Sharad Pawar is a good man. Good when he decides to unleash his power for change in a manner that addresses the larger public good. Mischievous critics will carp that his grand plans and visionary decisions seem to be in the larger public interest yet, in balance, they serve to further political or pecuniary interests of his closest associates. The policy of private hill stations in Maharashtra is often quoted as an example of this principle.
In his last stint as chief minister, 1993 to 1995, he often spoke of the potential development boom in Mumbai and other cities of the state from the liberalisation and globalisation policies unleashed in 1991, how Mumbai (then Bombay) would turn into a Singapore, much later the allusion was to Shanghai, and why housing and transport would determine the city’s growth trajectory.
Mumbai has not been Shanghaied, it has been transmuted into a long corridor of ad hoc development — one business here, a high-rise there, one monorail here, a metro there kind of ad hocism that could perhaps be formalised into something called the haphazard school of development.
In these 19-20 years, there has been a Shiv Sena-BJP government followed by 14 years of successive Congress-NCP governments in which Pawar has had enormous clout and command. He counts among his associates and friends some of the best-known builders and architects in the city, and outside it. The urban development department has been helmed by chief ministers, none of who would ignore his preferences.
Yet, the city’s housing and real estate sector now represents three parallel trajectories: an abysmal lack of affordable housing upto 35km from the city’s centre, a thriving illegal construction market with unauthorised buildings and slums to illegal modifications to structures, and a booming housing market that seems to accommodate the super-rich or the abject poor.
Pawar conducted some spring-cleaning in his party on the eve of its 14th anniversary last week; he secured resignations of 20 ministers of his party including Sachin Ahir, till then the state’s housing minister. Ahir, Pawar may recall, had recently remarked that even he could not afford to buy a larger house in Worli where he lives because the rates had spiked from Rs 4,000-5,000 per sqft to Rs 40,000-50,000 per sqft which he termed a “criminal waste”. Now no one has tested Ahir’s assertion of what he can or cannot afford but it’s the most incisive insight into the mess that’s now Mumbai’s housing.
The building collapse in Mahim on Monday that claimed 10 lives (so far) may seem as yet another crash that tails the fury of the monsoon. It will be turned into a statistic sooner than later. Altaf building was not even on the state housing board’s list of dilapidated or dangerous buildings but some unauthorised alterations had apparently been made. There are thousands of such buildings across city, mostly old ones. There are more than 56,000 illegal buildings — 16,314 of these detected in 2012 and 2013 — according to state’s affidavit in the Supreme Court.
All these are death traps just as the Mumbra and Mahim buildings proved to be. The costlier and less affordable housing became, the higher the illegalities. A number of officials up the hierarchy are responsible for the mess but surely those who helm the government and those like Pawar who had the foresight, power and men to determine policies have something to do with it as well?