplies of all essential services including water and gas. The residents were advised to use masks indoors to avoid any pollution including dust; however, the majority of them preferred to check-in their apartments next morning although many visited same day to check their houses from the safety point. Soon afterwards, the focus of authorities was shifted towards the cleaning operation including the removal of the mountain of debris fallen at the site. Reportedly, the Noida Authority had already engaged a large number of sanitation workers, smog guns, mechanical sweeping machines, and so on for quick disposal of the fall out in the vicinity including the metal and concrete pieces and slabs in and around the implosion site. However, according to a rough prior estimate, about eighty thousand tons (assessment vary in various reports) of debris would be created that may take upto three months for safe disposal.
More Noticeable Facts and Key Points
No other case of corruption and procedural violations involving a powerful and influential real estate company and government officials has received so much public curiosity and attention as also the media coverage in the recent past than the Noida twin towers. Also, the demolition of the skyscraper residential building in Noida is certainly not the first case of its kind in history because many other massive and high rise buildings have been demolished across the globe including India in the past owing to corruption, alternative use, or other reasons. Some of the iconic building demolished across the globe in the past include Singer Building, Sevoy Plaza Hotel, Vanderbilt Houses and Hippodrome Theatre in New York, Chicago Federal Building and Prentice Pavillion in Chicago, Imperial and Okura Hotels in Tokyo, Imperial Institute and Euston Station in London, Church of the Archangel Michael in Warsaw, Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City, Federal Coffee Palace in Melbourne, and Pratibha Building in Mumbai – just naming a few. For the illustration sake, the author would only briefly mention two cases from India’s economic capital Mumbai and both are iconic too due the high level of corruption involved and violation of laid down norms during the construction and allotment to the eligible buyers.
Pratibha Building in the posh Breach-Candy Area of Mumbai could be cited as the first major scandal due to corrupt practices in India involving a high rise residential building which was raged to the ground in 2019, almost thirty-five years after the illegal construction through violation rules and norms by the builder was exposed by the then collector in 1984. It was a 36-storied building with each floor having two sprawling flats, buyers of which were mostly high net worth individuals, NRIs and private companies. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had demolished top eight floors during 1989 to 1995 while the rest of the building was demolished after a prolonged legal battle. As Pratibha Building was located in the city’s one of the most posh localities densely developed and populated, it was not possible to use explosives for demolition. Hence the entire building of the remaining 28-floors was demolished bit-by-bit chiseling away at the pillars and beams floor by floor – an arduous task indeed which took several months for the demolition and removal of debris from the site.
Another major housing corruption scandal was unearthed in Mumbai in November 2010 in the form of the Adarsh Housing Society Scam. The 31-storied housing society was constructed on a premium defense land in Colaba area for the welfare of the war widows and defence personnel. Instead, tmany ineligible politicians, bureaucrats and military officers conspired to fiddle with the rules regarding land ownership, zoning, floor space index and membership and got allotted several flats for self use at below-market rates. When the scam surfaced and flared up, the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was forced to resign and a two-member judicial commission was constituted to investigate it. The report of the judicial commission highlighted 25 illegal allotments, including many proxy purchases, and a host of politicians and bureaucrats including four former chief ministers, two former urban development ministers, and twelve senior bureaucrats were indicted for various illegal acts. The Mumbai High Court ordered demolition of building in 2016, and the society’s appeal is pending in the Supreme Court since 2018 along with stay granted against demolition. Simultaneously, various central investigating agencies too are currently investigating the role and conduct of suspects involved.
However, the current case of the Noida twin tower is unique on several counts. Unlike the ones already reported above, this case did not directly involve any influential politician, bureaucrats, or business community and the legal fight with the real estate giant was spearheaded by a group of ordinary residents with remarkable courage and tenacity. It took almost ten years long battle to get justice through the highest judiciary of the land. The other unique features of the case include the size of the building, huge number and capacity of the illegally constructed luxury apartments, and its value in real estate terms (estimated over Rs 7,000 million on current rates). Yet another unique feature in this case is the engagement and full exploitation of the modern technology in pulling down the massive building within a few seconds without any significant collateral damage; the precision and swiftness with which the entire operation was flawlessly carried out by the executing agency is indeed admirable. Some more important and unique highlights are briefly summed up here:
Aftermath of the Demolition of Towers
The unwanted towers now gone for good, onlookers in the public and on social media celebrated their grounding as “two eloquent monuments of brazen corruption raged”; yet surprisingly another unique feature of this case remains that the symbol of wrongdoing has been raged without fixing the responsibility of the wrong-doers so for. Many people have opined that the episode will be a lesson for the corrupt builders and officials and they will take a clue from this incident and desist from the wrong-doings in future. In that case, the question arises why then they did not take similar lesson from somewhat alike episodes of the Pratibha Buiding and Adarsh Housing Society scams in Mumbai. The moot point is people have short memories; so once the debris from the site is cleared, ground is leveled, and a beautiful park developed to improve ambience and recreational use of the residents, people will probably forget about this ugly episode too like a happy ending in any romantic novel. But is this what a happy ending should really be? Answer is a clear “no”; the action will remain incomplete till the commensurate yet exemplary punishment is also awarded to the wrong-doers.
When the Supreme Court passed their order on 31 August 2021 about the demolition of twin towers, the judges had also made lacerating remarks about the unholy collusion between the officials of the Noida Authority and Developer. The order inter alia stated, “…The case has revealed nefarious complicity of the planning authority in the violation by the developer of the provisions of law. The complicity of NOIDA has emerged”. Following the order, the Uttar Pradesh government had registered cases against two former CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) and two former additional CEOs and some twenty-seven other officials of the Noida Authority and the Supertech Ltd. The Vigilance Organization of the state government had registered FIR (First Information Report) against these officials in early October 2021on the basis of the recommendation made by the special investigating team (SIT) constituted by the Uttar Pradesh government following the Supreme Court order. The said four-member SIT had submitted its report in September 2021 and the follow up FIR inter alia said that the Noida officials and Supertech colluded which in return gave undue financial gains to the officials.
Consequently, the irregularities committed by the builder were overlooked by the Noida officials and the building rules were bent and manipulated by them to give clearance to developer to go ahead with the modified design and plan. Needless to mention, such favours are never given without commensurate illegal gratification that usually involves cash and kind consideration. It has been more than a year since the apex court passed their order on the demolition of building pointing out nefarious activities of the officials of the Noida Authority and Supertech Ltd in August 2021, and it’s obvious that the speed and efficiency of the inquiry needs to be accelerated. According to reports, the accused were booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act for the criminal conspiracy and collusion to raise the alleged twin towers violating the building bye-laws. The Lucknow wing of the vigilance department has been entrusted with the investigation allowing them to take assistance of experts in the field of architecture, where considered necessary. The accused persons named in the FIR include retired CEOs and additional CEOs, and erstwhile dealing officers from finance, urban planning, project management, town planning, architecture and engineering divisions of Noida Authority as also senior officials of the builder group.
There was a time when the majority of households and people in India from various walks of life used to invest their surplus money in jewelry, preferred stuff being gold, diamond and costly stones. This pattern has changed during the last twenty-five years or so, and the majority of people now prefer to invest in the real estate. According to an estimate, currently Indians invest about 70 percent of their assets in acquiring residential and/or commercial buildings/plots. Also this is an area where people have found a lot of scope of investing/spending their unaccounted black money over the years. Needless to mention, the real estate was flourishing under the rampant corruption at least till the time when the central government spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the demonetization scheme in November 2016. The scale of corruption has been so deep rooted that any honest and hapless person looking for a house/flat in the organized sector would have to shelve money even for the bonafide registry, with the builders playing conduit for the officials. This situation may have marginally improved after the demonetization and certain steps taken to minimize cash transactions. One only hopes that the current episode will be a lesson and deterrence as well for many unscrupulous and greedy builders, and corrupt officials in ensuing future.
Images (c) istock.com and NDTV.com
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