The site of the building collapse at Malad last week
The site of the building collapse at Malad last week

The judicial probe ordered by the HC into last week’s house crash at Malad brings some urgency to a neglected issue. Rightly calling it a man-made disaster, the court wants the probe to be completed in a fortnight to signal that ‘citizens’ lives are not cheap’. However, the issue of building collapses in Mumbai is not as simple as it seems; it is tied up with several other issues. Over the years, there have been many judgments and even more committees on house crashes but given the gold mine that real estate is, none of them have led to anything purposeful.

At the root of the problem is the lack of political will to create a land bank in Mumbai for affordable housing and civic projects. Even well-meaning laws have failed. The Urban Land (Ceiling & Regulation) Act of 1976 allowed state governments to acquire vacant land for public housing in urban centres, if it exceeded the ceiling per individual; 500 sq m in Maharashtra. The state government repealed the Act in November 2007, saying “the basic purpose of the Act was not fulfilled”; big landowners were able to circumvent the law and the land scarcity it created was leading to higher real estate prices.

Land-starved Mumbai has been swallowing mangroves, wetlands, ponds, salt pans and as Aarey showed, even forests. Fifteen years ago, a minister floated an idea to reclaim the sea off South Mumbai!

The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) has failed miserably and made the situation worse by gifting away prime plots in the city to trusts floated by politicians. Such is the housing situation in the Maximum City that it takes the savings of both father and son to buy a 2BHK flat in a decent locality. Even after this, the quality of construction is not guaranteed.

The Slum Rehabilitation Act of 1995, under which free houses are to be given to slum dwellers by exploiting the excess land, is implemented in such a way that the SRA is a byword for corruption.

The owners of defunct textile mills were supposed to surrender one-third of the mill land to the municipality for gardens and parks but in the end, the city got a pittance as the rule was slyly modified to read one-third of the ‘open space’ in the mill land. Not only that, there are rampant FSI violations in the constructions which have come up on mill lands. Today, the commercial complex that has come up in the mill lands at Lower Parel makes Nariman Point look like a paradise. Pick up anything to do with real estate in Mumbai and more often than not there’s a scam in it. However, the only time politicians have had to pay for it was in the case of Adarsh.

Such is the competition for real estate in Mumbai that the Bombay High Court has had to threaten the government to get land for expansion.

With space at a premium, slums too are rising higher. In localities such as Behrampada, outside Bandra railway station (E), they are three to four storeys high when the law permits only 14 feet. In 2016, following a building collapse in Behrampada, then Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta had instructed all ward officers to survey structures above 14 feet and start demolishing them. But after 90,500 hutments were identified, the demolition drive was halted following opposition by all political parties. Political pressure stopped the BMC from demolishing even the five to six-storey illegal structures in slums.

There’s another problem in Mumbai with the 14,000 buildings in the island city which date back to the fifties when the Rent Control Act had frozen rents. With the pittance the landlord gets, he has no money for repairs. The residents of these buildings pay a cess to the Mumbai Building Repair and Reconstruction Board but buildings repaired by it are the first to fall. The focus then shifted to redevelopment. Here too, the pace of work is so slow that only 2,500 cessed buildings have been redeveloped in the past 35-40 years.

Such is the distrust of authorities that residents do not move out of dilapidated buildings for fear of being dishoused. Those who moved to transit camps have spent the rest of their lives there.

The system not only subverts the law, it also subverts judgments, much like the devil quoting the scriptures. Take redevelopment, which is the latest diamond mine. So large and luscious is the redevelopment pie that it has brought shady realtors, unscrupulous politicians and corrupt officials to the same table. Strangely, RERA does not protect the original tenants in such projects.

In satellite townships such as Navi Mumbai, it is nothing short of state capture. CIDCO-built condominiums in prime areas such as Sector 9 of Vashi, which is just three-decades old, have been declared as dilapidated and in imminent danger of collapse. In fact, citing judgments, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation is in a hurry to evict the tenants without any transit camps. The onus for transit accommodation is shifted to the builder without any safeguards for the residents.

While much can be said about the reverse Robinhood process that housing policy is, the judicial probe in the Malad case should put the fear of god in the corrupt cartel behind illegal construction. The need of the hour though is to clean the system by showing the same zero tolerance in all other housing scams which ultimately condemn 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population to live in slums or rickety structures.

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