Days after Mumbai’s civic authorities unveiled their draft Development Plan for the next 20 years, urban planners and activists are worried it could be a disaster in the making.

The plan, which was due last year, is meant to be a blueprint for organised development in Greater Mumbai from 2014 to 2034. The draft of DP 2034 that was released on February 16 predominantly focuses on promoting a vertical construction boom along the city’s transport corridors, by significantly increasing floor space index across the city.

This index is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the plot it is built on. The higher the FSI, the taller a building can be. The plan’s move to raise FSI across the city has become a controversial subject for planners: while high FSIs along transit corridors is a staple feature of mega cities around the world, experts believe Mumbai is not equipped with the infrastructure to support such a plan.

They fear that construction based on the new FSI values, in some areas more than four to six times the current values, could leave the city even more ill-prepared for disasters and emergencies than it already is. The fear is compounded by the fact that the DP makes no mention of plans or provisions for disaster management.

The new figures

Mumbai’s last Development Plan, released in 1991, prescribed an overall FSI of 1.33 in the island city and 1 in the suburbs. The new plan proposes to allocate a larger FSI of 3.5 to more than half the city (58% of it), and of 5 to a sizeable 31.8% of Mumbai. In specific zones closer to major railway stations and employment nodes, the proposed FSI has been raised to 6.5 and, in some cases, 8.

This implies that the city could soon have a significantly taller skyline and clusters of very high buildings in busy transit zones. This policy is in keeping with the plan’s vision of a city whose population will soon have increased per capita incomes, higher aspirations, a “lifestyle of greater consumption”, a demand for more space and “increase in vehicle ownership”.

The success of such a plan depends on how well the ground space freed up as a result of going vertical is used for public and social amenities. So far, Mumbai has not seen much success with this model because the extra space generated by high-rises is often misused by politicians and builders. Given this experience, experts believe vertical development could be a tremendous strain on resources like water supply and sewage treatment if the DP does not allocate adequate space and infrastructure to address those problems.

What’s more disturbing, say experts, is that Mumbai’s Development Plans – both in 1991 and the new one – make no mention of disaster management amenities.

Spelling disaster

“The new plan pulls down standards of providing amenities across the board, from open spaces and health facilities to social amenities like police stations and fire stations,” said Pankaj Joshi, an urban planner and executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute.

The space allocated for these various amenities is higher than the existing space they take up in the city, but significantly lower than the national standards set by central government’s Urban Development Plans Formulation and Implementation guidelines.

The new DP, for instance, proposes to allocate a total of 0.4 sq m per capita for all social amenities (cemeteries, markets, fire stations and police stations) – 0.2 sq m more than the current figure. The UDFPAI standards, however, require at least 1.3 sq m per capita dedicated to these amenities.

Fire stations, however, may prove to be a grave necessity if a large number of high-rise buildings mushroom in dense clusters.

“Our fire stations are anyway not equipped or trained to deal with emergency situations in new high-rise buildings,” said Rita Savla, founder-director of Radhee Disaster and Education Foundation that advocates for better disaster management in the city.

Savla is also sceptical of the higher number of vehicles that the DP wishes to accommodate. “In case of earthquakes, it would be very difficult to evacuate people from tall buildings if there is high density of vehicles,” she said.

The plan does recognise the problem of flooding that Mumbai faces, and proposes widening of drains, periodic desilting of water beds and removing obstructions that clog the flow of water in order to create a more efficient storm water drainage system.

“But the same authorities are planning to reclaim land along the city’s coast to build a long coastal road,” said Dayanand Stalin from Vanashakti, an environment protection non-profit group. “If you pack up the coast of the city, how will water drain out?”