The Pandemic Is A Reminder Of The Tinder Box Mumbai Is
In 1896, bubonic plague struck Bombay, then a growing trading centre, and spread to other parts in India, killing thousands in the next few years. While the pathogen came from outside, the British administration attributed the prolonged outbreak to unhygienic living conditions in congested parts of the city. Despite cries of class bias, it went on to rebuild old neighbourhoods and expand the limits northwards to create new suburbs.
About 125 years later, the metropolis, now called Mumbai, is battling another pestilence. Home to nearly 20 million people and ranked among the world’s most-crowded places, it has the highest number of confirmed infections of the new coronavirus in India. And about half of the city population, according to the rehabilitation authority, lives in unsafe, temporary shanties in nearly 2,400 clusters under unhygienic and deplorable conditions. These poor, low-income neighbourhoods are among the hotspots.
Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in the world with 8.5 lakh people living in less than 2.5 square kilometres, is seeing Covid-19 cases mount daily. So is the other big sprawl of shanties in suburban Govandi. Koliwada, or the fishing village, and BDD Chawls in central Mumbai’s Worli area, too, have high viral load.
All these areas have for decades awaiting redevelopment. Those plans either haven’t reached the execution stage or are deferred every election season to accommodate more voters or aren’t simply not viable. Covid-19 crisis threatens to cause further delays as the government runs out of resources when Asia’s third-largest economy is expected to go into a recession.
Housing developers were already struggling with liquidity crunch since the defaults from IL&FS group made it difficult for non-bank lenders, the biggest real estate financiers, to raise funds. Demand for residential real estate had just about started showing signs of pick-up when Covid-19 outbreak stalled the economy. Many would be staring at bankruptcy.
The government is unlikely to help. Piyush Goyal, a senior minister in Narendra Modi’s government, has publicly asked developers to slash prices and sell existing inventory.
That will make builders even more cautious to commit to rehabilitation projects aimed at easing congestion in the city, one of the most important things that the city requires.
Mumbai has multiple schemes to rebuild old and crowded neighbourhoods. This includes slum redevelopment to provide free homes, rebuilding old, rundown structures by giving tenants ownership.
The tradeoff for developers in every such project plan is rights to additional space that can be sold at market rates. Developers always complained that this isn’t viable. Now they want the government to shoulder more.
“The pandemic has changed attitudes. Everybody wants to get slums redeveloped,” said Sumanth Kumar, communications head at Omkar Realtors and Developers, one of the city’s largest slum redevelopers. But the feasibility of these projects has become a major challenge, he said.
“The entire chain of clearing the slums, providing them temporary accommodation and paying rent takes a lot of money. In SRA projects, for the initial four to five years, developers have to pump in money,” he said. “They start making money only at a later stage when saleable component is ready. Market conditions are such that consumer these days prefer to invest in only ready to move in properties.”
To come out of the precarious situation, redevelopers want reduced premium or fees paid to buy development rights and help in accessing capital. “Private sector is capable to stand up to this challenge but it will need handholding from the government,” Sumanth said.
It’s not Mumbai has not redeveloped any of the old neighbourhoods. Bhendi Bazaar, one of the most crowded parts of the city, is being redeveloped. But that’s being done by the community.
Elsewhere, people have moved out of slums to new homes. But those turn into vertical slums or are unfit to live.
Mahul in northeastern Mumbai is a cluster of 49 buildings where more than 30,000 rehabilitated slum-dwellers breathing toxic air from nearby refineries. It was declared unsafe and the court has ordered evacuation. At a similar complex in nearby Mankhurd, called Lallubhai Compound, people live tiny homes amid squalid conditions that a non-profit Doctors For You called “designed for death”.
Slum rehabilitation buildings usually lack planning as the idea is to resettle as many people as possible. That creates matchbox-like homes, with no ventilation and poor living conditions, making them perfect breeding ground for diseases like tuberculosis.
Bharat Gothoskar, founder of Khaki Foundation that promotes awareness about the city’s heritage, suggested that administrators look at the past to plan for its future.
In the aftermath of the plague, the administration set up Bombay Improvement Trust. Its mandate was to make the city a more hygienic place. It created roads, rebuilt squalid buildings and opened lands towards the north of the city, Gothoskar said. That’s when chawls came up—these are single-room homes for tenants and workers in two and four-storeyed buildings that look onto a common courtyard.
Housing and health was the focus of this expansion. The problem today, according to Rajiv Mishra, urban planner and principal at Sir JJ College Architecture, is that public health is separate from housing and town planning.
Till 1967 when the city’s first Development Control Regulations were passed, open spaces were earmarked keeping emergencies in mind. “These were not just used for recreational purposes but during emergencies they could be converted into makeshift hospitals. Schools and colleges were also reserved for this purpose.”
These elements are already provided in the design of the city but slums are encroaching open spaces, he said pitching for fair and equitable urban planning.
Mishra said Mumbai can draw lessons from Surat that changed after the 1994 plague. From being one of the dirtiest cities in the country, today it ranks among the cleanest, he said. The city, under then Municipal Commissioner SR Rao, rolled out serious reforms which completely changed how it was run, Mishra said, adding that Mumbai requires similar political will and able bureaucracy.
Mishra suggested building quality affordable rental housing for migrant workers. “If we don’t do that, they will continue to live in slums,” he said, adding that will continue to threaten “our existence”.
‘Shift Away From Free Housing’
Subodh Kumar, former commissioner of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, doesn’t think it’s fair to compare the two cities.
“Surat is a very different city than Mumbai. It is well spread and very big. It has one-sixth the population of Mumbai,” he said. The problems of Mumbai city are unique where more than half the population lives in slums, he said.
Kumar suggests a completely different model. He said Mumbai needs to junk free housing if it wants to decongest and create quality public homes, not tenements that make physical distancing impossible.
“We need to come up with policies that will enable slum residents to acquire bigger houses by paying part of the construction cost, or instalments for a period of time,” he said. To help slumdwellers pay, a long-term credit line, say from World Bank, can be provided, he said.
Then, it will be possible to provide homes as big as 600 square feet in carpet area, according to Kumar. That would avoid further crowding of the city as developers won’t get rights to build and sell additional space, he said.
Anand Gupta of AYG Realty and member of the managing committee of Builders Association of India, said while slum-dwellers should be given bigger homes, but for that they will have to be moved to far-off regions that are well connected with suburban rail network. “Within the city, given the high land cost, it becomes difficult to accommodate the need for extra space.”
He agrees with doing away with free housing, but for a different reason. “When slum-dwellers know they will get free housing, there is an incentive to stay and build more slums,” he said. He suggested housing model where the ownership remains with the government and homes are given on rent to the poor at as low as Re 1 a month.
Whatever the model, creating quality public housing is not just for the sake of urban poor. It helps everyone.
“We have compromised on open spaces and created spaces with high density. This is affecting us severely now,” said Prasad Shetty, urbanist and associate professor at School of Environment and Architecture. A pandemic doesn’t differentiate between the rich and the poor, he said. “If one section gets affected, it can spread like wildfire. It is important to rethink housing for poor.”