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Clearing slums along slopes in Mumbai : An uphill task

The two landslides in the city in Surya Nagar in Vikhroli and New Bharat Nagar area of Mahul in Chembur, which killed over 30 people on Sunday, have once again raised questions on the responsibility and steps to ensure safety of those living in illegal structures in vulnerable locations
By Mehul R Thakkar and Faisal Malik
UPDATED ON JUL 21, 2021 12:07 AM IST

The two landslides in the city in Surya Nagar in Vikhroli and New Bharat Nagar area of Mahul in Chembur, which killed over 30 people on Sunday, have once again raised questions on the responsibility and steps to ensure safety of those living in illegal structures in vulnerable locations.

In the backdrop of collapse of illegal structures, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) prepared a draft suggestion note which stated that high cost of living in Mumbai and changing policies regarding increasing the protection date of slums in city are a few reasons why citizens opt to reside in dangerous conditions. The note stated the BMC, in consultation with the state, should formulate a policy on the lines of cluster development or affordable housing etc. for dishoused citizens residing in illegal houses.

Not a first

As per the 2011 census, 41% of the city’s total 12.8 million population lives in slums. According to the BMC’s data, until 2018, the city had around 250 landslide-prone spots, of which the maximum, 200, were in the eastern suburbs. Ninety-four incidents of landslides were reported in the city between 2011 and 2018, in which around nine people lost their lives and 26 have been injured.

Over the past two years, the damage caused by such incidents has increased. For example, a landslide which caused a retaining wall to collapse in Malad East on July 2, 2019, resulted in 32 deaths. In 2020, a landslide was reported on Western Express Highway. There were no injuries in the incident.

The common factor in most such incidents is the structures or houses are constructed illegally on government land owned by the collector or the forest department. In Sunday’s incidents too, the land was owned by the suburban collector, leading to a blame game between the BMC and collector’s office.

HT reported on Tuesday how the BMC maintained it had asked suburban collector Milind Borikar to take the measures last month. However, the collector’s office said that as per the state government’s directives, it is the BMC’s responsibility to clear encroachments, irrespective of title of the land.

Bharat Marathe, deputy municipal commissioner, said, “The question is to where to keep lakhs of citizens residing in such illegal structures after evicting them. In case of Chembur landslide, we have shifted the victims to empty project-affected people tenements.”

The BMC’s draft suggestion note stated: “Due to high cost of living in Mumbai and increasing migrants from outside, there is tendency of people compelled to stay in such unauthorized, unsafe areas for meeting their day today needs/ survival.” The BMC’s note also suggested that 3D mapping be done every six months.

Solutions?

State housing minister Jitendra Awhad said the low-cost housing scheme can be an alternative. Awhad said, “The state can support the civic body as the scheme will require huge funds because of the large number of families residing on hill slopes across the city. I will speak to the chief minister in this regard.”

Bhushan Gagrani, principal secretary, urban development department, said, “We can amend the rules as per the requirement and provide additional FSI (floor space index), so they can be relocated. While doing so, securing these (old) sites is also important to ensure they will not be encroached upon in the future.”

Officials from urban development said that the only permanent solution to the issue is resettlement of these families, but its implementation is not easy as it requires strong political will and investment. “Gradient lands are very dangerous because those are hills and activities such as tree cutting etc. make them even poorer. All such land should be de-populated completely,” said another official from the urban development department.

Mahesh Pathak, principal secretary, urban development, said there is no option but to take preventive measures at the landslide-prone sites. Civic activist Godfrey Pimenta said, “The slopes of hills in Mumbai are perfectly stable. No landslide will occur if they are not disturbed. However, these slopes have been illegally encroached upon by cutting them into vertical faces. More than 60 lakh people are staying in these slum colonies or kuchha structures. These areas are highly vulnerable during contingencies like floods, fire and commotion and we need adequate preventive measures.”

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