BMC's new Mumbai development plan ignores the fact that affordability, not availability, is city's real problem

Mumbai: The last one year has been ghastly for Mumbai — a stampede at a railway station, ravaging infernos in shops and eateries, and crushing building collapses resulting in over 100 lives being snuffed out.

All these reiterated why ‘crumbling’ has become a default prefix for any mention of the city’s infrastructure.

Hence, all eyes are now on the city’s most ambitious planning document in recent times, its development plan (DP) that was finally approved by the Maharashtra government early this week. The DP is a key document that acts as a blueprint for Mumbai’s growth; while it plans for the next 20 years, its execution leaves an indelible mark on the city’s fate for many years after.

Mumbai slums. Representational image. Reuters

Mumbai slums. Representational image. Reuters

While the plan is yet to be released in its entirety, the glimpses that bureaucrats have so far offered have garnered diverse reactions — urban planners and academics have been cautiously critical while the real estate industry has been buoyant.

Homes and jobs

The blueprint has noble aims: it seeks to create more affordable homes, more jobs and ensure a good quality of life.

All these seem pertinent. Last year, the UN-Habitat named Mumbai as the second most crowded city after Dhaka. In Mumbai, 31,700 people exist on one square kilometre of space, three times the number in Singapore.

While the details are yet to be spelled out, the document, at its core, has two incredulous assumptions: one, that by allowing builders to build more and ‘repopulate’ the island city, homes will become affordable and two, that more commercial buildings will mean more jobs for Mumbai. The DP says it will create 10 million affordable homes and 8 million jobs, through this plan.

For this, it has now decided to allow buildings to go higher; in the island city, builders can double their construction for residential structures and can build four times more for commercial structures. The floor space index (FSI), a ratio which dictates how much a builder can construct vis-à-vis the plot area, has been hiked from 1.33 in the island city to 3 for residential constructions and 5 for commercial ones. The same has been increased from 2 in the suburbs to 2.5 for residential properties and for commercial, it has been doubled from 2.5 to 5.

These numbers seem incredulous because a closer reading of Mumbai’s situation will tell you that it isn’t the lack of either homes or commercial properties that are hampering access to them. It is affordability.

In January this year, a report buttressed this point better than anything else. The economic survey, released by the Centre showed that Mumbai had nearly 500,000 homes in Mumbai lying vacant. This, in a city where over 5 million people live in slums. Clearly, supply isn’t the issue.

The DP tries to address that. The authorities have proposed to allow 3100 hectares, marked as no development zones till now, to be opened for construction of affordable homes. Since a big chunk of them are privately owned, it has even devised a formula under which the owner of the land can develop one-third of the land with an FSI of 3 on surrendering 66 percent of the land for cheap homes and public amenities.

Apart from the fact that such an approach relies solely on the volition and willingness of these private players towards wanting to develop their lands, such a formula also reminds the city of the tragedy of the mill land sale, reiterating how laws, especially around Mumbai’s real estate, can be changed at will by the powerful to benefit the powerful.

In the 1990s, bureaucrats and politicians drew up a formula for dividing the city’s defunct textile mills into three equal parts, two of which were to see the creation of public amenities and cheap homes. However, the formula was altered in 2001; from the nearly 400 acres promised, the city’s share dropped to 60 acres. On the rest, builders built gleaming shopping malls, gated housing complexes, and restaurants.

This time around, the land at stake is five times more.

More buildings = more jobs?

In addition, the plan’s insistence on creating more commercial spaces by allowing builders to reach the skies with their towers might not be grounded in data. A report by Colliers, a global real estate research and consultancy firm, published last year said that 13 percent of commercial space in the city remained vacant, adding that the number was likely to rise in the future.

This reality also does not reflect in the plan. In fact, the plan seems to assume that creating more commercial complexes will lead to higher employment, a fact reiterated by Vivek More, deputy head of the DP department on Friday. Listing out proposed infrastructure projects in the city, he simply added, “We are also creating better connectivity and that will bring jobs.”

Many are flummoxed at this link between more construction leading to more jobs, calling it ‘disingenuous’. Hussain Indorewala, assistant professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, says that only allowing builders to construct more commercial spaces cannot create jobs. “To go along with such planning, we need programmes specifically targeted towards creating jobs, which seems to be missing here.”

In addition, the plan does not seem to have prioritised innovative ways of achieving a better standard of life — news reports say that the plan has decided to not even match the living standards for public amenities prescribed nationally.

Welcome moves

Beyond these, however, the plan promises to offer holistic social developmental elements like, in a first, creating multi-purpose housing centres exclusively for women. These centres will have housing options for working women as well as offer facilities like childcare centres and coworking spaces. It has also envisaged a new authority dedicated to tackling parking issues in the city, from approving parking lots to conceptualising policies around the issue.

 While these might be welcome additions, the challenge will be in preparing systems which make sure that these plans are implemented.

Controversial plan

The plan, from its conceptualisation in 2012 has been ridden with controversies and has faced opposition from various groups including urban planners, academics, neighbourhood citizen groups and non-governmental organisations. It has controversially left out the city’s slums and has not mapped them. It has also made serious gaffes, like showing roads that end in the sea or marking schools, colleges, religious places wrongly. The errors forced the State government to step in and scrap the plan in 2015, sending the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) back to the drawing board.

There is little doubt that the final plan, on its release, will be scrutinised thoroughly by many eyes. Amidst this scrutiny, almost everyone will be asking the same question — will the plan revive Mumbai, or will it accelerate the crumble?


Updated Date: Apr 29, 2018 13:21 PM

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