KOLKATA: A letter from the military headquarters, Bengal Area, has rattled civic bosses in Kolkata and is sure to shake up the city's realty sector.
It prohibits highrises in a radius of 500 metres from military establishments in 18 locations in the city and Salt Lake — from Ballygunge to Baranagar and from Dum Dum to Dakshineswar. The Army later issued a statement saying they had not barred construction but builders have to get an NOC from the local military authority.
Realizing that KMC stands to lose hundreds of crores in revenue, mayor Sovan Chatterjee has said he will take it up with the defence ministry.
Going by the letter, KMC and other municipalities concerned can't approve building plans in the specified areas. "There are several applications from these areas for building plan sanction," an officer in the KMC building department said.
Two such projects are within 500 metres of the Alipore Ordnance Depot — a 40-storied residential highrise on Diamond Harbour Road and a 24-storey building on DL Khan Road. These two projects would have fetched KMC at least Rs 50 crore, say sources.
KMC officers are in a fix. What of the buildings already existing in the prohibited areas? "We are not talking about Fort William. But there are locations such as Dum Dum, Ballygunge or Sahpur where people have built houses (within the 500 metres of military establishments). What will KMC do if someone wants to pull down the old house and build a highrise?" an official wondered.
A senior officer at the Bengal Area HQ said there is no question of prohibition. "I fail to understand why KMC should raise a hue and cry about this. Under Works of Defence Act, state governments have to issue a gazette notification marking the defence installations and stating that an NOC from the military is needed for highrise constructions within 500 metres of any installation. Most governments have already done so."
He said they raised the issue with the state chief secretary and asked for a gazette notification. "KMC sought more details and we provided it. Why should this be an issue now," he wondered.
This is not the first such letter from the Army. Some time ago, Fort William had asked KMC to stop construction of a highrise at Hastings, close to the Bengal Area HQ. KMC honoured the request. But this time, the mayor sounds defiant. "I don't think that the local military has any say on this matter. I am yet to realize the threat and the danger. I am going to take it up with the defence minister," he said.
States seem to have varying stands on this law. Andhra Pradesh government has followed it, making it mandatory for builders to get NOC from the military for constructions near defence pockets/ military establishments. The Maharashtra government, on the other hand, has already written to the defence ministry to lift the ban.
Strangely, two decades ago, the military had a different stand. A brigadier had then proposed to sell off the club tents on Kolkata Maidan and allow real estate development on a portion of Maidan. It was shot down by the top brass.
Civic officials wonder how such restrictions can ensure the safety of defence establishments when everything, including Rashtrapati Bhavan, can be located by using Google Earth.
Builders have reacted with disbelief. Credai-Bengal president Sushil Mohta said that while a buffer around a critical installation like Fort William was understandable, it didn't make sense to apply the same rule for other areas like Gokhale Road where it has a recruitment centre.
"The Army can put its properties under different grades with a ban on construction around Fort William; requirement of prior approval for some less critical installations; height restriction on some others and perhaps the necessity to simply inform them of a project in the rest. There must be some justification in its demands," he said.
"After all, this is a metropolis. Civilians and Army personnel should co-exist. The Army cannot unilaterally say that a person who owns a property next to its facility cannot rebuild or develop it. This will be infringement on personal right and will not be tenable in court," Mohta added.
A Bengal Area officer, however, pointed out that Bombay high court ruled in favour of Navy in 2013 in a case where highrise construction had already started in place of an existing house.