Sharad Mathur

The Making of the Original Demolition Man: GR Khairnar

Sharad Mathur

GR Khairnar_Web_Cover

Govind R Khairnar remains the most popular officer of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) even after over a decade of his retirement. Some give him credit for the electoral loss of Sharad Pawar led Congress government in 1995, some disapprove of the demolition drives he carried, and most see him as a valiant fighter who had taken on some of the most powerful and dangerous men in the line of his duty. A lean man with simple bearings, Khairnar talked to me about people and events that influenced him and the struggles he faced while doing his duty. In this conversation, I could identify four leadership skills that helped him learn and excel amidst adversity – adaptive capacity (a mix of contextual understanding and sheer doggedness), a distinct and compelling voice, engaging others in shared meaning, and integrity.
Crucibles of Leadership
In 1942, GR Khairnar was born in a small village called Peepal Gao in Nashik district. He
came from a traditional peasant family and was brought up in an environment that laid a lot of emphasis on personal integrity – something that would become the mainstay of his leadership persona in the future. However, at the same time, the same environment would also enforce the idea of fatalism. Khairnar was a hard working student but he was told that God’s grace is the reason for his good grades. Convinced with this, he gradually started ignoring his studies and felt that his grades were covered since he used to light a lamp everyday in the village temple of Khandoba, a local deity. Soon, something was to happen that would take him out of the trap of fatalism.
It so happened that while lighting the lamp, some oil spilled on his shirt and despite his best efforts he could not remove the stain. With the stain on his shirt he faced disciplinary action (read: beating) in the school. Despite his regular pleas to the Gods, there was no intervention. Soon, with falling grades he was about to flunk school. That is when his principal talked to him and explained that his success depended on his own actions more than anything else, and gave him another year to pull his act together. Knowing how hard his father and brothers were working so that he could study, he decided to take the situation under control. “This episode gave me a scientific temper,” remembers Khairnar. He could change the system because he would question the status quo and not accept it. Throughout his career, people, including his adversaries, were forced to take notice of his distinct and compelling voice.

Adaptive Capability

Khairnar was sent on deputation to Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) as a ward officer from his state government job even though many warned him against accepting this position. He was told that BMC was a dirty place and likes of him would not last for long there. But Khairnar had a truckload of confidence and to back it up, he possessed an adaptive capacity.
In the early days at the BMC he tried to learn about how things are done there. He would frequently meet his colleagues, seniors, the engineers and the corporators to explore their approaches and priorities. He would go down to the sites where municipal construction work was going on and examine the quality of material used and honesty of efforts being put. Soon, he realised that BMC was a den of corruption and incompetence, as advertised. Khairnar leans in and tells me, “I soon realised the extent of the rot when my deputy commissioner, my boss, called me and asked me to stop the action I was taking against some roadside vendors who had encroached good part of a busy road in Fort. After a few days, BG Deshmukh, the municipal commissioner who had asked me to clear the road saw the vendors still there and was very upset with me. Deputy Commissioner did not say a word and the municipal commissioner ordered me to clear the road, again.” By then Khairnar had grasped the context absolutely well and had a clear understanding of the motivations of the players involved. He decided to go about the demolition again and when the deputy commissioner asked him to stop the drive again (he later came to know that it was done in cahoots with a local corporator), he did not budge. He asked the deputy commissioner to get a written order from municipal commissioner Deshmukh himself, who he knew was out of the country.  Khairnar had outmanuvered the deputy commissioner!
While this earned him a strong benefactor in BG Deshmukh, it also earned him a foe in the deputy commissioner. Soon, he was shunted to a new ward which contained the slums of Kurla and was virtually a war zone. Cases of encroachments and illegal constructions were growing with impunity. Khairnar began his stint there by studying the context which allowed illegal structures to be erected overnight and protected them from demolition. From the inquiries he made, he figured that there existed an organised land mafia who would build illegal chawls and shanties on encroached public spaces and sell individual units to poor people. The mechanics of it were pretty interesting. Before they started, they would pay up the local corporator and municipal corporation’s employees – from junior engineers to the deputy commissioner of the ward – for their ‘cooperation’. So, the deputy engineer would not take any action till the encroachment was done and construction commenced. He would then, in cahoots with the deputy commissioner, issue a ‘stop the work’ notice. After which, the encroacher would approach the court and through paid witnesses establish that a chawl of say 50 rooms stand at the location. Partly for the incompetence of BMC’s lawyers and partly because of judges’ reluctance to displace 50 families, the court would restrain BMC against demolishing this structure which in reality does not even exist. And soon, the construction is completed and encroacher would make this money.

Khairnar doggedly went after this nexus. He first set his own house in order. He did realise not all the BMC workers and engineers who engaged in corrupt practices were inherently corrupt individuals. Since everyone in the system from top to bottom was doing it, most had no other option but to engage in corrupt practices. “I met my engineers and told them that I was ready to overlook all their corrupt deeds of the past if they reform. I protected those who reformed and took strict action against those who did not,” Khairnar recalls with a smile. And he did protect his officers and did not tolerate any abuse of his men at the hands of local corporators and goons. He would lead from the front and would accompany his men with a big cane in his hand. His equation with the municipal commissioner, or the perception of it shielded his men from the reprisal from senior BMC officers and local politicians. “Shiv Sena old guard and former mayor Waman Rao Mahadik had complained against me in the past to BG Deshmukh only to be rebuked. So, when I was transferred to the Kurla ward, he had told local corporators that I was not to be troubled as he thought I was BG Deshmukh’s man.”
Once he cleansed his team, he focused on creating a strategy for his anti-encroachment drive. He got his team to stop issuing any notices to the encroachers, which prevented the encroachers from going to the courts. Khairnar excitedly gives the rationale for doing so, “Since, the chawl did not exist we did not have to give a notice. It was more prudent to demolish the scaffolding then to ask the encroacher to stop the construction in a notice.” With the support of Municipal Commisioner BG Deshmukh, he arranged for police protection and went about demolishing the new encroachments. Soon the frequency of new encroachments in the ward drastically went down.

A Distinct and Compelling Voice

In 1984, Chandrakant Patil, the stepson of then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, operated Step-In hotel from the ground floor of a multi-storey building in the Mahim ward. When you’re a chief minister’s son, not many government officers would object if you encroach. So, he expanded his hotel by encroaching on the surrounding land. But Khairnar was no ordinary officer. On receiving complaints, he inspected the location and ordered action against the hotel. Khairnar amusingly recalls what happened next, “An enraged Chandrakant met me with the builder and threatened me citing the chief minister’s connection. But I did not budge.”
This set panic in chief minister’s camp and the urban development minister promptly wrote a letter to the municipal commissioner instructing him to regularise the hotel’s encroachment. A copy was also sent to Khairnar. However Khairnar filed the letter with his comment that read ‘no action needed on this letter’. “Ministers’ requests are not binding on the municipality,” chuckles Khairnar. On May 2, he sent a notice to Chandrakant Patil asking him to remove his encroachment or it shall be demolished on May 4. Chandrakant Patil again tried to persuade him but to no avail. “I told him to remove his encroachment to prevent this public spectacle. I asked him to think of his father’s reputation. But he did not agree,” he says.
However, getting the police protection while he demolished a hotel owned by the chief minister’s family was tricky. Even the policemen were scared for their jobs. That is when he met the police commissioner Julio Ribeiro through YC Pawar, a senior police officer he had come to know. “I asked Rebeiro whether the police would do its duty to help me do my duty,” recalls Khairnar. An honest police officer himself, Ribeiro told him that it was police’s job is to protect the demolition party and it does not concern them which building was being demolished. “Rebeiro ordered his men not to enquire about the details of the demolition drive including where the demolition drive will take place,” reminisces Khairnar with a twinkle in his eye. Throughout his career, it was his distinct and compelling voice rooted in courage of conviction, which rallied influential individuals like BG Deshmukh, Julio Ribeiro, YC Pawar, SS Tinaikar etc. around him.
On May 9, under complete police protection, he went to demolish the encroachment of hotel Step-In. The hotel staff tried to buy time so that they could use their political and bureaucratic connections to stop the demolition. However, Khairnar did not allow that. Soon, calls from senior officers and cabinet secretaries started pouring in but Khairnar remained inaccessible. “They even got to the well-meaning municipal commissioner, Mr Kanga, to pass on the message to me to contact him. However, I pushed my team to complete the demolition in 20 minutes without a bother. I contacted the municipal commissioner only after the demolition was completed to give him my report,” Khairnar remembers with a chuckle.
Crucibles of Leadership
After his high school, Khairnar went to Nashik’s regional commerce college and stayed in the Maratha hostel to save on the cost of living. In the hostel each room was shared by four to five students. To reduce the food cost, students would pool in resources and buy the month’s grocery together. The responsibility to buy the groceries was borne by one of the students every month in rotation. The month it was Khairnar’s turn, he realised that the regular grocer was overcharging them and felt that going to a new grocer would save them significant amount of money. He talked to his fellow students and showed them the need to change their grocer. Since it was in their interest, they supported him, though not explicitly. However, the administrator of the hostel did not like it one bit. He tried to pressurise Khairnar to buy groceries from their regular grocer but Khairnar did not budge. Apparently, the administrator would receive supplies from the regular grocer as bribe and was very upset with this change. He levied a fine of Rs.5 on Khairnar but the latter refused to pay it. Seeing this, the vengeful administrator expelled Khairnar and barred him from the canteen till he agreed to pay the fine. The upright Khairnar did not budge. In a desperate attempt to break his spirit, he asked two well built boys from the hostel to physically throw out Khairnar from the canteen. With a sheer survival spirit, he took a burning wooden log from the chulha (Indian cooking fireplace) and chased the boys away. The hostel administrator did not try to prosecute Khairnar thereafter. This aversion to servile compliance, ability to grasp context, and sheer doggedness made Khairnar ‘the demolition man’ we all came to know.

Engage Others in Shared Meaning

In January 1988, Khairnar was appointed deputy commissioner of BMC by the then municipal commissioner SS Tinaikar. It was a well deserved promotion after Khairnar had transformed SV Road into a 90-feet-road from a 30-feet-road thanks to encroachment by shops and street vendors. While he received a lot of public support, including the encroaching shopkeepers, in this case, it was least expected in the next project he was assigned.
SV Road_Mumbai_Web

SV Road_Mumbai

A slum with around 1800 hutments had sprung up very close to Powai’s Vihar Lake, the source of water supply for the city of Mumbai. Residents of the slum would use the lake like it was a village pond. They would wash their clothes in it, bathed themselves and their cattle, and render the water unsafe for drinking. BMC had to act fast before an epidemic started. But doing that was tricky as moving 1800 families to a piece of land available nearby for rehabilitation was not an easy task. Moreover, according to official estimates, it could accommodate only 1100 of the 1800 families that resided in the slum. Since most of the other officers could not succeed, Tinaikar asked Khairnar to take it up.
“I went to the slum, saw the living conditions of the people, and talked to their representatives. I realised that these were very poor people without much political patronage,” informs Khairnar. When he explained to the residents of the slum about the health risk polluting of Vihar Lake posed to Mumbai, they understood. He also told them about the facilities like regularised electricity connection and hand pumps for water supply they would get in the new place. However, it was impossible for 1800 families to voluntarily vacate the land in a short duration mainly because of inertia. So, he decided to provide a stimulus and landed at the slum with a demolition party. “Within the next three days all  1800 families went to the ground designated for their rehabilitation. They removed their belongings voluntarily and even helped us in the demolition. Once they moved, I helped them avail electric supply and got the hand pumps dug,” he says.  As for the official estimate that the plot could only accommodate 1100 families, well it was wrong. All 1800 families rehabilitated voluntarily and they continued to invite Khairnar in their midst for festivals and celebrations.
Contrary to his image, he often engaged others in a shared meaning. He could not have achieved the kind of success he did without it. During the Mumbai riots, one of his Muslim team members told him about his son’s secondary exams and his inability to take him to the examination center in Dadar, a Hindu dominated locality. Khairnar took the boy to his house and drove him to the examination center himself, everyday. It was such concern for his people and their admiration for him, which allowed him to function despite an army of adversaries he had earned during his career.


The BMC was the place which was considered a portal to riches, should you not mind getting drenched in corruption. The law and regulations would not work on the rich and they did almost always bribe their way through. “When I would go to inspect the mills, I would find dozens of suits and saris left in my car as gifts. And they would be shocked to see me angrily return them,” says Khairnar smiling. His integrity wasn’t only greed-proof but even fear could not compromise it. He was attacked a number of times in his career and had suffered bruises, broken bones, and even a bullet through the leg. He refused favours from underworld dons like Varadrajan, Amar Naik, and Dawood Ibrahim, often publicly. “If an encroachment was abetted by a goon, I felt really good demolishing it,” says Khairnar with laughter. He took on Dawood Ibrahim’s illegal constructions and soon enough he found himself pitted against political heavyweight Sharad Pawar. He still continued with his approach of single minded focus on dispatching his duty with integrity. He was suspended, suffered ignominy, and yet never compromised on his integrity.
BMC Headquarters, Mumbai

BMC Headquarters, Mumbai

In the context where a good government officer was the one who would only ask for a reasonable bribe and not an exorbitant one, Khairnar was an antithesis. “When I was a deputy commissioner, my sister still worked as a domestic help. I never tried to use my influence to help any of my family members. I believed that if I help reform the system for everyone, my near and dear ones will benefit too,” says Khairnar with a sense of satisfaction.

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