The erstwhile city of dreams has come to be one of nightmares. Incidents such as the building collapse at Mumbra suffice to prove it. Innocent lives have been lost, mostly those of daily-wage workers and labourers who had come to Mumbai to make a living, not die doing it.
The hardships for a lay Mumbaikar begin early in the morning when they set out to commute to the workplace. Looking for a decent house on rent, saving to buy one, spending quality time, coping with inflation, pollution and above all, buying commodities to get value for money in terms of peace of mind and happiness all come at an outlandish cost.
Today, Mumbai cannot be restricted to its limits of Mankhurd on the east, Mulund on the north-east or Dahisar on its north. Accommodating the ever-growing population in the city needs ample planning, especially in satellite towns connected via suburban rail network. The Mumbai metropolitan region (MMR), spanning from Vasai-Virar to Badlapur and Uran, is witnessing unchecked construction activity to accommodate the burgeoning people dependent on Mumbai for a livelihood.
The onus rests with the government and the civic body to regulate the construction boom and plan ahead to ensure development of supporting civic amenities along with the creation of business and residential clusters. Sadly, lack of vision and excess apathy is taking its toll, not just on the quality of life but on life itself, as the Mumbra episode, and others in recent history, serve to corroborate.
Where the establishment is left to count victims, offer aid and relief, announce inquiries and mete out punishments, it could instead work to uphold the rule of law. People have lost faith in the efficacy of administration, which turns a blind eye to the insidious neta-builder-babu nexus of graft, eating out the city from within.
The responsibility for any rampant construction lies with the local civic authority, which approves the building plan, provides water supply and conducts – or lapses in conducting - timely checks through the city engineer’s office to ensure quality of construction. In the Mumbra case, the building was built illegally without approvals by the TMC, and perversely enough, on a plot owned by the state. So it is as much a failure on the part of the municipal corporations as on the part of the state. The urban development department which controls civic bodies across the state is headed by the CM since 1995. He is also the appointing authority of commissioners of civic bodies. He is equally responsible.
Civic bodies in the state have mismanaged affairs to the extent that a lot many properties in Thane district alone have been usurped by land sharks for erecting illegal structures. Such breakdown has abraded the faith of citizens who feel cheated when it comes to the services provided in return for the huge taxes they pay.
The government cannot wash its hands of the responsibility after deputing senior government officers such as municipal commissioners. The implementation of the rules and laws is the purview of the government, the police and the office of the concerned district collector. There is no dearth of laws to govern cities. Right from Maharashtra Regional Town Planning Act to Fire Safety Act, several laws have been framed to ensure safety of people in commercial and residential buildings. But, ruefully, enforcement always takes a backseat.
Take the example of the Fire Safety Act. In an hour of crisis, it’s the local fire station that is called to conduct the rescue operation. But their recommendations and existing rules are hardly followed. Regulations are routinely twisted to accommodate the interests of unscrupulous builders who want to create more and more saleable area to wallow in the yields. A due share goes towards palm-greasing, to bend laws.
To wit, in Mumbai today, not more than one staircase is constructed for a building with a height of 70 metres. This was 24 metres earlier. In case of a fire breaking out or any other emergency, all the residents will use the one stairwell to run to safety, causing stampedes and further disaster. Even the national building code, which says that buildings beyond 15 metres in height should have two staircases, has been tossed out the window.
Another norm mutilated often is that every building should have enough open space to carry out rescue operation. Again, it’s up to the state’s town planning department, the civic body and the fire department to prevent violations. If any breach passes through them unnoticed, the contravening structure should be demolished. For that, the civic commissioner needs a free hand, and support from his staff. But it’s common knowledge that except the commissioner, most civic officials are locals who connive with unscrupulous elements to sate their greed and bask in political patronage.
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY