Affordable Housing Gone Awry: The Case of Aastha Apartments in Zirakpur

This article highlights how, due to the lack of a strict legal framework and the regulation of construction by government authorities, Zirakpur in Punjab has witnessed the construction of several substandard housing societies. This has resulted in Zirakpur being considered an “ecologically risky” city to reside in. Further, it has given rise to “litigating citizens” who are involved in court cases against builders who have provided poor housing facilities.

 

“Most housing society RWAs are involved in litigation against their builders here in Zirakpur” 

This quote by the resident of a housing society in Zirakpur is oft repeated in interactions with other residents and members of the residents welfare associations (RWAs) of different housing societies in the city. Zirakpur is dotted with residential apartment complexes that have multiple quality issues and illegalities. The development of Zirakpur has been, to say the least, unplanned and haphazard and has resulted in the emergence of the “litigant” urban citizen who is compelled to challenge the state-builder nexus in the city. This middle-class RWA activism has led to the rise of a new kind of civil society in the city (Srivastava 2015) as well as a fractured urban life where citizens’ experience of the city is based on the housing society in which they live.

In 2008, the Government of Punjab framed a comprehensive housing policy on the lines of the central government's National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, 2007, of which affordable housing was given much focus. Given the proliferation of informal, cramped, and unsanitary housing in Punjab, the policy focused on finance provisions to the lower middle and lower class families to purchase reasonably priced and affordable housing. The policy also focused on increasing investment in the housing sector and engaging public, cooperative, and public/private sector partnerships to increase the affordable housing stock. It stated that the government public agencies would continue to undertake acquisition of land for construction of houses for low income housing projects. Additionally, affordable housing projects were exempt from payment of stamp duties. 

Here, I illuminate one such case of an “affordable housing” project where the builder availed of the benefits and tax rebates offered under the government scheme but did not deliver quality apartments to the buyers, which resulted in the society’s RWA resorting to legal action against the builder. 

Aastha Apartments and the Creation of the ‘Litigant’ Citizen

Aastha Apartments was built by Aastha Enterprises, a local builder, under the Government of Punjab’s affordable housing scheme and possession of its apartments began in 2009. According to R,[1] the former president of the locality’s RWA, the society comprises 154 apartments, of which 105 are occupied. After moving in, residents realised that the builder had left much construction work incomplete. For example, there was no gate on the building rooftop and hence construction workers in the vicinity would go up to the roof to urinate.[2] No earthing was done in the building to protect residents from lightning during thunderstorms, waste water outlets were not properly sealed and thus there was major seepage in the apartments. This was followed by a termite infestation, which severely damaged the woodwork in the apartments. 

Figure 1: Aastha Apartments (Image Courtesy: Kanchan Gandhi)

Moreover, the access roads to the society are at a higher level than the complex, which constantly leads to flooding. The facilities provided by the builder for drinking water were also illegal: Two borewells were dug at a depth of 130 feet each, when, according to municipal norms, boring wells to supply drinking water should be between 800 to 1,100 feet deep. Since the wells dug by Aastha builders were shallow, the residents had to install RO water purification systems in their houses. Despite this there were cases of water-related illnesses among the residents. The sewage treatment plant, which was installed at the entrance of the society, was not connected to the main sewerage line of the Municipal Corporation of Zirakpur. Furthermore, The sewage treatment plant was also dysfunctional. It had earlier been placed at the entrance of the residential complex. After the residents objected, it was moved inside but took up space meant for a children’s play area (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Sewage Treatment Plant (Image Courtesy: Kanchan Gandhi)  

The internal road of the apartment complex is also in need of dire repair (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Inside Aastha Apartments (Image Courtesy: Kanchan Gandhi)

To address these issues, the residents of Aastha apartments decided to file a court case against the builder. Consequently, a case was registered in 2016 in the Chandigarh High Court, titled Ramandeep Rana Ors v State of Punjab and Ors, against the builder and the Municipal Corporation of Zirakpur, which the residents alleged had given a false completion certificate to the builder. On 28 September 2017, the Chandigarh High Court ruled in favour of the residents and directed the builder to complete all pending works in the apartment complex as per the pre-approved plan and without any modification, and also directed the builder to pay all costs related to the common facilities of the apartment complex. However, a court-appointed observer who visited the complex and submitted their report in 2019 stated that essential services like lifts in the buildings were yet to be installed. 

Residents of the complex claim that the builder continued to delay implementing the court order since he had support from the municipal corporation. G,[3] an accountant by profession and an active member of the society explained that he had filed two complaints against the builder: One was regarding the faulty fire safety measures in the housing society and the other was a case of fraud regarding tax exemption and other financial benefits claimed by the builder under Punjab’s “affordable housing” scheme by showing a false completion certificate. G explained that as per the judgment Ramandeep Rana v State of Punjab, it was proven that the builder had handed over an incomplete project to the residents. Citing this judgment, G petitioned the chief vigilance officer to reclaim the money that the builder had amassed as tax rebates to build the affordable housing project. 

G explained that as per safety norms of the fire department, it is illegal to place fire extinguishers near the lift. However, fire extinguishers in all of the apartment blocks of Aastha were placed next to the lifts (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Illegal Placement of Fire Extinguisher (Image Courtesy: Kanchan Gandhi)

Another illegal construction by the builder was that of the shops which have been constructed along the boundary wall of the apartment. G explained that a setback has to be left between the apartment boundary wall and the shops so that in the event of a fire, a fire tender truck has space to move and douse the flames (see Figure 5). 

Figure 5: Local Shops Outside Aastha Apartments

With multiple construction quality issues and illegalities, Aastha Apartments portrays a dismal picture of abysmal “affordable housing.”  While the residents have gotten some relief through litigation, a host of issues still remain unresolved. Further, the court case itself has created a divide between the residents who were for and against legal action, which will likely have a long-term impact on their social lives in the society

Reigning in Unchecked Urbanisation

The case of Aastha Apartments exemplifies the splintered nature of urbanisation in Zirakpur. The manner of urbanisation experienced in the city is a compelling example of what happens when the state withdraws from its duty to provide public goods like roads and other civic amenities and instead gives precedence to market forces. However, the state-builder nexus has led to the emergence of a politically aware citizen in the city who are engaging in forms of protest and resistance. The Aastha case is not unique. Several litigants are challenging the indiscrepancies in the housing facilities provided by builders in Zirakpur. 

Srivastava (2015) discusses how

Gated enclaves posit a model of post-national citizenship that constitute a particular gloss on the relationship between the state and its citizens in the backdrop of transnational consumerist modernity; the bedroom is the window to the world. The movement from post-colonial to post-national projects of citizenship also posits the journey from ‘citizen-worker (Roy, 2007) to the consumer-citizen, just as it does from the spaces of national identity to those of suburban and domestic ones. 

In this article I have demonstrated that the creation of the “consumer-citizen” in Zirakpur is hampered by the struggles of the middle class to fix the faults in their housing facilities. The aspirational consumer-citizen is thus turned into a “litigant citizen” to achieve their dream of living a “world-class” urban life. 

Outsourcing infrastructure development to the private sector will lead to further splintering of the already divided cities and cause increasing inequalities between the “haves” and “have-nots.” In a “developing” context like India, privatisation of infrastructure and related amenities can have disastrous effects on the socio-economic condition of the country. Thus, the government needs to take charge of and regulate the activities of private capital in order to create more equal cities for a just future.

 

The author would like to thank the residents of Aastha Apartments for discussing their legal issues. The author is grateful to Anu Sabhlok from IISER, Mohali, for her support and guidance on this research project. The author also thanks Neha Poonia from IISER, Mohali, for her research assistance during the field-visits to Zirakpur. 

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Concerns have been raised about criminalising triple talaq now that the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 has been passed as an ordinance. This reading list is to help...
Back to Top