Within a week, 16 people have lost their lives in two incidents of building collapse in Bhiwandi, once known as a textile town, about 40 kilometers north of Mumbai.
The local authorities have sought to shrug off their responsibility pointing out that the names of these buildings were among the structures that were found dangerous to live and the residents had been asked to vacate the same. Within a span of few days, it is the second instance of how our governance system works—whether it was the two buildings in Bhiwandi or the century old bridge on Savitri river on Mumbai-Goa highway that collapsed and over 40 people are feared dead. The bridge was found to be safe in the inspection of the public works department. Authorities, the selected ones (administration) or the elected ones (politicians), work in a typical bureaucratic way without going beyond the obvious.
And this is exactly where the problem lies when it comes to the plight of thousands of families living in old and dilapidated as well as illegally built buildings in Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). Most of these buildings are in bad shape—either because of the age of the structure or inferior quality material used to build them--and need to be demolished and rebuilt. There are hundreds of such buildings in neighbouring cities—Thane (including Kalwa-Mumbra), Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Dombivli, Ulhasnagar, Mira Road and Bhayander.
These areas have been housing industries that provided employment and those working there needed cheap housing. Also, thousands of people who couldn’t afford to buy or even rent houses in Mumbai, shifted there. In past three decades, several small builders or slumlords built those structures and sold or rented to these hapless people. As all these areas are now better connected and the population is increased, housing rates have gone up and these people are stuck in their houses.
They don’t have money to buy or rent houses in the same areas and don’t trust authorities and builders to give them tenements in rebuilt structures if they vacate the crumbling structures for redevelopment. This is why people are even risking their lives and continue to stay in the dilapidated building that may not withstand a few spells of heavy rains. Mumbai too has more than 14,000 dilapidated buildings built decades ago.
The government has one solution, redevelopment or recently cluster development where structures in a particular area are demolished to make way for planned development. Successive governments have tried different methods but redevelopment or cluster development has not really taken off.
Corruption and greed are seen as biggest obstacles.
Often, the plans are drawn but either the builders don’t want to participate if they can’t earn super profits that they are used to or there is no agreement between landlords and tenants or flat owners on a redevelopment model. In several cases, projects get stuck in fight between competing builders or two groups of residents. There are other reasons such as red-tapism or legal disputes between two groups. Because of the high real estate rates, redevelopment is seen by many as a golden opportunity to make money—that includes people in the local municipal and government authorities and politicians.
If the builders don’t want to get involved since they can’t make hefty profits, the government can try roping in its agencies like MHADA (Maharashtra Housing Area and Development Authority) or CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation Limited) who already have experience of building mass housing projects. The profit margin of the government agencies won’t be big enough to scuttle the project.
Last week, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis cleared a proposal for uniform development control rules for cities in the MMR excluding Mumbai. The move is expected to spur a more structured development of entire MMR region which the state government wants to develop on the lines of National Capital Region (NCR). The government needs to show political will to go beyond the typical ways to resolve the long-pending issue of redevelopment of dilapidated buildings. If it acts fast, it may save some lives.