Fear stalks the hillside

South Mumbai residents fear copycat landslide, protest change in nomenclature at Slum Rehabilitation project on Cumballa Hill

When rumbling boulders and mud cascaded down a South Mumbai Hill and crashed into Vellard View building at Haji Ali-Tardeo (near Heera Panna), the South Mumbai landslide, which resulted in a death, sent alarm bells ringing through the area. While Vellard View residents of 'B' and 'C' wings of the building face an uncertain future having vacated the building affected by the slide, trepidation has spread amongst residents of the tony Meher Apartments and Olympus building on Altamount Road and housing societies at Forjett Street. Their worries about a possible landslide have gained traction with the   Vellard View catastrophe. Residents point an accusing finger at a Slum Redevelopment Project coming up on the eastern side of Cumbulla Hill by Halkara Builders. Residents say this is a Green Hill Slope claiming that it was cleared of slums, a couple of years ago.

Vantage Point: A look at where the project is slated to come up  

Look at what is going on: Dhiren Sevak of Anand Nagar points at the

See you in court: Capt A Batra on the terrace of Meher Apts, which has
filed a writ in the High Court

Ownership issues: Vijay Vaswani of Olympus which is also in the court

Now, these slum dwellers are to be rehabilitated in SRA development coming up on the piece of land, a project of the magnitude, which they claim would entail cutting of the hill and endanger lives. 

Meher Apartments at Altamount Road has already filed a writ petition in the High Court. Parts of the writ cite their objections and fears to the SRA-Halkara builders project. Parts of the  writ state: 'The Petitioners have been constrained to approach this Hon'ble Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India to challenge a development project, which is coming up adjacent to the building owned by the Petitioner No. 1.

(b)The construction of the proposed rehabilitation and sale buildings involves excavation of the foundation of the eastern slopes of the Cumballa Hill.  Apart from the illegality of the development, being contrary to the Sanctioned Development Plan, the proposed development poses a grave danger to the life and property of persons residing on the eastern cliff of Cumballa Hill.  As a result of the quarrying and removal of the foundation of a hill-side, an earthquake or denudation caused by the rain and other elements, could trigger the collapse of Cumballa hillside resulting in death of thousands of residents and the destruction of valuable property. 

The Petitioners state and submit that the site on which the construction activity appears to be commencing is not capable of being developed. The construction activity is taking place on what is shown on the Sanctioned Development Plan as a 'Green Hill Slope'.  Any construction on a Green Hill Slope is completely illegal as the Government of Maharashtra has categorically stated vide its letter from its Urban Development Department to the Petitioner dated August 21, 2004 that a Green Hill slope is 'not available for any construction/development of any nature without a change in such nomenclature.' However the Respondent Authorities have appeared to have changed the nomenclature of the Green Hill slope despite the vociferous objections of the Petitioners who appeared before the SRA CEO and voiced through its representatives and put forth all their objections, which were duly recorded by the Respondent

No. 2. The Respondent Authorities seem to have totally ignored and disregarded the objections raised by the Petitioner Society."

Says Capt. Ashok Batra, Meher Apartments resident and chairman of the Altamount Road Area Citizens Committee (ARACC), "This is part of the same slope that affected Vellard View and that would have to be cut to make way for the project. There is simply not enough land for a project like this without the hill being cut, putting lives in danger. I cannot believe the greed and callousness behind giving permissions like these. How can that be allowed? Besides, there is also the change in nomenclature from Green Hill Slope." According to residents, there are at least four towers of 19 storeys each slated to come up on the land to rehabilitate the slum dwellers. They insist that their fear of landslides is legitimate. Dhiren Sevak of the Anand Nagar building which comes under the umbrella of the Swantantra Bhavan Co-Operative Housing Society at Forjett Street, directly affected by the project, shores up the argument citing previous calamities in the area. Sevak says, "Our writ is being prepared by the lawyer and we should be in the High Court very soon. Our society comprises four wings A, B, C and D and we have approximately 220 flats. In July 2000, there was a landslide where boulders from this hill came tumbling down. Mud cascaded and rocks smashed into the balcony on the first floor of B wing. This project has compounded fears of similar landslides."

For Prithviraj Chavan, secretary of the Jai Hari Co-Operative Housing Society on Forjett Street, the project, "has thrown the life of several of our 205 tenants out of gear. The tin sheets put up by the builder marking the boundary has resulted in sunlight and fresh air being blocked from a number of homes. Besides, of course, we have fears of a possible landslide with work going on, on the hill above us." Vijay Vaswani, honorary secretary of the Olympus building committee next to Meher Apartments says, "We have also filed a writ in the High Court.
We have another issue, which is that of ownership. Part of this land taken for the project belonged to the Olympus Society. Moreover, we are not against rehabilitating the slum dwellers but cutting the hill, which this project would entail would definitely affect the foundation of buildings like ours. There is a danger of the whole thing collapsing." Residents ridicule suggestions that they are against the Slum Rehabilitation project because they are elite SoBos and they do not want slum dwellers to reside near them. "It is the illegality of the change in nomenclature and danger that we are worried about. Ask the authorities to address those qualms instead of making this a fight between haves and have nots," they end angrily.

Landslides in the past
A writ cites several landslides occurring around the area in the past. It says: Major landslides have already occurred in the recent past in the Cumballa Hill / M.L. Dahanukar Marg area on various occasions.  In the 1970s, there was a landslide on the Cadbury House plot.
Also, in the 1970s, there were landslides on the plots where the buildings Seagull and Jolly Villa stand.  In the 1980s, there were landslides in the plots of Carmichael House and Usha Kiran. It is submitted that the plot on which the construction appears to be about to commence, adjacent to the building of the Petitioner No. 1 society, is the very same plot where one landslide took place in the early 1970s and one landslide took place in July 2000.  It is submitted that the large-scale excavation carried out has increased the possibility of a landslide, which would completely destroy buildings atop Cumballa Hill.

A long battle
The battle against the construction though gathering steam now, has been on for a few years. It was way back in 2004, that the late artist Jehangir Sabavala and a group of Altamount Road residents supported by Carmichael Road and the Tardeo-Haji Ali belt had filed their objections to changing the nomenclature of the Green Hill Slope behind the Altamount Road area in South Mumbai to Slum Rehabilitation Area. A hearing for the residents of the area was convened at the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) office before the then SRA Chief Executive Officer Ujjwal Ukke. Changing the Green Hill Slope they said into Slum Rehabilitation Area will necessarily mean that besides rehabilitation, the developer will get additional FSI to construct buildings around the area. The development will mean cutting the Green Hill Slope adding to the danger lurking in this seismic zone. Residents had then stated that the proposal was also an attempt to circumvent, bypass and nullify the July 2002 High Court order of Bombay which restrains the state Maharashtra and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority from sanctioning, "without the permission of the court any rehabilitation scheme in respect of open spaces which are reserved for gardens, parks, playgrounds, recreational spaces, maidans, no development zones, pavements, roads and carriageways". However, at that time, Ukke argued that, 'Green Hill Slope' is not a 'reservation' area, and therefore it can be changed to Slum Rehabilitation Scheme Area.

Eye on Environment
The Environment Secretary Valsa Nair Singh sent a letter to the Swantantra Bhavan Co-operative Housing Society Ltd. In the letter, she states destruction to the hillock and other areas, or a potential threat due to the high seismic activity was not brought up before the Expert Committee when the project was being approved. Here is a copy of the letter.

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