The challenge of rebuilding this crumbling city

The Kesarbai building collapse has highlighted the long-pending problem of redevelopment of old, dilapidated buildings, especially in the island city.
The building collapse in Dongri killed 13 people.(HT FILE)
The building collapse in Dongri killed 13 people.(HT FILE)
Published on Jul 23, 2019 01:12 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai

Yet another building collapse was reported in Mumbai last week. Part of Kesarbai building in Dongri in south Mumbai came crashing down, killing 13 people. Every year, the city witnesses one or two building collapse incidents in the monsoon months, and sadly they are forgotten after a few days.

As happens with every major mishap, the state and city authorities swung into action; ordered a probe; and suspended lower-level officials. The government also said it is planning some measures to sort out the problems in redevelopment of dilapidated buildings. Will any of this work and prevent such mishaps, and more importantly, arrest loss of innocent lives? There is no answer to this; one only hopes this is the last such incident in Mumbai.

As with the previous incidents, the Kesarbai building collapse too, has highlighted the long-pending problem of redevelopment of old, dilapidated buildings, especially in the island city. There are 21,000 such buildings in Mumbai city and the suburbs. Majority of them are in the island city and built decades and in some cases, over a century ago.

As per the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority’s (Mhada) data, there are 14,375 cessed buildings, of which 1,277 needed to be rebuilt soon. Over 500 buildings are in a dangerous condition. The tenants pay cess to Mhada since the landlords are unable to repair the buildings due to low rents protected under the rent control law. Reconstruction of these buildings seems to be the only solution, but it has a number of obstacles. There is no unanimity between landlords and tenants, or among the tenants themselves, over which builder should take up the redevelopment. Often, tenants are not willing to leave their houses and go to the transit or rented accommodation for fear that the builder will prevent them from returning. In several cases, the landlords want a bigger slice of the pie in the redevelopment of their properties. On the other hand, tenants want a better deal from the developers. The list is endless.

The problem is complex and there are no simplistic solutions available. In fact, it is in line with Mumbai’s crumbling infrastructure which is in dire need of rebuilding for almost two decades now. In addition to these privately-owned dilapidated buildings, there are other old colonies where people are living in crumbling structures. There are 207 BDD chawls built by the erstwhile Bombay Development Department during the British rule. These chawls in south-central and central Mumbai have about 15,000 tenements in total.

Then there are 104 Mhada colonies where several of the buildings are in bad shape and need reconstruction. A significant chunk of Mumbai’s working class, as well as lower-middle class, lives in these old buildings and colonies.

Tackling the obstacles and rebuilding them is a Herculean task. This should be seen as an initiative to rebuild old Mumbai and not simply a real estate development project in which everybody, from builders to politicians and bureaucrats, sees an opportunity for themselves.

Following the Dongri incident, the Maharashtra government has announced that the rules on redevelopment of old buildings will be simplified to enable faster development on a cluster basis. It would make more sense for the government to devise an effective plan and put together a mechanism to ensure that the lakhs of people living in these dilapidated buildings get better houses at the same locations. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has worked out a plan to rebuild the city’s transport infrastructure with stress on public transport such as the Metro system. Maybe, it is time to adopt a similar approach for dilapidated buildings and colonies, instead of letting people with vested interests turn them into a money-making venture. One cannot ignore the fact that private developers won’t take up the projects unless they can make profits, but would it be difficult to ensure a win-win situation for all stakeholders involved?


    Shailesh Gaikwad is senior associate editor, Hindustan Times. He heads the political bureau in HT’s Mumbai edition. In his career of over 18 years, he has covered Maharashtra politics, state government and urban governance issues.

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