FPJ Special: Mumbai tenants fighting ‘highly dangerous’ category status

Every year before monsoon, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) publishes a list of dilapidated structures in the city and asks residents to vacate them. Yet scores of tenants continue to occupy them, sometimes losing lives tragically as structures collapse. Then comes the blame-game, with authorities trying to pass the buck.

According to the BMC, at present, there are 407 dilapidated buildings in the city, including 424 private structures, 57 under the civic body’s jurisdiction and 26 government buildings.

One such building on the BMC’s list of C1 category (highly dangerous) buildings is Nobel Chamber (RPI House) in south Mumbai’s Fort area. Its tenants challenged the audit by the BMC’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), and moved court in 2019, saying the building isn’t dilapidated and just needs repairs.

One of the 38 tenants who moved court insisted that the building does not come under the C1 category, and is structurally strong, with operational lifts. He said, “Most of us are professionals and have been tenants in Nobel chambers for seven to eight decades. Prior to us, our kin held offices here. It withstood cyclones like Nisarg, Tauktae and even heavy rainfall. The building just needs repairs and there is no need to pull it down.”

Nobel chambers comprises two blocks (A and B) connected by a corridor. Tenants said the B block, up to the fifth floor, is in perfect condition and requires cosmetic repairs like plastering. “Even the A block is in a good condition up to fourth floor, except for a small portion that was impacted by the collapse of the fifth-floor slab,” a tenant said, alleging that the BMC listed the building under C1 category through a firm of structural engineers who were earlier blacklisted by the civic body itself.

“Yet, in a detailed report, against every test carried out, the recommendation is ‘Tenanted Repairs’. However, only in the final statement, the building was declared as C1. This strange anomaly needs to be questioned,” another tenant said. Contractor and caretaker of the building, Salim Qureshi said, “We carried out partial repairs a few years ago. The building is not dilapidated.”

Tenants said they self-commissioned a structural audit last year by the VJTI, and the report stated that the building needs only repair work. That matter is in the high court.

Assistant municipal commissioner (Removal of encroachments department), Anant Bhagwatkar said, “If an audit has already been done by a third party and tenants, then it will be their responsibility. Once we form a TAC and conduct an audit, it is our responsibility. If tenants and the landlord of the said structure have a dispute, they are free to move court. We will wait for the final decision of the court.”

Nearly 300 persons died and 1,146 were injured in the seven years between 2013 and 2019 in building collapses across the city, as per information received through RTI by activist Shakeel Sheikh.

As per the BMC’s data, as of March 31, 2021, there were 485 C1 (highly dilapidated) buildings (list of 2020). Of these, 148 have already been demolished by the civic body until March 31, 2021. A total of 107 have been vacated, while tenants are staying in 112 buildings despite no water and electricity. However, 73 cases are still in court over disputes raised by tenants or landlords. A total of 18 buildings have been proffered to the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).

With regard to Nobel Chambers, Bhagwatkar said, “We have cut the electricity and water connections in the other buildings as per procedure.”

Elaborating on the procedure of listing a building as C1, he said, “Buildings that are 30 years and older fall under this category. We inspect the general conditions and look out for structural weakness. The category is applied only after a structural audit, following which a notice under section 353 B of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act for eviction is issued.”

After the civic body issues the list, it takes action by severing electricity and water supply. However, some tenants still refuse to vacate the structures and approach the high court to secure stay orders. Of the 407 dilapidated buildings, 90 per cent are from last year’s list.

Bhagwatkar said unless clear directions are issued on who will act on dilapidated buildings, the issue of dangerous buildings and encroachments will continue to plague the city. He said, “There are multiple agencies who are owners of properties across the city. The encroachment department needs to be strengthened to take action on such buildings. In some cases, even if we want to act, other agencies have jurisdiction over the property; for instance, in the Malvani collapse case.” There should be a single agency to act on such issues, he concluded.

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