Despite notification clearing construction of housing projects, buyers have more worries ahead
Puja Bhattacharjee | September 12, 2015 | Delhi
Hopes and aspirations of many home buyers are getting resurrected after the August 18 notification on the buffer zone around the Okhla bird sanctuary touching Noida. But it will be a long journey before their dreams come true because of lack of accountability in the real estate sector. The real estate regulatory bill, which is yet to be passed by parliament, could have ensured better compliance.
An aggressive urbanisation meant a spike in demand for housing in the national capital region (NCR). The area, especially Noida, is teeming with real estate projects and realtors do not hesitate in bending the rules to make money. Noida is not new to real estate controversy. Projects are delayed routinely and many builders took refuge in the national greet tribunal (NGT) order of September 2013 banning construction activity within the 10-km radius of the sanctuary. Now that the ministry of environment and forest notification has relaxed the restrictions (100 metres on three sides and 1.2 km on the fourth side), the builders run out of excuses and will have to complete the long-delayed housing projects.
Saloni Paroothi is one of the buyers waiting to move to her own home. She comes across as a woman who is content and happy; a successful woman who is free to pursue her desires. However, her smile does not reach her eyes. She is sad and anxious. Her deceptive looks are similar to her case for a dream house.
Paroothi lives in a two-bedroom rented apartment in a plush society in Indirapuram in neighbouring Ghaziabad of NCR. In May 2012, after saving enough money to be able to buy a house of her own, she booked a flat in Sector 120 of Noida. The builder promised to give her the possession of the 1,154 square feet flat in September 2013. The promise is yet to materialise. The builder’s excuse so far was the NGT order on the bird sanctuary.
The site of her dream home is about 10 km away from the sanctuary. In December 2006, the supreme court said that ideally there should be a 10 km ‘shock absorber’ area around any wildlife park or sanctuary. But it acknowledged that each state might have its own specific problems and hence asked them to declare the area of the buffer zone around such parks and sanctuaries.
The NGT passed the order supplementing the supreme court order saying that any construction activity falling in a 10 km radius of wildlife zone or sanctuary has to go through the standing committee of the national board for wild life (NBWL).
Noted environmental lawyer Ritvik Datta says that any real estate project having an area more than 20,000 sq m have to take environmental clearance from the state environmental impact assessment authority (SEIAA). In this case, he says, the state governments did not act on the supreme court order. In Noida, realtors developing projects close to the bird sanctuary got clearance from SEIAA but not from NBWL. Interestingly, the Noida authority sold or leased land plots to builders around the bird sanctuary, ignoring the 10 km radius restriction. The big blow to buyers came when the NGT, in view of a PIL filed before it regarding the violation of the radius restriction, asked all builders to stop construction in the area. “The builders instead of filing a review petition for the order proceeded with the construction,” he says. Datta reiterates that while deciding the buffer zone, the nature of wildlife has to be taken into consideration.
Paroothi says she was assured that their project was beyond 10 km from the sanctuary and hence will not be affected by the NGT order. Contrary to the assurances, she noticed that the builder had taken refuge behind the order, slowing down the construction and even refusing to pay penalty for late possession for the period after the order came.
“It will only take two months to put finishing touches to the project. Electricity and water pipeline connection and sewage treatment plant remain to be completed,” she says. “I am paying '18,000 on rent for this flat. In addition I have to pay an EMI of '24,000 every month. The Noida authority could have prevented the entire debacle,” adds Paroothi who is between jobs right now. The builder took advantage of the confusion to add an extra floor to her tower without taking consent of the residents, she alleges.
With the NGT banning all construction activities inside the 10 km radius of the sanctuary, over 70,000 buyers got anxious about the fate of their investments. In September 2014, the buyers organised under the banner of the NCR Home Buyers’ Group. “The group included not only buyers affected by the NGT order but also buyers of other projects in Noida who have been facing harassment from the builders,” says an office-bearer of the association.
The group stepped up its pressure on the government, asking them to find a solution to their problem without affecting their investments. Initially they got a lukewarm response. But as their rallies and protests continued, it caught the attention of the political parties. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi rallied behind the buyers and assured them of his support for their cause. The NDA government also reached out to the buyers.
“Way back in May, environment minister Prakash Javadekar had met us and said that he had signed the notification delineating the buffer zone around the sanctuary, reducing it to 100 metres on three sides,” says a member of the group who wish to remain anonymous. However, the notification did not materialise in three days, and the buyers waited anxiously for three months, wondering what might have caused the delay.
The notification issued by the ministry indeed brought relief for many buyers but it is not enough. “Builders were hiding behind the NGT order to delay handing over the flats,” says Paroothi.
Immediately after the ministry notification was issued, Rama Raman, CEO of the Noida authority, declared that occupation certificates will be issued promptly given that all the pending dues to the authority had been cleared by the builders. “Despite Raman’s assurance that the occupation certificates will be handed over in a week’s time, our builder is now telling us that it will take them three months more to hand over the flats,” says Paroothi.
In October 2009 Ashok Koul, 58, booked an apartment in Gardenia Glory in Noida Sector 46, which is some 1.5 km away from the sanctuary. The proposed delivery was in March 2012. The issuance of the notification reducing the radius of the buffer zone around the sanctuary is the solution for a part of the problem. The buyers of Gardenia Glory got wind of the fact that the builder owes huge amounts to the Noida authority.
“By filing an RTI query we have found that the realtor is yet to clear dues to the tune of '180 crore for the land given to them by the authority for the construction of the project. The buyers will not get possession until the builder clears the dues. Also we are dreading that the authority might cancel the lease of the land. If that happens, we will be in real soup,” he says.
In March 2014, 123 buyers from Gardenia Glory went to the national consumer disputes redressal commission complaining delay in handing over possession, diversion of funds and poor quality of construction. Koul says that the progress of the case has been slow. He was earlier staying at his own flat in Mayur Vihar, which he had to sell to be able to pay the EMIs for Gardenia Glory. Currently, he is putting up in a rented accommodation.
Builders’ malpractices do not end here, he says. “The builder is offering possession to some buyers within 20 days (termed as fit-out possession) on the condition that they pay the remaining amount of the flat. But the flats will not be registered till the authority gives its clearance,” says Koul who has not received any such offer for spearheading the agitation against the builder. Besides, he says, the infrastructure in the project is not yet complete. “Even if they give possession, people will not be able to live there,” he adds.
It will be a long struggle for the buyers of real estate projects around the sanctuary as they have to battle a multi-pronged problem. Gaurav Bansal, the lawyer who had filed the original PIL in the NGT, says that he is not going to give up as yet. He is in the process of filing objections to the notification.
(The story appears in the September 1-15, 2015 issue)
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