Along with corruption, encroachment is another widespread problem in India. I define encroachment as people taking over land which they have no legal right to occupy. In my opinion it is as pervasive and cancerous as corruption is, in India.
The most glaring examples are the slums in our cities. Typically, a slum is a piece of land usually owned by the government, but illegally occupied by poor people. Many slums grow larger over the years depending on the accessibility of the land surrounding the original area of occupation. Slum dwellers are usually people who migrate from their villages in search of a better livelihood. When they arrive in the city, they have no recourse but to live where they find the space. While I sympathize with the poor, the fact remains that they are breaking the law by setting up houses, however dilapidated, on land which they have no rights over. The government almost always, fails to nip this problem in the bud. They simply ignore the situation in the early stages of encroachment.
As the years go by, more and more migrant workers and their families take up residence in these areas. In a decade or two the slum population is too large to evict. More importantly, they have now become a significant constituency in the electoral process. At this stage politicians don’t want to displace them, in fear of losing their votes. By not doing anything, the government validates encroachment. The message the government of India sends out to the poor of India is that they can migrate to cities and occupy land that does not belong to them. I am told that over 50% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums.
In My Wonderful City (MWC), there are several areas where vendors have set up shop on footpaths meant for pedestrians. In the beginning there is just one vendor sitting on the sidewalk, selling vegetables/fruits. Soon another joins him, and another and another. A few years later, these entrepreneurs have built stalls on the sidewalk. Another year or two later, new vendors set up stalls. Soon, there is no more space for new vendors to set up stalls on that particular stretch. Next, they manage to acquire electricity to light up their stalls. By then apparently, it’s impossible to evict them. To be honest I am not absolutely certain that these vendors are operating illegally. However, I am fairly sure that they are. If it was legal and above board, would the local government really give them permission to operate on the sidewalks? They can’t be that stupid can they?
If the encroachment is illegal then it stands to reason that the electrification is illegal too (unless the Electricity Board is stupid enough to provide electricity to these vendors). The emotional argument is that these vendors are poor people trying to make a living. But does that justify them breaking the law by occupying a public sidewalk? So in MWC, not only are there few footpaths and incredibly narrow ones at that, they have all manner of obstructions on them which prevent pedestrians from using them. On sidewalks where there are no obstructions, we have vendors setting up shop on them. Plus we now have customers parking their vehicles near these stalls, making a narrow road even more so, thereby causing traffic congestion. In a shopping area close to where I live, the footpath was widened, presumably for pedestrians. However pedestrians continue to walk on the road while the footpath is being used as a parking lot for two wheelers. Yes, they ride on the footpath to park their vehicles. These vehicle owners are also encroachers.
I have personally witnessed this in several places in MWC. Walking along a road one fine day I see that someone has placed a deity on the sidewalk with agarbati (incense sticks) and flowers. Six months down the line, I see that the deity now has a formal seat with accompanying minor deities, more flowers, more agarbatis and an offering of fruits. I also notice a small box for donations. A year later, the deity is larger and housed in a proper room built on the sidewalk. A few more years pass and the room is expanded and a mini temple is born. There are now throngs of people queuing up to worship the deity on important religious occasions. As usual the government has done nothing to nip this problem in the bud. They believe that taking action now would displease the public who may then retaliate by voting them out of office. That the law has been broken is of no consequence to anyone.
Upper Class Encroachers
These are not poor people. These are people who are educated and doing fairly well financially. I have come across many house owners who occupy a small portion of land beyond the boundaries of their property. They do this by creating a two feet wide garden patch outside and along their property wall. After a while a fence comes up to protect this garden patch from stray animals while at the same time finalizing the encroachment. Some people cement a similar portion of land outside the boundary of their property. Then they place a row of huge pots with plants on this area to prevent others from parking their vehicles outside their home.
There are tenants who refuse to vacate a house or an apartment when asked to by the owner. Eventually the tenant leaves after extorting a huge sum of money from the owner. Naturally this money is not reported on tax returns. Tenants live in apartments or houses for years and refuse to pay the incremental increases in rent over the years. This results in a cold war between the tenant and the owner and then the tenant simply stops paying any rent. The owner retaliates by refusing to pay for the maintenance of the dwelling. If either of the parties goes to court to seek justice, the matter remains pending in the judicial system for decades. I am told that tenancy laws have undergone changes and things are less problematic than before but despite this many owners prefer to keep their apartments vacant rather than take any chances with unscrupulous tenants.
Changing Our Mind Set
The reasons for encroachments are many. Governance is poor, laws are outdated, the police are corrupt and inefficient, while the judiciary is impotent. I believe that one cannot blame the government entirely. The Indian public is equally at fault. We simply do not believe in following rules. We have no sense of boundaries and hence crossing the line comes easily to us. We are driven by emotions and not reason. We simply don’t understand principles and ethics. We expect the government to enforce the rules while we break them constantly. We are an immature people who do not realize that we are the system. We have to be law-abiding ourselves to ensure that the system works smoothly and fairly. We have to change our mind-set. Unless this happens nothing will change in India.