Citizens of Mumbai have just a few more days to raise objections to the revised draft of Mumbai’s 20-year Development Plan for 2014-2034. The 1,000-page document was released in full at the end of May, but citizens have been given only two months – till the end of July – to respond to it. The Development Plan, prepared by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the city’s civic body, will serve as a blueprint for the city’s growth over two decades.

Unlike when the Development Plan was first released in February last year, there has been remarkably little discussion in the public domain on the revised draft. So far, only 2,200 objections have been filed, against 50,000 previously.

The first version of the Development Plan was met with much criticism and found to be riddled with errors. The Maharashtra government then scrapped the document and asked the civic body to revise and republish it as well as seek public opinion afresh.

Apart from containing numerous factual errors, the first draft had advocated transit-oriented development, arguing for higher floor-space index (or FSI, which is the ratio of buildable space to the area of the plot) near busy local railway stations like Dadar.

Even a layperson can imagine the congestion such increased development would cause in such transit nodes that already see a lot of commercial activity, heavy crowds and lots of activity. The BMC, as the civic body is known, had proposed increasing the FSI to a maximum of 8, as against the existing base figure of 1.33 in the island city and 1 in Mumbai’s suburbs.

Transit-oriented development is a concept that promotes the construction of high-density and mixed-use (commercial as well as residential) properties near mass-transit nodes to ensure that more people live and work within walking distance of railway stations and the like. The civic body, while scrapping the increased FSI, said in the revised draft that it would try to incorporate the principles of increasing public transport and “walkability” in the city’s development.

Conceivably, a similar concept was introduced by Vidyadhar Phatak, former chief planner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, in a World Bank document titled Working with the market: Approach to Urban Slums in India which he co-authored with Ahmedabad architect Bimal Patel with two others in 2010. Phatak was one of the main consultants for the Development Plan.

The revised plan

The BMC has to be commended for a much more sensible draft the second time around. A seasoned retired bureaucrat, Ramanath Jha, was appointed as officer on special duty to supervise the revision.

However, instead of releasing the entire report at one go, the BMC did so in installments, which somewhat took the wind out of the sails of city activists. A cursory glance might well convince a reader that there is nothing objectionable in the plan.

For instance, on the face of it, a welcome innovation in the revised draft is the reference to creating affordable housing. It is widely known that Mumbai’s real estate industry caters to at most 20% of the 13-million strong population. Formal housing remains unaffordable for most residents of the country’s commercial capital.

Around 50%, or 6.5 million people, in Mumbai live in slums, while another 2.5 million live in cessed and dilapidated buildings. Another 5% forms the floating population of public and private-sector employees living in rented premises. Another about 3-5% live in housing provided by their employers.

One can argue that this is precisely why the city’s real estate industry is in the doldrums today, with thousands of flats unsold, even as millions live without a permanent roof over their heads.

Additionally, a mega city like Mumbai should have ample rental accommodation for the entire spectrum of social classes. However, due to an archaic rent control Act and other factors, this too has not happened. Instead, there’s a peculiar imbalance in the city – there are people who have been living for decades in 2,500 sq ft flats in art deco buildings in prime areas like Marine Drive and other parts of the island city paying a few hundred rupees as rent, while others have to pay through their noses even for cramped spaces in far-flung suburbs on rent. This is because landlords cannot charge market rates for flats that come under the rent-control Act. And since landlords receive a paltry sum as rent for these buildings, they don’t repair their flats.

Buying a house in Mumbai, on the other hand, is a distant dream for all except those working in the highest echelons of multinationals, financial services or IT industries or in dual-income households.

Where will the land come from?

The revised plan estimates that the city requires a whopping 1 million affordable homes for around 4.4 million people.

But the BMC has resorted to a sleight of hand in stating that 3,300 hectares of land will be used for this noble purpose. Where from this land is going to be obtained remains a mystery.

The Development Plan states that no-development zones – lands that have been kept vacant for future use – are going to contribute the bulk of this. It will amount to 2,100 hectares. The newly designated tourism development areas, such as the Manori-Gorai-Uttan coastal belt in the far northern suburbs, are expected to provide 1,100 hectare. This, however, is a contradiction as the zone is meant to promote tourism, not provide low-cost housing. The small remainder is to come from salt pans – 130 hectare.

However, the catch is that both no-development zones and salt pan lands mostly constitute what the earlier Development Plan had identified as “natural areas” that should not be built upon. The civic body has said that it has exempted ecologically sensitive areas from no-development zones and revised the definition for the latest Development Plan. However, according to NGO Nivara Hakk and architect-activist PK Das, the no-development zones may be located in the midst of eco-sensitive land and constructing on them will require building roads through natural areas, resulting in their destruction.

In a peninsula like Greater Mumbai, such land ought to be kept open to absorb torrential downpours of the likes that were seen in the July 2005 deluge, when the city received 944 mm of rain in around 14 hours. As Mumbaiites learned during the massive flood, intertidal areas, such as mangroves and salt pans, serve as sponges to absorb excess rain. What also needs to be kept in mind is that Mumbai, like other coastal cities, is likely to see sea-levels rise with climate change.

Without clearly demarcating the areas to be used for affordable homes, Das said, the promise of 1 million homes remains a pie in the sky.

Rehabilitating slum-dwellers

He further pointed out that by proposing new greenfield sites – like no-development zones – the plan is underestimating the potential of redeveloping existing sites occupied by slums. The controversial Slum Rehabilitation Authority – which is tasked with rehabilitating certain categories of slum dwellers in permanent structures – the brainchild of the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition when it was in power in Maharashtra during the mid-1990s, has proved a failure and even the Development Plan estimates that it can provide only one lakh affordable homes. At this rate, it will take a century to rehabilitate all slum dwellers.

The Slum Rehabilitation Authority turns lands occupied by shanties over to builders who, in return, re-house them at no cost. However, the quality of their new homes leaves much to be desired. Many of them are hardly better than slums, albeit in the form of seven-or eight-floor high-rises.

One of India’s tallest residential buildings – the two 60-storey Imperial Towers in Tardeo – shows how slum redevelopment can go wrong. While most of the complex is, what Shapoorji Pallonji describes as “a new level of residential luxury in South Mumbai” with flats going up to five-bedroom duplexes sprawling over 10,355 sq ft, some of the buildings are for rehabilitated slum dwellers. In comparison to the sprawling luxury homes, these are cramped and poorly ventilated spaces.

Slum Rehabilitation Authority projects have a density of about 1,250 tenements per hectare, as against an existing 300 per hectare in slums. The authority has become a byword for corruption. The maintenance charges are prohibitive for slum dwellers and it is hardly surprising that many sell the homes and move back into slum clusters or a small apartment in the furthest suburbs.

The Development Plan also lists 1.74 lakh affordable homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, which envisions housing for all – a thinly disguised remake of the scheme which bore Rajiv Gandhi’s name during the United Progressive Alliance rule. However, nowhere does the plan identify where the land for such a scheme will materialise. The scheme is meant to financially assist slum dwellers so they can build or renovate their homes.

There's a way

In an extensive exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art a couple of years ago titled Open Mumbai, where he mapped the entire city with all its geographical and topographical features, Das showed that contrary to popular perception, slums actually comprise only around 8% of the 480 sq km that make up Greater Mumbai. This comes to about 37 sq km.

By removing land that will be used for supporting infrastructure, amenities and other purposes, the city is left 28 sq km that can be used to rehabilitate slum dwellers. If this land is reserved exclusively for such rehabilitation and using an FSI of 3, the BMC would be able to provide 1.3 million units. As many as 9,00,000 could be used for rehabilitation and 4,00,000 for sale – either ownership or rent.

As Das pointed out, “It will be possible to utilise an FSI of 3, limit density to a maximum of 550 tenements per hectare, provide open spaces, amenities and infrastructure as per town-planning norms and clear up encroachments on reservations for roads, amenities, open spaces etc.”

A clear precedent is the homes that the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Agency is building for former cotton mill workers. Homes are given out to beneficiaries at affordable rates – which can be as low as Rs 7.5 lakhs – through a lottery. Given that the land is available to the agency for free, it covers all its costs – there is no subsidy.

Similarly, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, under the Aam Aadmi Party government, is making available 270 sq ft tenements for Rs 1,20,000 at a subsidy. In addition, occupants contribute Rs 30,000 as a one-time fee which forms a corpus for maintenance of the buildings, which the board manages. After five years, this corpus will be transferred to the registered building society. Such examples show that where there is a will, affordable housing schemes can be effectively planned and implemented.