India to raze building for environmental violation

An upscale apartment building that has caused an Indian political scandal was ordered Sunday to be razed because it violates coastal protection laws.

The 31-story building in downtown Mumbai was intended for war veterans and widows but the apartments were bought at cut-rate prices by top politicians and military brass. Maharashtra state's chief minister resigned late last year because of the scandal.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on Sunday said the building must be demolished within three months for violating coastal zoning laws. The building was planned as six stories originally, but its finished height violates bans on tall structures near the coast.

Adarsh Housing Society's attorney Satish Maneshinde said Sunday that he would soon file an appeal challenging the demolition order.

The action appeared to be the first time a building that violated an environmental law was ordered demolished. Most violators of building guidelines are fined.

The environment ministry's order said the building "violated the spirit of coastal regulations," and Ramesh said it was immaterial whether the owners were aware they needed to seek clearance under the coastal zoning rules.

"Ignorance of the law can never be an excuse for noncompliance," Ramesh said.

Maharashtra state chief minister Ashok Chavan resigned after revelations that his mother-in-law and other relatives had apartments in the building. He was the revenue minister when the building was approved and was in a position to procure the land and influence the building's development.

The land had been earmarked for a modest building of apartments for disabled veterans, war widows and heroes of the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan that raged for three months across the disputed Kashmir region.

Indian media have identified only three of the 103 apartments having gone to such residents. The others are owned by former military leaders, relatives of federal ministers and scores of top politicians and bureaucrats in Maharashtra.

The apartments were finished in 2008 and bought for as little as 6 million rupees ($130,000). They are now worth about 80 million rupees ($1.8 million) in Mumbai's highly inflated real estate market, according to media reports.

Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi appointed India's defense minister and finance minister to investigate the changes in how the building was built and the apartments allocated.