A boost for Mumbai’s real estate market

For more than five lakh residents, the Supreme Court's decision to remove the forest tag from huge tracts of land spread over Mumbai, has brought an end to their sleepless nights. The apex court has quashed all prior notices and orders regarding encroached forest land issues, in the last nine years, about the various areas bordering the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai.

The real estate developers, buyers and investors, of flats in Thane, Mulund, Bhandup, Nahur, Mahul, Borivli, Kandivli, Virar, Badlapur and Ambernath, have not only had their houses cleared from the forest tag; they are also to get back the money they had paid as fine to the state. Also, 133 acres of land of Godrej, which was locked in controversy, has finally become free. Nearly, 273 projects in Thane, Mulund and other parts of Mumbai, were stalled due to this controversy. These projects will now get a new lease of life.

Talking about the judgment, Adi Godrej, chairman, Godrej Group, says, "We are happy to note the favourable judgment of the Supreme Court, in the Mumbai forest land matter."

Shailesh Puranik of Puranik Builders, who is also the president of Thane MCHICREDAI, adds, "This will help all the stuck projects to move forward. People staying in these flats are now lawful occupants." Another player to benefit from the ruling, is Oberoi Realty whose share prices jumped up by 9 per cent, to Rs 217, in the opening trade, as now, the company would be able to work on its Mulund project, which has been stuck for nine years over this issue.

Sunil Mantri, president of the National Real Estate Development Council, shares how, "Over 100 housing projects were affected. Developers and flat purchasers were under tremendous pressure.

It's a big relief now that they have received the green signal from the apex court." Also, the group of residents who had filed the case with Prakash Padikkal, president of the Hillside Residents' Welfare Association (HIRWA), rejoiced at the news because now, more than 50,000 people in the area will get Occupational Certificates (OCs). "The developers were not getting the OCs and so, they were not handing over the legal possession of the flats to buyers. Buyers who invested money and paid high interest rates, will get their dream home after a long wait. Besides, people who have received their flats, will start applying for land conveyance deeds," adds Padikkal.

A three-judge bench of Justice RM Lodha, Justice MB Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph, allowed petitions by Godrej & Boyce, Oberoi Constructions and a host of other developers, as well as resident bodies, affected by the High Court ruling. The new verdict has opened up hundreds of acres of private forest land in suburban Mumbai and has also paved the way for developing more than 100 real estate projects, which brings relief to residents who faced the threat of losing their homes due to the Bombay High Court's verdict, which upheld the state government's contention that these residents were encroachers.

The judges stated that the question that arises, assuming the disputed plots of land are forests land, is that the state be allowed to demolish the massive constructions made thereon, over the last half century. The BMC's petitions of the stop-work notices to the developers, in which it had claimed that that the flats are constructed on the land of which 3,000 acres were under the Forest Conservation Act, have been kept aside. The apex court also cleared the order for developers and residents to go ahead with their stalled residential, industrial and commercial projects in the area, and ended the court by saying, "Basic principals of good governance must be followed by every member of the executive branch of the state at all times."

The High Court had dismissed arguments by the residents' association that since the city's development plan allowed the land to be used for residential and commercial construction or industrial use, it should not be treated as a forest any longer. "A private forest is a forest and upon its vesting in the state government by virtue of the Private Forest (Acquisition) Act, would remain as such. There is no question of a development plan superimposing itself on its status," it had said.

The SC said the state actively permitted construction on hundreds of acres for decades and it was thus, "Natural for a reasonable citizen to assume that whatever actions are being taken, are in accordance with law. However, they are now told that their investment is actually in unauthorised constructions which are liable to be demolished any time, even after several decades. There is no reason why these citizens should be the only victims of such a fate." Slamming the state for poor governance, it added, "These appeals raise larger issues of good administration and governance and the state has, regrettably, come out in poor light." It was stated in the judgment that a development plan for the City of Bombay (and Greater Bombay including Vikhroli), was published on January 7, 1967 and the next development plan was published in 1991. In both the development plans, the disputed land was designated as 'R' or 'Residential'.

Kishore Soman, director, Soman Group, says, "In Thane, Raigad and Mumbai suburban districts, some patches of land were brought under the Forest Act by making the necessary notifications in the revenue records. Some of these were developed plots with constructed buildings and occupied to a larger extent. Several suits were filed by the flat owners and several builders united to fight against such acquisitions by the state government without due notices. Almost a decade later, the Supreme Court has slammed such actions of the state and the verdict given by the High Court. Though the order speaks in depth as to restore all such pieces of land being held under the state government to the respective owners; only time would reveal the pace of the restoration process. It would signify a big chunk of land in suburban Mumbai, Thane and Ambernath areas. These land parcels would turn into good housing stock, making people buy flats in the city. Ambernath, Shiv Ganga Nagar, Vadavli and Sai Section, will have as much as 37,800 sq m of land freed up. It is a moment to rejoice for the home seekers," he opines.

Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Associations of India (CREDAI), chairman, Lalit Kumar Jain, adds in a statement that "We are happy to hear this judgment as it will finally pave the way for development of forest land which has been lying vacant for years and most importantly, regularise the homes of people living there. This verdict can also set a precedent for the development of huge plots of government land owned by the railways, Bombay Port Trust, etc., which are being misused and illegally encroached upon by slum dwellers, and should be freed for development," he adds. The markets have reacted positively to the judgment according to Amit Kulkarni, director of Varasiddhi Infrastructure.

"The existing residents will benefit the most, as they had innocently bought these houses in good faith. There are incidental benefits to the developers who had invested in this area and now, due to relief from the court, they can expect returns on their investments in due course of time. This verdict will open one large area for development which may add to the present unsold inventory of the real estate sector, due to the market conditions. However, looking at the location in terms of vicinity to the national park, mountains and overall connectivity to the urban centre, Mulund west can see good development in the near future."

Dharmesh Jain, managing director, Nirmal Lifestyle, adds that it will take some time for the judgment to take effect. "It's a welcome relief and will benefit home buyers and realtors whose projects were stuck. It will bring in fresh stock into the market. However, that will take at least a year, as developers of stalled projects will have to apply for fresh permissions."

His views are shared by Prakash Shah, director, finance and business development, Hiranandani Constructions, who comments that "More materials will be released into the market, particularly, Mulund and Vikhroli. In totality, it will have a negligible effect as land locked in forest was limited." The builders will have to apply afresh for occupancy certificates, construction certificates and submit new plans for their unfinished and stalled projects. "The government should now expedite the process of approvals and also implement a single-window clearance system," adds Jain.

Ashutosh Limaye, head - research and REIS, Jones Lang LaSalle India, points out that "Three categories of people who were affected included the residents, investors and people, who had invested money for their home. Now, those living in the flats, if they want to sell it, would be able to do so without any legal hindrance. As the title is clear, it will fetch them a good amount. Buyers will get good deals now, as a lot of inventory would be released into the market. The investors should wait for some time as they would get good returns." After the green signal, the developers would get many buildings for redevelopment. The residential supply will go up and will help in the growth of the city.