In May, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across India, the Mumbai municipal corporation decided to allot 11 empty buildings in the eastern Mahul neighbourhood to be used as a quarantine facility for suspected Covid-19 patients from the city’s overcrowded Arthur Road Jail. The buildings had been erected between 2007 and 2011 as part of a large complex to rehouse people displaced by infrastructure projects across the city.

The plan prompted vociferous objections from other residents of the complex, who feared that it would put them at risk of infection from the virus. Already, researchers have recorded an especially high prevalence of disease in the Mahul complex, which is located near heavily polluting industries.

The municipal corporation’s proposal resulted in a court battle. Though the buildings were finally not used to isolate the patients, the story of Mahul’s township for project affected persons put the spotlight on the flaws in the city’s policy of relaxing building codes to construct tenements to rehouse slum dwellers.

It was a reminder that even when the city’s poor are given free homes, the layout and building designs have created unhealthy spaces that are unfit for human habitation.

Relaxed codes

The Mahul township – consisting of 17,205 tenements in 70-odd seven-storey buildings – was completed in 2011 by a private developer under the Project Affected Persons scheme of the city’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority. In exchange, the developer and the landowner were both granted extra building rights that they could use on a project elsewhere in Mumbai’s suburbs, north of the plot in Mahul. This arrangement is known as “transferable development rights”.

Originally built to house people displaced by the Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drainage project, the Mahul township is now home to about 30,000 persons displaced by various infrastructure projects.

However, the resettled families have experienced severe health problems. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal said that Mahul was “unfit for human habitation”. This was based on an air sample analysis by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in 2014 indicating high levels of toluene.

The previous year, a survey by the Environment Pollution Research Centre of King Edward Memorial hospital recorded that “67% of the residents in Mahul complained of breathlessness more than three times a month, 86.6% suffered from eye irritation and 84.5% reported a choking sensation due to bad air quality”.

In September 2019, due to the green tribunal ruling, the Bombay High Court ruled against project affected people being moved here. Despite these rulings, vacant flats at the same township were being considered to serve as a quarantine facility for Covid-19 infected prisoners.

There are several hazardous industries around the Mahul complex. Credit: Collective for Spatial Alternatives

It isn’t clear how such a large complex was built in this location in the first place. When Mumbai’s first Development Plan was prepared in 1967, the residential density permitted for the M ward in which Mahul is located was deliberately limited to half of the level allowed in other Mumbai suburbs. This was done with a view to minimising the number of people exposed to risks from the hazardous heavy industries in the area – a fertiliser factory, refineries and an atomic energy installation. This low density was also prescribed when the Development Plan was revised in 1994.

But since the late 1990s, new state policies introduced various incentives for private developers in a bid to produce mass housing for the poor without public spending,

In Mumbai, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority was set up in 1995 as a Special Planning Authority in charge of redevelopment of all the slum areas in the city with sweeping powers to act independently. The government promised free housing to all slum dwellers who were in Mumbai prior to 1995, which effectively meant having to provide about eight lakh free homes.

To achieve this, on plots occupied by slums, real-estate developments were allowed to construct more buildings, closer together, with lesser open space than the normal regulations permitted. The Floor Space Index for the scheme was increased from 2.5 to 4. Floor Space Index refers to the ratio of the total permissible built-up area allowed on a plot to the total plot area.

Developers could use two-thirds of a plot to build flats to be sold on the open market, in order to subsidise tenements of 269 square feet on the remaining land for the people who lived in the slums there.

Mumbai’s most-traded commodity

If the FSI allotted to the plot was not exhausted after housing all the slum households and the resale flats, then the remaining FSI could be transferred – or traded – to build anywhere in the suburbs north of the plot.

In addition, developers who built housing for people displaced by infrastructure projects or transit housing for slum rehabilitation were given extra FSI as transferable development rights.

Soon, slum TDR became the most-traded commodity in Mumbai. To maximise development on slum plots, the prevalent building standards were diluted and relaxed for all Slum Redevelopment Authority projects. Adherence to the maximum permissible density norms and prevalent light and ventilation standards in such projects were waived.

Since 1995, when the Slum Rehabilitation Authority was formed, only 200,060 slum households of the original target of 800,000 have been given new homes. However, more than 74,000 Project Affected Persons have been resettled through these policies in much less time.

The Mahul complex. Credit: Collective for Spatial Alternatives

A closer look at all these housing units for Project Affected Persons reveals that a lot of this stock has been created on the most undesirable patches of land in the city, with the lowest real estate values, which the developers then exchanged for development rights to be sold in the western suburbs at the highest real estate value destinations. Thus, the developers made obscene profits.

For every project, they consciously chose plots that were of the lowest possible real estate value to locate the transit housing, so as to maximise profits through transferable development rights. As a result, the majority of the housing units for Project Affected Persons that have been built are located either next to the Deonar landfill site (Natwar Parikh, Lalubhai compound in Govandi West) or adjacent to the hazardous heavy industrial area at Mahul, endangering the lives of at least 60,000 people so far (30,000 at each location).

Both locations are in M (East) ward. Since the M ward has always been considered a high-risk ward by the development plans for Mumbai, it should never have been cleared to receive any additional high-density housing. However, the Maharashtra government has, through its slum housing policies, instituted super-dense housing in precisely the ward with maximum risk in the city.

No light or air

To make matters worse, in these Slum Rehabilitation Authority schemes, the state government diluted the existing building codes (for example, those relating to light, ventilation, safety standards and density norms). It also reduced the open space required on the side and rear of buildings, These complexes pack in many more buildings closer together and result in densities that are often double or triple the 500 dwelling units per hectare advised by the National Building Code.

The minimum side open space for a 24-metre high building in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority scheme was reduced from 8 metres to just 3 metres (now increased to 6 metres in the latest Development Plan DP 2034 sanctioned in September 2018). As a result, sunlight does not enter at all in most apartments during the day. Ventilation is also severely compromised due to the fact that rooms in these buildings only have single sliding windows that allow just half the window to be actually open.

It follows that when light and ventilation standards are compromised, ill-health increases and disease like tuberculosis and skin conditions flourish. In addition, these schemes are a safety nightmare since there is not enough space left around the buildings for fire engines to stand.

The Mahul complex. Credit Credit: Collective for Spatial Alternatives

What lessons can Mumbai learn from the M East ward resettlement horror stories with regard to housing in the post-pandemic era?

To achieve “fairer, more inclusive and resilient housing”, as World Bank experts Luis Triveno and Olivia Nielsen have called for, it is imperative that, in future, we do not dilute building codes when we build for the urban poor since – as should have been obvious - poor lives matter.

We need to pay heed to what medical researchers have said regarding tuberculosis: our “tropical climate, coupled with high population density, also favours longer survival of the bacilli” and “good ventilation, either natural or mechanical seems to be the optimal solution to reduce the risk of infection”.

We need to understand the real impacts of incentive Floor Space Index and Transferable Development Rights on the ground. Beyond increasing land supply for speculative gain and profits for the market and the state, their real impacts have been borne by the poor in the city.

It is high time that we apply uniform building codes governing light, ventilation and safety for all housing in the city, so that everyone in Mumbai can aspire to be healthy and safe – not just the rich.

The Mahul complex has been built very close to heavy industries. Credit: Collective for Spatial Alternatives

Malini Krishnankutty is an urban planner and is currently Adjunct Associate Professor at the Centre for Urban Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay. The views expressed in the article are the author’s personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect those of IIT Bombay.

A time of unprecedented social suffering and uncertainty, Covid-19 serves as a moment of crisis as well as possibility for making urban policy differently. This article is part of an eight-part series that seeks to address the question of how the pandemic could be used to transform Mumbai into a more inclusive, resilient city. Read the other articles here.