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Illegal Mumbai buildings threaten to bring the house down

As developers unscrupulously built beyond what they had been permitted to develop to capitalise on the city’s high property prices, only an 11th hour reprieve saved one compound from demolition as the situation of illegal buildings worsens.

Mumbai authorities had declared that some 100 apartments in the seven-building Campa Cola residential compound had been built illegally, because they had been constructed beyond five storeys, ordered these portions of the towers to be demolished. Subhash Sharma for The National
Mumbai authorities had declared that some 100 apartments in the seven-building Campa Cola residential compound had been built illegally, because they had been constructed beyond five storeys, ordered these portions of the towers to be demolished. Subhash Sharma for The National

MUMBAI // Pramod Potdar and his wife Mrinalini, both doctors and both 70-years-old, packed a few cardboard boxes full of clothes and other items a few days ago, anticipating that they would be turfed out of their home to make way for its demolition.

A huge drama unfolded during the week in the Campa Cola residential compound where the couple live in the normally quiet middle-class neighbourhood in south Mumbai. Local authorities had declared that some 100 apartments in the seven-building compound had been built illegally, because they had been constructed beyond five storeys, exceeding the developer’s permission.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) ordered these portions of the towers to be demolished. Owners of apartments in Campa Cola say that they were unaware that the flats they bought – often with their life savings – were illegal. On Tuesday, residents barricaded themselves in the compound, while demolition workers and vehicles lined up outside with dozens of police officers. A handful of residents staged a hunger protest. Banners adorned the buildings with statements such as: “Please save us from being homeless”. Local television crews gathered in force at the scene to capture the action. On Wednesday morning, bulldozers mowed down the locked gates to the compound to begin the demolition process. Then, at the 11th hour, a reprieve came from the Supreme Court, which put the demolition on hold until the end of next May to allow the matter time to be considered and a plan to be formulated.

The issue brought into focus the huge problems that Mumbai has with thousands of illegal buildings across the city.

“There are more than 55,000 buildings which are unauthorised in Mumbai,” says Yashwant Dalal, the president of the Estate Agents Association of India.

With an ever-growing population of more than 20 million inhabitants, land prices and property prices have rocketed in Mumbai and developers find it hard to secure areas for projects. The Campa Cola buildings have roomy apartments which appear to be of good quality and house doctors and businessmen in one of Mumbai’s most expensive districts.  

But ramshackle homes are often built illegally on any available space, with the land not even owned or leased by the builders. Others unscrupulously build beyond what they have been permitted to develop to capitalise on the city’s high property prices.

“The problem of illegal buildings in Mumbai – and their impact on the existence of Mumbai’s citizens and organisations, as well as its real estate market - is not a recent phenomenon,” says Anuj Puri, the chairman and country head of Jones Lang LaSalle India. “In fact, it is as old as the BMC itself. Whether they were the result of corruption and collusion or lack of vigilance, the issue has always persisted in what is India’s financial capital, which is also the country’s most space-challenged city.”

But the situation has worsened in more recent years.

“The issue of illegal buildings started intensifying from 1995 onward,” explains Mr Puri. “This was when the BMC introduced a slew of new regulations pertaining to development control, FSI (floor space index) and TDR (transferable development rights). What followed was a significant increase in violations such as consumption of excessive FSI, building being built higher than permitted, flouting of CRZ (coastal regulation zone) and air space regulations, and projects being built without environmental clearances. Yet another common violation is the illegal utilisation of open spaces that must mandatorily be maintained around buildings. Because of huge shortage of FSI within Mumbai and its surroundings, illegal constructions are on an inexorable increase,” he adds. “When development clearances and increased FSI are not available, areas which are defined by huge demand for built-up spaces and no supply of new land parcels, illegal buildings are and will always be an unfortunate but logical consequence.”

Mr Dalal said that the Campa Cola issue could drive buyers away from Mumbai’s property market, which is already suffering because of the economic slowdown, steep prices, and high interest rates.

“After the drama at Campa Cola, everybody is scared now,” says Mr Dalal. “They are very reluctant to purchase property.”

He argues that there should be clarity on which buildings are unauthorised, for example by placing notices outside, so prospective buyers are aware of their status.

Deepti Doshi, a baker, 25, lives in one of the towers with her parents in one of the apartments that was scheduled for demolition.

She explains that her family bought the home for 3.3 million rupees 12 years ago.

“The amount of trauma we have gone through is terrible,” she says. “We’re simple, hard-working people. We wouldn’t be able to afford to buy another home if we lost this one.”

Vijay Mirani, a businessman, 41, says that his apartment, which cost about US$20,000 almost 30 years ago, is now worth about $800,000, hypothetically.

“The builders fooled us into buying these houses,” says Mr Mirani “Why are we being punished? We paid for the houses. We’ve paid our taxes.”

He blames corruption and the developer for the situation, along with the lack of appropriate action on the part of local authorities.

“The fallout of illegal buildings or constructions on the city is severe,” says Mr Puri. “In the first place, residents of such buildings face the constant risk of traumatic life disruption and displacement, as such buildings are liable to be identified and illegal and consequently demolished without much notice. Also, since illegal additional constructions are not part of the original approved building plans, the entire project is effectively rendered structurally unsound.”

A series of deadly building collapses occurred during the monsoon season, which highlighted the problem with poorly constructed buildings in Mumbai, many of which were built illegally to capitalise on the city’s lack of affordable accommodation.

“Mumbai is not alone when it comes to the plague of illegal structures - most other Indian cities have their share of the problem as well,” says Mr Puri. “The notable exceptions are cities where development rules are more flexible and practical, or are enforced with greater strictness. Some of these cities are New Delhi, Hyderabad, Chandigarh and Bangalore.” 

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