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All illegal shops at Minara Masjid Cleared: Shiroorkar

Thursday, February 22, 2018
Photograph by Azad Shrivastav

Since the past few days, the demolitions of the illegal stalls at Minara Masjid have rocked the General Body meetings of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The issue was raised by many political leaders who used this as a plank to create communal tension as they even protested outside the BMC B ward office and demanded suspension of Assistant Commissioner Udaykumar Shiroorkar. In an interview, with ADC reporter Steffy Thevar, Shiroorkar states that all his actions were legal and justified.

Question: What initiated your action against the illegal stalls along Minara Masjid?
On January 24, I got a call from the fire brigade that there was a fire in a G+10 building. The lanes were so congested that the fire brigade vehicles were damaged by brushing against the lane walls. Although there were no casualties, there was a future threat to about 150-200 lives that were part of this building.

The building was illegal as it was supposed to be a  G+4 building which was later built up to ten floors. The 77 Memonwada building had only one outlet, one lift and no emergency exit. In case such a tragedy took place in the future, there were only two options available, either jump outside the building or suffocate to death.

During this incident, when we asked the stalls outside Minara Masjid and Ismail Habib Masjid to produce proper documents, they blatantly refused and arrogantly answered that they did not have any documents. This was the beginning of this action.

Q: What violations did you see there?
The shops outside Minara Masjid and Ismail Habib Masjid had encroached the BMC roads by up to ten feet. There were concrete shops on the streets whereas usually outside temples or mosques, there are temporary stalls made of wood or bamboo. These shops did not sell any religious items but instead food and clothes, which clearly meant that the shops were used for commercial purposes purely. There were about 20-25 such shops that were violating these rules. Despite asking them to produce documents, they had no documents. Despite no documents, the 'dadagiri' of the shopkeepers was a real challenge to deal with.

Q: What about the assessment papers?
The Assessment process only charges for the legal coverage but it does not validate the shops as legal. The documents that the shopkeepers produced were only  rent receipts, of monthly Rs 3,500 from each shop, that were given to them by the Minara Masjid authorities. Later, I even got to know that the transactions between the shops and the trustees of Minara Masjid was in lakhs.

Q: Is this why the masjid was sent a notice?
After the shopkeepers who came to us, post the demolition action and produced  rent receipts, we issued a notice to the Minara Masjid authorities stating that it is illegal for them to collect rent from theses shopkeepers and deprive the BMC of its rightful charges. We sent a notice to the Masjid authorities asking them to clarify these documents under the MRTP Act. Till date, we have not received sufficient documents.

Q: There were also reports of damage to the Masjid minarets and that photographs of religious value were damaged?
These are false reports created by local politicians and all those whose interests are involved in this. For such special cases we have appointed a man especially for this case who comes with us for demolitions, who carries the religious photographs away from the demolition site and hands it over to the owner. I have proof of it as I recorded the entire process on my mobile phone.

Secondly, as soon as we started demolitions of the first stall, the other shop owners started vacating the other shops on their own. They took away their property before we could vacate it. During my action I made sure that there was no damage to the Masjid.

I know it is a religious structure and commands world wide respect from all across the world. In fact, the shops that were encroaching the roads were built on the wall of the Masjid and the wall was a heritage structure. The stalls had damaged the Masjid more than my actions could have ever damaged it.  

Q: These shops existed outside the Masjid for years, isn't it failure on the BMC's part that it could not control them earlier?
I would not say that it was failure on the part of the BMC. With a population of 49 thousand per square kilometer, this city is difficult to maintain. The civic body cannot provide 24x7 facilities due to shortage of manpower and other resources. The citizens too have to come forward to keep a check on such activities. After this demolition we have come across a new model, the Memonwada model.

Q: What is the Memonwada Model?
The Memonwada Model is all about citizen participation. This model came forward when the citizens themselves came forward to thank me for my efforts. They even wrote a letter to the commissioner praising my efforts and stating that now the roads have been cleared for pedestrian use after years.

The residents association also wrote a letter to the Masjid stating that here onwards they would not allow any illegal construction or stalls to come up on the road and that they have taken up the task of keeping the road clear of illegal construction. This model must be copied across the city as the civic body alone cannot make this city better. Even though sweepers clear the street early in the morning, by noon it is dirty yet again. It only means that people need to come forward and take up their civic responsibilities. This is the only way that illegal constructions will be kept at bay.

Q: B ward is often touted to be a difficult ward, how did you manage to do this?
There were many before me who always wanted to get out of this ward. It was difficult for me too. Due to a personal tragedy in my life, I was about to get into depression but this ward keeps me busy. There is action every day. Of course, this is an action-packed ward.

There have been threats made to me and also to my daughter who was living in Pune for her studies. I had to call her back. She was threatened on the phone. My younger son too needed protection and now my entire family has protection provided by the police. People have followed me till Borivali with weapons and tried to threaten me. I too have a licenced pistol with me.

Q: Does this make you the only officer to carry a licenced weapon?
Probably it does. My basic working style is that I do not discriminate between the rich, poor or any religion when it comes to illegal work. I take action against all of them. My actions have now left more number of happy people in this ward than the number of people who are sad or angry by my work, but my actions will continue.

Q: In addition to illegal structures what other problems were there in this ward?
The designated officer who was supposed to manage illegal structures had left his job and despite repeated attempts to reinstate him, he was not ready to come back. Most of my juniors from the building and factory department had even put in their resignation due to the constant stress and threats that came along while working in this ward. Although I did keep their resignation letters, I did not accept them, I asked them to work with me for a few more moths and decide for themselves. My juniors were not used to working here without fear and since I have come, since the past two years, things have changed for the better. My juniors and assistant engineers have supported me in doing my job.

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