The Mumbai Fire Brigade lost two brave personnel in the fire mishap at an old building in Kalbadevi, which later collapsed. Two senior personnel are still battling for life after they sustained burn injuries in the incident.
Saturday’s unfortunate incident was shocking, but hardly surprising for the city. It could have happened to any of the 15,000 old and dilapidated buildings in the island city located in congested areas in which the authorities have no control over the commercial activities being carried out in them or internal changes being made to them. Periodically, if an old building gets destroyed because of a fire, heavy rains or some human error, everybody reacts.
New promises are made, plans are prepared, but they get stuck somewhere and everything is forgotten. The problem of old and dilapidated buildings in the city is being discussed for more than two decades, but little has changed.
Residents continue to live in dangerous structures, even at the risk of losing their lives. There are a number of reports on the issue submitted by different government-appointed committees, but these are gathering dust in some cupboards in Mantralaya.
Experts suggest an ideal solution could be redevelopment of congested areas in the island city using the cluster approach — turning each area into a wellplanned cluster with residential and commercial structures, proper civic amenities and adequate open spaces.
The idea of cluster-based redevelopment of old Mumbai’s congested areas is being discussed for almost two decades now, but it is not leading anywhere. Not a single cluster project in the old city areas is moving on the right track, thanks to several reasons.
To begin with, the state government keeps changing its policies. Its first policy on cluster redevelopment was declared in 2008-09. This policy was amended by the Prithviraj Chavan-led government in 2014 and is currently being revised, as the state readies its housing policy. Besides, landlords are not keen to give their nod for cluster redevelopment, as it does not fetch them satisfactory returns on their properties. Most of the old buildings are occupied by tenants under the old pagri system in which the landlord remains the owner, but possession of the property lies with tenants. These properties are covered under the Rent Control Act and its rents are low. Since they were not getting higher rents, landlords didn’t bother to maintain these buildings or allow tenants to redevelop them. The landlord-tenants tussle was a major reason why most structures remained in bad shape.
The government handed over old structures to the repair board and collected cess for their maintenance, but there wasn’t much improvement owing to corruption and redtape. On the other hand, in several cases, tenants get greedy or are divided into groups, who don’t arrive at a consensus over which developers should they favour. To tackle this problem, the Fadnavis government is drafting provisions under the new housing policy which will require 70% of all the tenants/ residents to give their nod for a cluster development project to take off even though individual buildings oppose it.
While it is a fact several cluster projects didn’t take off because residents didn’t cooperate, the latter can’t be entirely blamed for it. They don’t trust the builders or the government because they have seen how politicians and bureaucrats are hand in glove with builders. There are cases in Mumbai where tenants or residents vacate their houses and then have to wait for years to get their legitimate houses from builders.
Often, they are shortchanged and the authorities don’t pay heed to their complaints. Residents of several buildings in the island city complain they are being harassed by builders, who have bought the old buildings from landlords and are now forcing them to sell their tenements. The new owners are not even allowing them to sell the houses to others at market rates. If the government and administration are hobnobbing with builders, how can residents be blamed for not trusting them?
This is how the issue of redevelopment has turned into a mess. The government will have to show political will to ensure builders do not get a free run and at the same time, make the entire procedure transparent so that residents will participate in it.