Slums in Mumbai's suburbs are sitting on death traps

The densely populated slums on the hilly slopes of the Mumbai suburbs are sitting on deathtraps as the recent disaster in Chembur demonstrated. Alok Deshpande reports on the tragedy that took lives and swept away houses, once again highlighting the need for a comprehensive and sustainable plan for the ever-expanding city

Updated - December 03, 2021 10:09 am IST

Published - July 24, 2021 02:15 am IST

Tragic affair:  Rescue personnel carrying out operations in Chembur on July 18 (top and below). At least 19 people were killed in the area after they were trapped due to landslides.

Tragic affair: Rescue personnel carrying out operations in Chembur on July 18 (top and below). At least 19 people were killed in the area after they were trapped due to landslides.

Subhash Ghashing, 21, took out his mobile phone and logged on to play an online warfare game at around 12.15 a.m. on July 18. While heavy rainfall lashed the city, Subhash continued his virtual adventure in a makeshift balcony-cum-storage space, unaware of the real-life misadventure that was lying in store. His approximately 150 square feet house in New Bharat Nagar stood at the topmost residential lane on a hillock in Chembur, Mumbai, part of around 4,000 such houses packed like matchboxes and spread on the hill slope.

The night before, his cousin sister’s haldi ceremony (a pre-wedding ritual) had gone on for a long time, with close relatives visiting from different towns. Inside the small room, his brother-in-law and four-year-old niece were asleep on a bed, while others, including his sister and parents, were on the floor. Gifts and other items bought for the wedding took up the remaining space.

“It was pouring. I have never seen anything like that. Muddied water was flowing from the top of the hills. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise. It felt like something had come crashing from the top. It was soil, lots of it, with rocks,” Subhash recalled.

Unable to take the impact, the walls of his house broke down and he was thrown out on the road. “There were three other houses in line behind us. All of it went under the slush and rocks. That must have saved us. My family members were injured, but I took them out and thankfully, no one died. But look at our house,” he said, pointing to the destroyed room where he had lived for 21 years.

At around 12.30 a.m., a two-decade-old retaining wall, a structure designed to resist the lateral pressure of soil, constructed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), almost 15 to 20 feet away from Subhash’s house, crumbled under the pressure from the muddied water flowing from the top of the hill. In certain areas, weep holes on the wall were clogged, leading to the accumulation of water and soil. The wall heaved and buckled under the pressure and collapsed in a matter of seconds. With it, it took around seven lives.

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The road to New Bharat Nagar is no less than a short hike for a newcomer. As one enters through the Hindustan Petroleum gate on Mahul road in Chembur, no two-wheeler can go beyond a point, let alone a fire brigade truck or an ambulance. A walk through the ascending, narrow lanes, dotted with small houses on both sides and countless pipelines snaking across the ground, takes one to New Bharat Nagar, where the recent landslide killed 19 people. All were sleeping peacefully when tragedy struck at midnight.

Vijay Gupta, a local political worker with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), used to live in the area till a few years ago. He was one of the first individuals from outside who rushed to the spot after receiving a call from a resident. “I rushed here immediately and called the authorities. But it took a few hours before they reached,” said Vijay.

The District Disaster Management Plan, 2019 , for the Mumbai suburbs charted out by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) states, “Several areas around hill slopes in Greater Mumbai are prone to landslides. The risk is more during the monsoon and heavy rains. Areas around hill slopes in Ghatkopar, Bhandup and Kurla in the Eastern Suburbs are prone to landslides, resulting in increased exposure of slopes to erosion and water infiltration. Slum populations residing on these hill slopes are at high risk.”

The plan had identified 252 spots spread across the Mumbai suburbs, including Malad, Dindoshi and Jogeshwari in the western suburbs, that are prone to landslides. It repeatedly pointed out that slums were vulnerable primarily because of their location, density and lack of access to infrastructure.


Civic officials estimate that around 70,000 to one lakh families in Mumbai live in those 252 spots. A ward official, from one of the vulnerable spots, said people lived in such dangerous areas despite knowing the risk. “Land prices are out of reach for common people, especially the working class labourers who stay here. Hence, they choose these spots that are cheap and affordable,” he said. As families grow, the official said, they tend to add more floors to the existing structure.

Adjacent to Subhash’s house lives the Sakhare family. The Sakhares, the Gorses, the Ghavares, the Pardhes and the Dupargades are relatives and have been living in New Bharat Nagar for over two decades. Their families have grown as more and more flock to the city in search of a livelihood.

Rupesh Sakhare, 24, was asleep when he heard the loud noise. As he opened the door to check the situation, he saw Priyanka Agrahari, 15, another resident of the area, soaked in water and mud, crying and climbing up to her home. “I asked her what she was doing outside so late in the night and why she was covered in mud,” Rupesh said.

Comment | Beyond preparedness

She pointed to her house, which was at a higher elevation than that of his. “She had been washed away from her house with the force of the water. She could have died. But some young men pulled her out in time,” he said.

Rupesh and his brother, Bhimrao, rushed to see what had happened. Their uncle, Pandit Gorse, and his family lived adjacent to another retaining wall built by local MLA and Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik. The Gorses had given a room on rent to Priyanka’s family, who had built an extra floor on the existing house using the retaining wall as support. The room that was built had completely blocked the drainage pipes meant for water seepage in case of heavy rainfall.

“When we rushed there, we saw all five houses under the mud. The layer was over 8 feet thick. A feeling of fear and helplessness took over me,” Bhimrao said. “I saw my family — my sister, brother, uncle and aunt — buried under the thick layer of mud,” he added.

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Memories of a similar tragedy at Malin village in Pune district, where an entire village was crushed under a landslide after heavy rainfall, flashed through his mind.

Living dangerously

Lives are at risk in these comparatively cheaper localities. The slums on the hill slopes at Vikhroli, in the eastern suburb of Mumbai, is another such location that the civic body had identified as vulnerable. Ten others had lost their lives due to a landslide at Surya Nagar on the same day when the tragedy at Chembur occurred.

Authorities from the BMC’s S Ward, of which Vikhroli is a part, had written to the office of the District Collector, Mumbai Suburban, and also to the Disaster Management Cell in May and June this year, about the possibility of landslides in Vikhroli, Powai and Bhandup due to heavy rainfall. The letter had also sought an arrangement for alternative accommodation to those in danger. Another letter to the Disaster Management Cell had even mentioned the inaccessibility to the interiors of the slum areas in case of an emergency.

In reply, the Collector’s office said it was the responsibility of the civic body to prevent and remove encroachments irrespective of land titles.


According to data collected by Anil Galgali, an activist and social worker, a total of 290 people have died and 300 others injured in Mumbai due to landslides between 1992 and 2021. A decade ago, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had ordered an action plan for the resettlement of those living in the slums on hill slopes and especially those in highly vulnerable places. The Urban Development Department (UDD) had been asked to design the plan, which is still in the preparation stage. Officials within the UDD stated that such a plan would require changes in the existing guidelines for granting additional Floor Space Index (FSI), and involve huge finances, etc.

After the tragedy on July 18, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray held a meeting with senior government officials from all departments, including those with the Disaster Management Cell. “Mumbai has a number of places that faces threats from landslides. At many places, retaining walls have been built. All these walls need to be examined with experts from the Indian Institute of Technology [IIT] and other institutes. Other options, if any, need to be analysed and implemented. The existing walls need to be strengthened,” he said.


The Chief Minister also directed the civic administration to shift those in danger zones to houses built for Project Affected Persons (PAPs) in the city. Around 38 residents from Chembur have already been shifted to a nearby area called Vishnunagar. The BMC said it had also moved four families from GTB Nagar’s Mukundrao Ambedkar road after a landslide was reported in a nearby hill area.

Slums on hill slopes is not the only problem in Mumbai. According to news reports, close to 50 people have already lost their lives due to buildings collapsing in 2021. The civic administration annually sends notices to dangerous and dilapidated buildings, asking citizens to vacate homes. “But the question is, where will they go? There has to be rehabilitation on a case-to-case basis,” said Bilal Khan, an activist with Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA).

Bilal pointed out the need to set up infrastructure, for which, experts would have to be roped in. The activist also pointed out the need for accurate data. “We work and react whenever a disaster strikes. This has to be changed. A long-term strategy is needed,” he added.

Urban planners and designers see this as a problem that can only be solved if adequate housing is made available. Instead of completing the target of building over 15 lakh houses in 20 years under slum redevelopment schemes in Mumbai, the State government has managed to build only 1.5 lakh. “Why would anyone build on a hill slope or a riverbed or on rocky terrain unless they are left with no options? Slums come up on land that are naturally unliveable. These were all non-buildable lands. Slum-dwellers know that the location is unsafe, but they have invested in that,” said Pankaj Joshi, principal director at Urban Centre Mumbai, which works on urban planning, research, design, advocacy and community outreach.


“In Mumbai, land that houses slums has not increased, but the density has grown manifold, with two to three floors being constructed over the base slums. This has not been built following any structural engineering principles. They are extremely weak and can collapse at any time,” he added.

He explained that this was resulting in an increase in the population living in slums. At the same time, more people were living in fragile structures that, if met with a disaster, would hardly be able to withstand the impact, he added.

Pankaj said the latest Development Plan for Mumbai had noticed these dangerous slums in each of the wards. “But the question is where will you rehabilitate them? The only option is to build more houses,” he said.

Maharashtra’s Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad said he was aware of the problem. In his initial days after taking charge, the Minister had clarified that his priority would be to help builders build more houses under slum redevelopment schemes, which could be given to slum-dwellers. “We can support the civic body in low-cost housing schemes, which may require huge funds. But that has to be a policy decision for which deliberations at a higher level are required,” he said.

Editorial | Precarious houses: On Mumbai building collapses

According to Sayli Udas-Mankikar, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), all slum land had to be treated as affordable housing reservations. “The Slum Rehabilitation Authority should fulfil its first objective of undertaking comprehensive planning of slum lands by modifying development control regulations in order to enable the production of affordable housing through the redevelopment route,” she said.

A similar tragedy

Around 25 kilometres away from Chembur stands Ambedkar Nagar at Kurar village in Malad, a western suburb of Mumbai. Two years ago, in July 2019, a retaining wall constructed by the BMC had collapsed due to the forceful flow of water from the Malad Hill Reservoir amid incessant rainfall. It killed 31 and injured over 110.

On July 18, those who are yet to be rehabilitated faced the nightmare once again.

“I lost my son in 2019. Water entered our hut and took him away from me. On Sunday, I held his two-year-old daughter to my chest and ran out in the dark. I thought the tragedy was being repeated and I did not want to lose more members of my family,” Munni God said, as she recalled her son Shravan’s death. Close to 75 families — who are yet to be rehabilitated — from Ambedkar Nagar were forced to spend the entire night in the heavy rain after water entered their huts made of tarpaulin and supported by bamboo.

“We women work as domestic help in these big buildings,” said Supriya Goregaonkar, pointing to the newly built high-rises that offer a scenic view of the lush-green hills to buyers. “These days, we go to work in the morning, cook for the families in the afternoon and then worry about our safety at night. We were promised rehabilitation. But now, no one listens to us. The government should worry about us when we are alive, not spend money on our kins after we die,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for many who work as labourers, carpenters, tailors or as watchmen. Walli Sheikh, a carpenter who is unable to find work these days, can’t stop worrying about the safety of his hut. “We cannot build a pucca [brick] construction here as this is forest land. But despite being eligible, we are not rehabilitated,” he said.

At least 19 people were killed in the Chembur area of Mubai after they were trapped due to landslides.

At least 19 people were killed in the Chembur area of Mubai after they were trapped due to landslides.

Aneesh Yadav, a resident who is fighting for the rehabilitation of the remaining families, shows a letter dated August 28, 2020, from G. Mallikarjun, Director, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), who had asked the BMC to take action to rehabilitate the families. The letter said the remaining families were in a danger zone and the process of rehabilitation needed to be initiated soon. A 1997 Bombay High Court order, too, had directed the administration to shift these families from forest land and rehabilitate them. No action has been taken yet. “We have written to the Chief Minister requesting his intervention after the Chembur tragedy. It was only then that a team of civic officials came to meet us and recorded the details,” he said.

During every election since the 1997 court order, politicians have promised these residents pucca houses. “All of us have voter IDs and we do vote. They want our votes and if we are shifted from here, they will not get our votes. We feel cheated and neglected. We live in the hope that at least one politician out there will fulfil the promise,” said Shriram Kadam, who works as a security guard.

Meanwhile, after surviving the mayhem that the rains had brought with it, the wedding of Subhash’s cousin sister went on as scheduled. “How could we possibly postpone the date? It was simply not possible,” he said. Already embarrassed that his brother-in-law had to suffer an injury on his trip to attend the wedding, Subhash made arrangements for his sister and her husband at a private hospital and sent them back home.

“The wedding had to go ahead as planned. Yes, it was difficult. But we completed all the rituals in the presence of four family members and sent my sister with her husband. I came here to join the others in digging the mud and cleaning my home,” he said.

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