Redevelopment must be for the good of all

Bhendi Bazaar’s makeover plan offers lessons worth learning, particularly about how to involve and incentivise the various stakeholders

Published - March 06, 2017 01:01 am IST

If you were in a plane flying down the length of Mumbai, you would be able to spot quite a few old and decaying low buildings quite easily, even from high up. Their signature: blue tarpaulin spread over roofs to protect the residents from the monsoon. In the makeshift shanties of a Dharavi or any of the city’s other slums, that view would be, perhaps, expected. But you will continue to see them even on the roofs of the more solid constructions, especially, as one drifts south over the congested inner city.

Amidst those roads and twisty lanes, here and there a high-rise sticks out, strangely anomalous structures that seem, even from a distance, as if they are sucking up all the resources from down below.

Which is not un unfair impression to arrive at. These buildings are the result of opportunistic redevelopment, where a single old building was brought down and every inch of floor space index (FSI) available was used to bring up a shiny new tower. If they seem visually incongruous from above, then the reality on the ground is even more stark as they place a huge strain on infrastructure and make any sort of improvements to the area around them nearly impossible.

A change in thinking by Maharashtra’s government in 2009 envisioned the development of clusters — contiguous areas with living realities and concerns — rather than looking only at single-building development.

In the years since the policy was announced, though, the only prominent example of cluster development being attempted is the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project undertaken by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust. The project envisages replacing 250 decrepit buildings with 17 new towers and the requisite urban amenities.

While it is a unique project in many ways — not least because it is a not-for-profit exercise aimed at uplifting the community — there are some key learnings that need to be transferred to other such developments.

Haphazard redevelopment

Abbas Master, CEO of the trust, is not flattering about those isolated towers. “These buildings that came up — and you will see pencil-like structures all over the island city, rising up from areas that are badly congested — did not add any value, and nor did they optimise the infrastructure that was available. They only put an additional burden on the area because that same building was using the same sewage lines or the same water supply lines. In addition, they made parking facilities even more difficult to come by.” There is a building that fits the description right there in Bhendi Bazaar, built before the SBUT took over the project. Mr. Master says the high rise, Hussaini Tower, is an example of a structure that makes holistic development of the area around it extremely difficult. “It is built on a single plate and has no relation with any of the structures around it.”

It has come to a stage, though, where many of the ageing housing units simply cannot be ignored anymore. Across Mumbai there are 19,000 buildings classified as dilapidated and dangerous by Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, most of them in the oldest settled areas. This of course isn’t just a peculiar Mumbai situation; in old cities anywhere in the world the inner city decays as areas around it become more attractive. In India, Chandni Chowk in Delhi, and parts of Bengaluru and Hyderabad are also in urgent need of renewal. Mumbai’s geography, as a finger of land sticking out into the sea leaving very little room for expansion, sends real estate prices into the stratosphere, and makes redevelopment a more complicated task.

Cluster redevelopment

Many of the older quarters of the city, like Bhendi Bazaar, Mr. Master says, were well planned to begin with, but then fell into decay. Bhendi Bazaar in particular attracted a lot of migrant labour who worked in the mills, and most of the residential buildings in the area began life as chawls designed for bachelors who used to come as workers. Over time, the workers moved out and then small businesses started moving in. Rent-control rules give landlords little income and less incentive to maintain or even repair their buildings, so many have developed structural weaknesses.

If one looks at the challenges of developing all the old parts of Mumbai, Mr. Master is of the opinion that there is no option but to look at cluster development. “Mumbai has to be divided into various clusters, and in clusters where there are dilapidated buildings, the projects to redevelop have to be classified as projects of public good.”

Bhendi Bazaar has about 250 buildings classified as decrepit, and the SBUT opted for the cluster approach just a few months after the development policy was announced because they were looking for a way to improve the area without putting too much of a strain on existing resources. “In the course of our project to redevelop Bhendi Bazaar, Mr. Master says, “we have learned a lot of lessons, and the government too has learnt a lot of lessons over the years.”

Legal reform is needed

The biggest of these lessons is that there is a need for a more rigid legal framework. A mechanism should be devised where owners are compensated adequately and this mechanism should be well defined. Also, he says, “tenants living there should be assured of getting their area back, and for commercial tenants, some incentive should be given, perhaps with the promise that they will get 20 per cent or more of space.”

To calculate compensation, he points out that the State government already comes out with a Ready Reckoner each year that helps to calculate the true value of land and commercial, residential and industrial properties; why not use the Ready Reckoner as a basis for calculating adequate compensation based on land and construction quality? And he says that there also need to be laws in place to ensure that if all conditions are met in terms of compensation, the owner has to give consent and vacate.

If such laws were in place, Mr Master says, it could have reduced the time it took them to start work on the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project by about 75%. That is quite an estimate, especially when one remembers that the SBUT project is a not-for-profit aimed at uplift, and one in which a substantial portion of the resident community is emotionally invested in. Even then it took two years of persistent dialogue for the trust to acquire consent from 70% of the owners and tenants. A handful of landowners, though, continued to hold out and so work could not even begin. But in 2014, the government reduced the requirement for consent from the original 90% to 70%.

One proposal being currently considered is that instead of consent being needed from 70% of each building or housing society, it should be from 70% of the cluster as a whole. Another proposal is that FSI for such redevelopment should be 1:4. A third is that the city will compulsorily acquire up to 30% of the approved area of a cluster for infrastructure.

For developers, Mr. Master says, a clear and definite legal framework is the only way to enhance the incentive. “The objective of the government should be to act as the facilitator and yes, in some cases it will have to ensure that some people may have to be removed forcefully.”

Benefit for all

The greater good cannot be an abstract concept forced on a community from above. “There are four key partners in this: the tenant, owners, government and developers. All four need to be adequately incentivised.”

Two outstanding features of the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment plan that could be adopted as best practice are the people-focused design, and the provisions made for transit housing. The ways that the Trust handled this played no little part in getting the community to buy in.

To get a better understanding of the needs and demands of the people, the SBUT kept up a constant dialogue with all the stakeholders. They held workshops to give commercial and residential tenants a clearer picture of the plans.

Regular consultations helped evolve a lot of the design elements, like the placement of different category of shops in the proposed high street shopping complexes and in the design of the housing units in the towers above which are built to accommodated different generations of the same family while optimally using space.

For the commercial tenants and owners, a High Street model for the shops, with aerial walkways connecting the upper levels proved to be a clinching factor. They were also given more space than they currently occupied. This will ensure that the bustling commerce of the area remains, while keeping clutter off the streets. (The Hindu reported on this in October 2016)

Rehabilitation projects by the municipality have faced huge resistance because of the transit accommodation offered being far away from the site, forcing the residents to drastically alter their lives. To ease the fears of residents about having to move out and find other places on rent, the Trust acquired land and built transit homes at Anjeerwadi, just three kilometres from the project, and also leased apartments from MHADA.

“It is very important that the lives of the tenants should improve while in transit itself, so that they get a first-hand experience of a contemporary living environment,” Mr. Master says. Ensuring that the quality of transit homes was high allowed for people to move out faster, and be more patient in case there were delays with the development. “Currently MHADA has a few flats that can be used for transit housing for various development, if and when they do take place, but there should be more of these.”

Not all of Bhendi Bazaars lessons can be replicated

Unarguably, the Bhendi Bazaar project has some advantages all its own, which means that some of the steps that the SBUT was able to take will be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

“There are a few points that mark out this project as being truly unique and makes it nearly impossible to compare with others,” says Gulam Zia, Executive Director at Knight Frank, a property consultant firm. “The first that it is based on a community development model which is not for profit, and that is now how a regular developer will view a project, especially on an excel sheet. Secondly, there is a huge amount of emotional attachment from the community to the project, so the problem that other developers may have of people dragging their heels and refusing to move -- these problems would tend to resolve themselves amicably.” A third aspect, Mr Zia says, is that the project is based on the vision of a community leader, and that the objective is to create a higher standard of living for all; this will not be the chief consideration of other developers.

Architect Kamu Iyer says that the premise of cluster development has always been complicated by its base principle: that someone has to give up land in exchange for what can be built on it in the future. “This is always complicated by the fact that there is always uncertainty about how much can be built and the possibility that a developer will delay the project if he is expecting the FSI to go up,” he explains.

Bhendi Bazaar has, in effect, a single owner, since the SBUT has bought the land, Mr. Iyer says, making amalgamation of plots easier. For any other developer, this alone would be a significant stumbling block, and could explain why, he says, that besides Bhendi Bazaar no other significant cluster development project has taken off. “However, cluster development is possibly the only way to now go about redeveloping the city. If you see the new high-rises that have come up in areas like Dadar for instance, these are inhuman constructions, built so close to each other with all kinds of safety norms foregone. In that sense cluster development make sense because it is the only way to amalgamate the plots and have more open spaces.”

A former Slum Rehabilitation Authority commissioner, who asked not to be named, concurs: “The big issue from the developer’s point of view is viability, because getting consent from tenants and owners is difficult.” In addition, he says, the density of housing units in parts of the old city leaves little space to build amenities like open spaces.

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