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Maharashtra government needs to look beyond monetising public land, say experts

The government should not monetise land to maximise profits.

mumbai Updated: Mar 26, 2018 10:42 IST
Maharashtra government,BDD chawls,Redevelopment in Mumbai
There is no suggestion in the government’s Development Plan that any of the land which is devoted to a public purpose should be monetised. (HT FILE)

There is a significant difference between private ownership and public ownership of land. By public ownership, we mean ownership by the government or government-controlled agencies whose ultimate constituency is not the individual or even multiple shareholders but the public at large. Public land belongs to everyone. The government or its agencies are trustees in that ownership, bound to act in the best interests of the public. A private owner can dispose of his land to maximise his profits. The government as owner cannot do that. It is a guardian of people’s rights even more than it is an owner of the land.

For example, take Shivaji Park. If the government were to decide to monetise it, the area would have an unbelievable monetary value. But the government dare not do that because citizens would consider this an unacceptable seizing of their rights over the facilities they enjoy from use of that land.

There are other examples where the pursuit of monetisation would damage people’s interests, but the damage is less obvious, and so monetisation goes through without strenuous objections, or even any objections at all.

Another example is the reconstruction of BDD chawls at Naigaon and NM Joshi Marg, with a similar plan for such tenements at Worli. Here all residents live in ground-plus-three-storey buildings that provide each resident with a 160 sq ft room opening to a wide central corridor. Each room also has a window opening to the outside. Toilets are common and are at the end of each corridor. When these chawls were first built in the 1920s, they were for textile mill workers. The 160 sqft rooms with one for each worker and common toilets were probably acceptable accommodation at that time. But over time, families have moved into each room and common toilets are seriously inadequate.

Read more: Mumbai: BDD chawl revamp moves ahead, 13 firms shortlisted to chart plan

Outside, individual buildings are well laid out. There is enough space between buildings for good light and some ventilation inside each room and enough play space for children outside.

The government has awarded contracts for redevelopment of BDD chawls in Naigaon and NM Joshi Marg, and tenders are in process for Worli. The proposal is that each occupant will be allotted a 500 sqft flat (hall, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms). It seems puzzling that the rehab flats are larger than 265 sqft, the area promised to everyone else undergoing rehabilitation. But then one realises that the for-sale area permitted for redevelopment is proportional to the rehab area. So it makes sense to increase the rehab area, if the for-sale area goes up proportionately. After all, the construction cost of both areas is a small fraction of the sale price of the for-sale area.

At Naigaon, the proposed rehab buildings will have three basements (for car parking) and ground-plus-19 storeys, or 23 floors. The for-sale buildings will have three basements, ground-plus-six podium floors and 60 floors. The layout is so congested that many of the lower level rehab flats will never see sunlight, and it will be so dark outside that the flats will need internal lighting throughout the day. There will also be no easy ventilation for these flats. It will be like living in stagnant air at the bottom of a deep well. We can definitely expect that living in such flats will be unhealthy with no playgrounds or access to outdoor recreation.

It is said that the government expects to make a profit of more than Rs10,000 crore from the Naigaon and NM Joshi Marg redevelopments. If the government were to forgo this monetization, the layout could be altered so that each flat, even at the lowest level, is well lit and ventilated. It would be possible to place all buildings around the perimeter of the property and provide a large maidan inside the building. Construction costs about Rs2,000 per sq ft. The sale price in that locality is more than Rs20,000 per sq ft. By adding two more floors to ground-plus-18-storey rehab buildings, we could have a financially self-sufficient development requiring no subsidy. Without changing the total built-up area, the for-sale flats could be in separate buildings, if this is thought to be better from the marketing point of view. But while the government can’t extract any profit, the scheme would provide all rehab occupants with 500 sqft flats with good light, ventilation and a large central maidan. Of course, there would be no basements, which are very expensive and time-consuming to construct. They are also expensive to maintain, with a high recurring cost for ventilation. No basement means there would be no underground car parking. Instead, the entire footprint of all buildings may be covered with three common podium floors. If built, these podiums should have more than car parking height: it should be possible to put them to alternative use, to have shops, or restaurants, or indoor recreation facilities, or the same space could be partially or wholly used for two-car stacked parking, whatever the residents’ managing society decides.

It is not as if the government is not aware of its responsibilities for providing adequately for roads, parks, schools and other public amenities. The Development Plan has provisions for all these. There is no suggestion that any of this land which is devoted to a public purpose should be monetised. Why then should land that is currently devoted to low-income housing be singled out and turned into a profit-making enterprise?

The key issue is therefore this: rehabilitating people in proper houses is an admirable objective. But to achieve this, should the government, through its ownership of land, earn money at the expense of the well-being and health of its citizens?

(DM Sukthankar is a former IAS officer and retired as chief secretary of Maharashtra

Shirish B Patel is a civil engineer and urban planner, one of the three original authors of the idea of Navi Mumbai (xirixp@gmail.com))

First Published: Mar 26, 2018 10:40 IST