Affordable housing: A distant dream

Flying into Mumbai in the daytime and the first thing that strikes you is the desperate attempts by people to live wherever and however they can in this mammoth city. And the second thing that strikes you is how all those people have been cheated of a most basic right: affordable housing.

State od Disarray: In all the plans about making Mumbai a world-class city, the most vital requirement has been ignored — affordable housing

There has been a lot of discussion about the impeding demolition of the illegal floors in the buildings in Worli’s Campa Cola compound. Some have felt that because the residents of those buildings belonged to the middle and upper classes, they got the sort of political and media attention they did. Even if that were true, the fact is that residents of the Campa Cola compound also belong to the teeming masses of Mumbai looking for affordable accommodation, by whatever means possible.

Many more get very angry when slums get regularised in five year or 10 year slots, believing that politicians only do this to appeal to their ‘vote bank’. What many of the middle and upper classes of this city would like is for the government to continue with what it actually is doing — pushing the poor further and further out of the city so that the ‘eyesores’ that many see in slums as are no longer visible.

It is not a contradiction that politicians are pandering to the middle classes, the upper classes and the slums. They are doing all that but they are not doing them any favours. They are in fact catering to the needs of the builders and developers. Prices are kept artificially high — so high that almost no one can buy in South Mumbai any more. All new development is being pushed out but the poor are being pushed farthest away.

The biggest eyesores of Mumbai are not its slums. They are the gated communities which have sprung up all over Central Mumbai, especially in the erstwhile mill areas. These are artificial installations of the better off who are so terrified or disgusted by what lies outside their doors that they want to have nothing to do with the outside world — unless they can escape it in their air-conditioned cars with the doors centrally locked.

In all the plans about making Mumbai a world-class city, the most vital requirement has been ignored. Every year the Maharashtra Housing And Development Authority releases a few thousand flats. These are as useful as a few drops of water when you’re waiting for the monsoon. The slum redevelopment scheme, whatever the good intentions behind it, was soon revealed to be a massive land-grappling exercise where Mumbai’s floor space index rules were manipulated to create more homes for the middle classes and above while pretending to rehabilitate slum dwellers. Today, the middle classes can’t afford Mumbai either.

Contrary to popular belief, no one actually chooses to live in a slum with minimal sanitation and a daily struggle for water and myriad other problems. And contrary to that other sentimental notion, slums are powerhouses of small scale industry not because they are slums but in spite of being slums.

By handing over the problem of affordable housing to developers, Mumbai’s authorities have actually doomed all the city’s poor. No upper middle class person wants a building full of former slum dwellers in the next compound of their fancy new apartment block called Daffodil or Cholmondeley or even Rhodesia as was advertised the other day. Like in the historical Rhodesia — no irony here at all — the ‘other’ is to be kept away. It’s not as if there is no land, even in a land-strapped city like Mumbai, it’s just that the land is needed for different things.

And that includes land meant for playgrounds, for schools, for open spaces, for salt pans, for mangroves — it is be gobbled up for commercial and higher income housing. When the Urban Land Ceiling Act was repealed a few years ago, Mumbai was promised plenty of extra space. Who knows where that went? The New South Mumbai that’s nowhere near South Mumbai?

The politicians might pretend to weep for you, rich and poor. But you know they’re laughing all the way to the bank. 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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