Builders' voice being heard

Ravikiran DeshmukhEver since Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan took the reins of the state, rarely any builder has been able to get a personal appointment with him. His utterances on builder-politician nexus and oblique references to wrongdoings have widened the gap between the chief minister’s office and the most powerful lobby in the state.

But the ice is thawing. “It’s not that all of a sudden builders have been offered personal interaction with the chief minister. They have to seek an appointment in the name of Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry to air grievances and seek redressal,” an official said.

A few recent developments have indicated that the voice of builders is now being heard. After an approval for the redevelopment proposal of Bhendi Bazar area in South Mumbai last year, the state urban development (UD) department headed by the chief minister recently approved the builders’ demand for relaxing floor space index (FSI) ceiling for special township projects.

The state policy on special townships, approved in 2006 by then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, allows an FSI of one. Now, the state UD has invited suggestions and objections to enhance it to 1.7. The hike will lead to hectic construction activity, as the permissible area of construction would almost double. The notable beneficiaries of the decision are said to be Lodha builders, which has planned more than two townships in Thane, followed by Indiabulls and the Hiranandanis.

But there’s a problem. Special townships were promoted in view of an increasing demand for housing across the state, and to de-congest big cities. Under way in and around Mumbai, Thane, Nashik, Nagpur and other cities, the integrated townships with all infrastructural amenities provide affordable as well as luxury homes to people looking for open spaces.

But increasing the FSI would lead to congestion and defeat the purpose of townships located outside municipal limits. They will get overpopulated and polluted, say critics, and offer no respite to people who want to move to the township for spacious environs from their crammed locales in cities.

Furthermore, the FSI of 1.7 is set to go up to 3.5 by amalgamating the FSI for roads and other infrastructure facilities, open spaces, playgrounds, gardens among other things. While offering the bonanza, the UD department has enhanced the component of low cost housing from 10% to 20% of the total housing stock. Importantly, the cap on commercial component is being increased from 15% to 25%.

The political circle is surprised with the decision. Some netas say direction came from New Delhi, as Chavan is not known for personal favours. A prominent city builder who has vast tracts of land in Thane and some premium housing projects in Mumbai and its suburbs was instrumental in the raising of the FSI. He has prospered during earlier Congress regimes in the state, but is known as a man of the opposition parties.

Even as the FSI matter has not faced many hiccups, another decision favouring a prominent developer created flutter in the Mantralaya. Despite some controversies, the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) offered a letter of intent to Lokhandwala builders for redevelopment of a huge plot in Worli, currently under possession of the BMC.

The matter was kept under review soon after Prithviraj Chavan took over as CM. It was first approved by his predecessor Ashok Chavan in August 2010, and termed vital to public interest in order to free up a Worli plot housing four slums comprising 2,500 structures. To make this happen, the controversial section 3k of the Slum Act, 1971 was invoked, which allows doing away with the mandatory 70% consent by slum dwellers. Calling it a ‘vital project in public interest’ also allows the government to enhance the cut-off date for legitimising illegal slum dwellers from 1995 to 2000.

Initially, Chavan was against invoking the clause and had cancelled similar projects in Borla village, Chembur and Malad-Malwani. Three projects at Hanuman Nagar in Kandivli, Salt Pan land in Wadala, and in Worli — were kept in abeyance. Approval for the Worli project came in the backdrop of BMC’s demand for rehabilitation of some slum dwellers affected by a sewerage project. It is said that as soon as the news of approval broke, the state housing department went into a huddle to chase its source.

If bureaucratic sources are to be believed, over 150 proposals for changing zones from no development to development, commercial to residential and so on are currently with the UD department under various stages of consideration and approval. Such decisions give enough indications that elections are fast approaching.

The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY 

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