HomePress ReleaseMumbai Mirror: A year on, the battle for homes, justice continues

Mumbai Mirror: A year on, the battle for homes, justice continues

2017 Ghatkopar building crash

Even as the residents wage a legal fight to ensure main accused stays behind bars, an apparent ‘realignment’ of a road passing through their plot dents their hope of rebuilding new homes

The rusty remains of a completely crushed autorickshaw, an overhead water tank, with dish antennas still sticking from the top, and some bricks are the only grim reminders of what had happened here a year ago.

Overgrown plants and shrubs have now taken over the plot in Damodar Park area of Ghatkopar West, where the ill-fated Siddhi Sai building once stood as home to many. A year after its collapse on July 25, 2017 — 17 people, including a three-month-old baby, were killed and 10 injured — not a brick has been laid to build new houses for the 11 families, who were not only rendered homeless, but lost their near ones and life’s savings.

While they are still struggling hard to cope with their loses, the residents find themselves entangled in other challenges — keeping Shiv Sena functionary Sunil Shitap, the main accused whose illegal alterations of the building led to the cave-in, behind bars; and the discovery that a 2005 collector’s order had “realigned” a road through their plot, which shrinks it by a good 133 sqm.

Lalit Thak, 35, who lost his mother, wife and three-month-old daughter in the tragedy, says the battle is proving to be too much, even as he struggles hard to lead a normal life.

“The images keep flashing in my head. I remember asking my wife to take my daughter and mother and run down to safety. My wife Amruta had to take 2-3 steps more to have survived. But the staircase of the building gave way, trapping Amruta, our daughter Veronika and my mother Pramila near the entrance of the building. I was inside the house and came down straight as if I were in an elevator. A year on, we are stuck at the same point — running from pillar to post to get back our roofs above our heads,” said Thak, tears welling up in his eyes.

Court rounds to ensure Shitap does’t get bail

Most of the residents, who were offered tenements in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building in Bhandup for a nominal rent, couldn’t move there because of the more pressing need to stay close to their previous home to continue to wage the legal battle. They have taken up rented accommodations in the Damodar Park neighbourhood only.

Our first task was to ensure that Shitap does not get bail. So, we are attending every court hearing — first in the Vikroli metropolitan court, then in the sessions court and the High Court. We are grateful to special counsel Sujay Kantawala and advocate Ashish Mehta for representing us pro-bono. We want the government to appoint a special public prosecutor at the trial stage to ensure that Shitap gets the punishment he deserves. Under IPC 304 II, he can be imprisoned for 10 years,” said Birendra Singh, whose four-member family survived the crash by sheer luck as they had left the premises when it crumbled.

Investigations undertaken by the BMC have concluded that Shitap, who owned three flats on the ground floor and one on the first floor, had done illegal alterations to the ground floor housing a nursing home. This disturbed the columns of the build-ing, leading to the collapse.

Shitap, and interior decorator Ranjit Agale were arrested on July 26, 2017, under IPC sections 304(II) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 336 (act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life).

Exactly a year later, Shitap and Agale’s appeals against the sessions court’s order rejecting their bail pleas came up before Justice Ajey Gadkari on July 26, 2018. But the court rejected it, saying that their complicity in the building collapse was clear and they did not deserve to be released on bail at this stage.

Left: The overhead tank, which used to supply water to the building, still lies at the spot. Right: The site after the cave-in on July 25, 2017

Left: The overhead tank, which used to supply water to the building, still lies at the spot. Right: The site after the cave-in on July 25, 2017

Promise of home remains apromise

When he had visited the crash site last year, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had assured the residents that the government will ask the BMC to begin the redevelopment plans within 8 to 10 days. He also said that there will be less paperwork to ensure speedy redevelopment.

BJP corporator Parag Shah, the richest in the BMC, went on record to say that he was ready to reconstruct the building on a no-profit-no-loss basis provided the civic body waived the development charges, open space premium and other costs. But due to some legal hassles, Shah could not go ahead with the project.

A fresh hurdle has now cropped up. When the residents began putting together the land records of their plot, they came across a 2005 collector’s order which, they allege, shows the realignment of DP Road into their plot, thus reducing it from the current 490 sqm to 357 sqm.

The residents have submitted a complaint to Suburban Collector Sachin Kurve, alleging that Sanyam Realtors Pvt Ltd, which is building a complex right opposite their building, had obtained the order by “misrepresentation” and “suppression of facts”.

“Though our plot exists, the collector’s records show the road encroaching on it. Unless this anomaly is cleared, we cannot go ahead with the reconstruction project. We got a private surveyor to measure our area, which is now 490.6 sqm. We will submit his report to the collector on Monday and urge him to restore our original area in his records,” said Singh.

Rakesh Jain of Sanyam Realtors rejected the residents’ claims, saying he has done no wrongdoing.

“The DP Road exists since 1983. I have not done any illegality. The residents have been misguided by someone,” he said.

When contacted, Suburban Collector Sachin Kurve said, “I have had meetings with the residents. Our preliminary investigation shows that the DP Road was indeed realigned, but it does not encroach on the Siddhi Sai plot as alleged by the residents. I am still looking into the complaint.”