March 5, 2014 at 2:52am

Mumbai has thousands of old and dilapidated residential buildings stretching from the south to the northern suburbs. In the wake of the recent incidents of building collapses which took many lives, the safety of these constructions assumes utmost importance.

Mumbai’s chawls primarily constitute of these dilapidated structures. These chawls were built in a pre-Independence era, and house Mumbai’s original inhabitants. As a result of the Rent Control Act, tenants here pay rent at 1940 levels. Since this amount is negligible by today’s standards, landlords cite this as the major reason for their inability to repair and maintain these buildings. As a result of this tussle between landlords and tenants, and to ensure that buildings are repaired, the Maharashtra government established the Mumbai Repair and Reconstruction Board.

The tenants pay a repair cess to the Board which is collected by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), but the amount levied is inadequate and the Repair Board is left to carry out work with meagre funds. Another solution was to have the buildings reconstructed by Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) or a private developer, both of which could avail of extra FSI to re-house affected tenants and make the project commercially viable.

The common practice is that once the tenants of dilapidated buildings are shifted to transit accommodations, their building is demolished and reconstructed. Often things don’t happen as smoothly as planned. The BMC at times prevents a building from being reconstructed for reasons like road widening, narrowness of the plot size etc. This results in affected tenants living in transit camps for decades. While there is a demand that the BMC should liberalise these permissions in order to facilitate redevelopment, an opposing view is that this puts a strain on infrastructure, which deprives neighbouring chawls of water and other basic civic needs. This is clearly visible in Girgaum and Thakurdwar.

In view of this, we should welcome the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Shirish Patel and Cyrus Guzder. It has led to the formation of a committee of engineers whose job is to decide whether a building is dilapidated, before MHADA hands it over to a developer for reconstruction. Politicians opposing the PIL are either uninformed or likely to be builders themselves. After all, we must keep in mind that all dilapidated buildings are cessed but not all cessed buildings are dilapidated.

Without a doubt, the problem of old and dilapidated buildings in Mumbai is a complex one that involves tenants, landlords, the BMC, Maharashtra government and the judiciary. In my opinion, there are a few solutions to this problem. The Maharashtra government should file an application in the Supreme Court demanding that the case for ownership be expedited. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is aware of this and doing all the state government can to resolve the matter. This is the only long-term solution as it will make tenants owners of their apartments and buildings through housing societies, thereby leaving the onus for repairs and maintenance on the society and not on the landlord or the MHADA.

Another thing that could be done is to ensure better quality at transit camps and the creation of more camps on erstwhile mill lands that are coming into the market. This is important as people who are affected in south of Mahim don’t want to be shifted to a transit camp in the suburbs and vice-versa. Land in the heart of the city will therefore be useful if MHADA receives a larger share than it is currently estimated to get. It should also be ensured that private developers take up projects in areas like Khetwadi, Umerkhadi, Mazagaon and Parel, instead of only in Walkeshwar, Bandra and the like.

For any activity to be effective, proper coordination between the agencies involved is a must. Similarly, better coordination between the BMC and MHADA will allow both agencies to identify, evacuate and repair or reconstruct dilapidated structures in a timely manner. Although this is part of my view on major structural reforms needed in Mumbai city, in this case, a coordination committee could be established to undertake this responsibility.

We also need to ensure adequate funding for the Repair Boards. Both central and state governments should actively involve themselves to generate the needed fund flow. I have been raising the matter in parliament for the last one year and the newly created National Urban Renewal Mission is expected to help in this regard. Also, crores of rupees are owed to MHADA by BMC which should be released immediately.

Lastly, repair work should be carried out by MHADA in conjunction with established engineering companies that can better execute in terms of cost, quality and time.

Though none of these problems can be wished away overnight, it is by only by the concerted effort of all – agencies, builders and the public – that this vexed issue can be solved. We must take note that what is involved is not just structures, but human lives as well.


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