By JOHN STACKHOUSE
K.J. Alphons is not your average Indian bureaucrat. He packs a pistol in his suit belt, derides his superiors in public and takes on some of the country’s most influential people.
“Nobody interferes with my work. Absolutely nobody,” says the tough talking Delhi lands commissioner.
Mr. Alphons, 41, is known as Delhi’s “demolition man,” the bearded, balding bureaucrat charged with getting illegal structures off city property.
In Delhi, that means taking on everyone who is anyone. “Land the fountainhead of corruption,” says Mr. Alphons, who in his free time writes essays about existentialism and pens proposals to the prime minister on ways to free India from the bonds of illiteracy.
Short in stature but not ego or imagination, Mr. Alphons has in two years become one of India’s most revered and reviled figures, which is no small feat.
Transferred in 1992 to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) form his native Kerala sate in southern India, where he had taken on local elites and won. Mr. Alphons was charged with saving the capital’s public lands form encroachment.
With a fleet of bulldozers and 1,000 staff he initially thought he could apply the big stick of government to the problem.
Then he realized government was the problem. From decrepit slums to glittering glass office buildings, almost all of Delhi’s illegal structures are owned or managed by politicians, police officers and senior bureaucrats.
Too bad, Mr. Alphons says. With his Czech-made automatic in this belt and his Great Dane at his side, he has become a one-man political wrecking crew.
Two years later, Mr. Alphons and his staff have laid to rest nearly 9,000 illegal structures and some capital sized egos with them. “I’ve knocked down houses of all the rich and famous,” he says, quite earnestly.
In 1993, Mr.Alphons’s crew demolished a 212,000 square foot commercial complex owned by the Delhi chief of the ruling Congress (I) party. Then, he ignored an appeal by the prime minister and tore down another big commercial centre. Whether it involves homes owned by members of parliament, film stars or industrial magnates -- if they sit on public property, they’re gone.
In total, Mr, Alphons figures he has reclaimed 500 hectares of land for the DDA, which is responsible for 30,000 hectares of the Delhi land.
People accuse me of being ruthless, even throwing out slum dwellers. Mr. Alphons says in his spacious office that has a steady flow of clerks and citizens appealing for help, “My only job is to protect government land.”
Mr. Alphons interrupts the conversation to take a call from the speaker of the Delhi assembly who wants a building protected. He offers a polite no and hangs up.
With his trim suits, gold rimmed glasses and designer watch, Mr. Alphons looks like he could be on the take as much as the next bureaucrat.
Death threats comes as regularly as new slums in the capital and once got so severe that Mr. Alphons pulled his children form school for three months. “If I have knocked down 9,000 buildings, I must have 9,000 enemies.”
To fight corruption, Mr. Alphons and a handful of other indignant senior bureaucrats have formed a public interest group. But they are taking on more than a phenomenon, they are tackling an insidious political culture that would rival Chicago, circa 1924.
In the capital region, where 2.2 million slum dwellers live, many MPs and MLAs promote illegal colonies in their constituencies as a way of hoarding “vote banks”. Then they offer the squatters money and services such as water pumps, and take credit for their betterment.
When they are not lording over slums and shantytowns, much of Delhi’s political and bureaucratic elite is encouraging developers to build commercial and residential properties on vacant government land. And with big new houses in Delhi selling for up to $ 1 million, the building rush has become a frenzy.
To avoid the DDA demolition crews, developers falsify land records and apply to the courts for the stay orders against the demolition, knowing the average waiting time for a hearing is about 10 years. By then, they will have sold the buildings to tenants who legally can claim squatters’ rights.
Mr. Alphons strives to fight the big cases, but he admits he cannot keep up with the thousands of smaller illegal buildings popping up all over the capital.
At last count DDA was facing 25,000 stay orders. “Imagine,” Mr. Alphons moans “How do you fight 25,000 court cases.”