Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Campa Cola Apartment Eviction Case: Who Are Responsible? Who Are to be Punished?

The Campa Cola Apartment Case is becoming a test case in India regarding the rule of law. It is proving that justice in India goes by the written laws impartially and blindly at whatever be the outcome.

But the Campa Cola case is a test case in the administration of justice because, in this case it has become difficult to ascertain who is or who are the culprits. On the one side, there is the mighty democratic system of governance represented by the local administration of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) ably patronized by the state government of Maharashtra and on the other side there are about 250 odd owners of the apartments built on the Campa Cola premises in Worli, South Mumbai. 

The background of the case is some thing like this. Some decades ago the governments at the central, state and local levels in India were having much land in their possession. They also had enough statutory powers and the officers of the government had enough guts to acquire land using the prevailing laws.

To promote growth and development of factories, educational institutions, hospitals, roads, etc, it was an acceptable practice by the governments to lease out large peaces of land to both private and public organizations for such purposes.

Leasing out of landed property is quite different from outright sale. The custodian of the property in the former case is called a lease holder while in the latter case the custodian who has purchased the land is the owner holding the free hold title to the property. The lease holder enjoys some rights on the property for a long period as per the lease agreement which could go as long as 99 years in some cases. After the original lease period, the lease holder has to return the land back to its original owner or his legal heirs. If the lease holder had constructed buildings etc on the land, those have to be demolished if the agreement so stipulates.

Normally, as per the standard lease agreements in vogue in India, the lease holder has no right to lease out the property in full or in part to others without the concurrence of the original owner. 

Now coming back to the Campa Cola case. A private company, M/s Pure Drinks Ltd- the makers of the popular Indian soft drink, Campa Cola- got the land for constructing its soft drink bottling plant on lease from the local government, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) who were the owners of the land. The BMC authorities naturally would not have done so, without the approval of the state government authorities of that time. Initially, the lease was for the purpose of building the factory. But later, the company approached BMC to amend the lease terms in such a way that they could build some apartments for their employees on the same land. It seems that the BMC agreed to this.

But the company with the help of some private builders thought of making a big profit from this. Instead of the initial five floored buildings to function as the official quarters of their employees, they began to construct additional floors  for the use of those not connected with the work of the company. They built about 250 additional apartments and wanted to sell them to the public there by taking full advantage of the high premium for residential apartments in the highly populated city of Mumbai. Naturally, as per the lease agreement, the company was not authorized to sell property to others or even lease it out to others. But under the guise of building apartments for their own employees, they built the additional apartments for sale or lease to the public. 

It was the duty of the BMC authorities and the government to prevent the additional construction and its sale to the public. But there was no such enthusiasm from the representatives of the governmental authorities (the owners of the land) during that time. Perhaps there was some attempts from some authorities to be watered down by some others. There was some tacit understanding between the owner representatives and the lease holder company representatives!

The public fell in to their trap and 'purchased' those apartments by paying heavy amounts. In reality many of them did not understand whether they are really purchasing those properties or not as per the law. Perhaps they knew it, but cared little because they cared less for the law and its ramifications later. But ignorance of the law is no excuse!

But the long hands of the law acts slowly in many instances. It has taken long 25 years. Those of the public who had paid huge sums to acquire these 'prime properties of Mumbai' later realized their folly, but refused to accept it. The question they have been asking is all these time has been this: Why the authorities allowed the illegal construction and its sale? Why only targeting us, the hapless buyers of the apartments? How come the other authorities provided us water and electricity and other such facilities if we were illegal occupants? 

Yes, all these are valid questions. But that does not mean that the public who had paid for these flats are totally innocent. It is the duty of the purchasers of properties to ensure the legal aspects before they shell out their monies!

Obviously, in this case there are errors and violations made by all the three parties. The BMC authorities of that time, the company authorities of that time and the public who paid to occupy these illegally made apartments. 

But it is for the court of justice to decide those things critically and give out the final verdicts. That is what the SC has done. 

This is not an isolated case in India. Due to misunderstanding of the provisions of lease agreements, laws , the over enthusiasm of officials of public authorities and the casual approach of the citizens, so many such instances had happened in India in the last few decades. 

I know a case wherein many people ignoring the warnings of a state government of central India and proceeding to acquire properties that a Public Sector Undertaking was trying to lease out to its employees! Not only they ignored the warnings but went ahead to acquire the properties and further made the things more complicated by constructing palatial buildings later by personally 'managing' and circumventing the lease stipulations!

For the time being, nothing has happened to most of them. But there is no guarantee that some thing of this sort would not happen in the future. Because, when laws and agreements are violated, things could really go bad, not necessarily immediately.

So those who think of manipulating the laws by their own influences should remember that they could not do that always. 

And that is the lesson that people should learn from the Campa Cola case!

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