In July’09, one year before former BBMP Commissioner Bharat Lal Meena left to head the BDA, he issued an order to shutdown the Technical Vigilance Cell (TVC) call centre. The centre was available for citizens in Bengaluru to blow the whistle on illegally constructed buildings (also called plan sanction violations, in government parlance). BBMP went ahead and shut it down.
This week, Meena denied issuing the order itself and claimed the call centre was functioning when he left office (June this year). Citizen Matters spoke to Meena over the telephone after obtaining a copy of the letter with his signature on it, from the TVC. The order is in Kannada and the signature ‘Bharat Lal’ is also in Kannada.
BBMP’s TVC call centre – the only public mechanism in Bengaluru to monitor and clamp down on building violations – was setup in December 1st 2008 through an announcement in the dailies. When it was shut down within seven months, the cell had received 794 complaints and its work had even begun to have an impact.
A Citizen Matters special investigation report
In his letter, Meena, had also ordered complaint processing on illegal buildings to be ”decentralised” to the zonal Joint Commissioners (JCs) of the BBMP from July 13th 2009. Accordingly all complaints that the TVC had received until then were moved to the offices of the JC and public complaints ceased to be accepted.
In contrast to Meena’s statement refuting that he issued the order, BBMP Special Commissioner K R Niranjan confirms otherwise. Niranjan, who has been in his current role since April 2010, says the centre was shut down as the number of violations was too many. "TVC cannot look into all cases of violations. So we have asked the Executive Engineers and Assistant Executive Engineers in the Town Planning Department to make a report of all building violations in their respective zones," he says.
The department was ordered to make the report by the High Court of Karnataka, around six months back, in response to a PIL. Though the report was supposed to be submitted in three months, it has not been completed yet, Niranjan says.
The TVC was originally set up in 2006 to look into the quality of civil works, which it continues to do. During the time it was receiving building plan violation complaints, Executive Engineers at the TVC (not BBMP’s zonal engineers) would conduct spot inspections on the same day and forward their report to the concerned Assistant Executive Engineers (AEEs) in the Town Planning department in case of violations. The AEEs were to report back to the TVC regarding the action taken within 15 days.
S Prabhakar, Superintending Engineer of TVC, claims the call centre was functioning effectively. "In many cases we ensured that construction was stopped or buildings demolished. Though some builders did get stay orders from the court against BBMP’s demolition orders, we could stop or correct violations in 90% of cases," he claims. Prabhakar says after TVC call centre’s shutdown, the files were moved to the zonal offices. In Bengaluru’s East, South and Yelahanka zones, he claims demolitions were done.
It is common knowledge that at BBMP’s zonal offices, BBMP engineers permit violations and allow construction to proceed unchecked. In shutting down the call centre, BBMP snuffed out hope for building plan and bye-law enforcement. They took this power from an independent cell at the headquarters and pushed it back to the very zonal departments that were shepherding the violations in the first place.
B M Tirakanagoudar, Additional Director of Town Planning, admits, "We have not been able to control building violations. The department’s zonal offices are permitting many illegal constructions."
TVC and BESCOM – all notices and no teeth?
Call centre apart, the TVC does continue to look into building sanctions only when electricity supplier BESCOM initiates a verification. This initiative was started as per a Lokayukta directive in August 2008. BESCOM forwards all applications from building owners in BBMP limits for power supply to the TVC, along with the BBMP-sanctioned plan of the applicant. (The applicant files a copy of the plan with BESCOM).
Even here, TVC’s enforcement work appears to have been nipped in the bud by non-cooperation from zonal BBMP officials.
Total applications TVC received from BESCOM – 1309
Fake Plans – 92
Power connection denied due to building bye-law violations – 842
Power connection denied due to other reasons (wrong documents, wrong department etc) – 375
Plans approved for power supply – 0
Source: S Prabhakar, Superintending Engineer, Technical Vigilance Cell, BBMP
When a building plan is received from BESCOM, TVC engineers check with sanctioning authorities to ensure that the plan is genuine and then inspect the building. If violations are found, TVC writes to BESCOM recommending that power connection should not be given. A copy is also sent to the AEE asking him to take action against the builder. A reminder is sent to the AEE after another seven days saying that the Joint Commissioner at the zonal level will be requested to take action against the engineer if he does not look into the case. If there is no response from the AEE even after this, a letter is sent to the JC citing the case and requesting action against the AEE.
In the last two years alone, TVC’s records show that it received 1309 applications from BESCOM, for all of which the cell recommended that connection be denied as buildings had flouted safety norms or building bye-laws. Ninety-two of the applicants had submitted fake plan sanction documents. The cases were forwarded to the AEEs and JCs as well. However, Prabhakar says that no AEE or JC has responded to any of TVC’s mails and that he was not aware if any action was taken.
It is noteworthy that TVC only received 1309 complaints from BESCOM for the entire two years, whereas BESCOM gives around 17,000 new power connections every month in the city. Also, making tracking of enforcement even harder, BESCOM is not required to report to TVC on whether power supply was given or not.
BESCOM Chairman Tushar Girinath says, "We do not look into plan sanction violations at all, but only forward it to BBMP. The cases where BBMP recommended that power supply should be denied, has been few in number, especially over the last year." Girinath declined to divulge more specific data on such denials issued.
Power supply granted even for forged sanction plans
Here’s a blatant instance of a plan sanction violation for which electricity connection was given despite BBMP’s TVC and BESCOM being in the loop. Just last week, city-based Right to Information (RTI) activists have taken this particular case to the Lokayukta.
In September 2008, the owner of an apartment complex (Property No. 13/14) on Pampamahakavi Road in Shankarpuram wrote to BESCOM applying for an electricity connection. BESCOM forwarded the plan sanction to the BBMP’s Technical Vigilance Cell for verification. The cell wrote back to the Works Engineer of BESCOM (West Division) on Mysore Road informing them that the plan sanction was "fake"!
In this October 2008 letter, the TVC clearly says the original plan sanction of this building (approved by the BBMP) is dated November 10th 2005, whereas the plan sanction that was forwarded to them by the BESCOM was dated February 28th 2005, thereby indicating that the plan sanction given to BESCOM is not authentic.
The original plan sanction was only for stilt, ground, first and second floors. But the plan sanction that was submitted to BESCOM showed an extra floor.
This was not the first instance of communication that indicated violations in this building. The TVC sent out a written communication to BESCOM regarding a forged plan sanction copy.
Even before the TVC came into the picture, the BBMP itself had sent a notice to the property owner T N Bhaskar, and GPA (General Power of Attorney) holder Hakeem Chandar Munotha and others, for plan sanction violations. The notices were sent as per Sections 321 (1) and 321 (2) of the Karnataka Municipal Corporations (KMC) Act 1976. This was back in September 2007. This notice from the BBMP’s Basavanagudi subdivision mentions in detail the plan sanction violations of the building including setback violations.
The building owners did not respond to this notice, because of which the BBMP slapped another notice to them under Section 321 (3) of the KMC Act.
All of this communication between the BBMP and the owners, and between the TVC and BESCOM clearly remained only on paper and the building was eventually given an electricity connection and today stands fully occupied.
It was through a series of RTI applications filed by activists, based in Vijaynagar and Mysore Road, that all of this surfaced. And as noted earlier, the activists have taken this case to the Lokayukta last week. They have filed a complaint against the Assistant Executive Engineers of BBMP’s Basavanagudi and Kempegowda subdivisions for not taking action despite the issue of notices to the building owner. The BBMP’s Assistant Director of Town Planning (South) will also be examined in this case as he originally sanctioned the plan for this building.
Though the TVC’s powers have been severely limited now, Prabhakar believes that more can be done. "If officials in other departments co-operate with us, violations can be brought under control," he says.
In the meantime, former commissioner Meena’s denial that he issued the order shutting down the call centre raises more questions than it answers, as Citizen Matters‘ investigation continues. Prabhakar at the TVC offered no reaction to Meena’s statement. ⊕