Two incidents in the past week should be enough to send politicians into a shell. For two days, the situation at Mantralaya was chaotic. The police and security personnel had a tough time dealing with the thousands of people gathered near Mantralaya to submit forms for homes they claimed were available at cheaper rates. Entry gates of Mantralaya had to be closed as the situation threatened to go out of hand.
In another incident, a group of physically challenged persons entered the bungalow of Social Justice Minister Shivajirao Moghe and refused to leave until their demands were accepted. One may not recall such incidents occurring in the state capital, a nerve centre due to its importance as the business and commercial hub of India.
These incidents are worrying since people breached the security cover, unmindful of legal consequences. The government could not do much, as the use of police force may have escalated the situation even though Mantralaya and Moghe’s official residence, Muktagiri, which is near the chief minister’s official residence, are highly protected zones where assembly of people is banned.
The situation betrays a sense of panic, as the Congress-NCP government is worried over repercussions during the coming elections of Lok Sabha and later the state assembly elections. People gathered near Mantralaya were part of a political agitation, a brainchild of the Maharashtra Democratic Front (MDF), an alliance of 15 political groups including the Bharatiya Republican Party led by Prakash Ambedkar and Lal Nishan Party led by Milind Ranade. The MDF has launched an agitation against the Powai area development scheme being implemented by MMRDA and developed by Hiranandani.
The MDF must be aware that the Bombay High Court has already acted on the issue and is still monitoring the implementation of directives to construct low-cost homes it has given. Hence, the logic behind this sudden agitation was difficult to understand. In other words, it was contempt of court.
But political parties, in their zest to steal a march on others, can go to any extent. Who would have been held responsible had there been a stampede near Mantralaya? Similar questions can be posed to independent MLA Bachhu Kadu, whose NGO, Prahar, led the agitation at the ministerial bungalow that shares a wall with the CM’s official
Another important feature of the rush-for-home incident is that people from Mumbai’s suburbs and adjoining Thane skipped their daily routines to attend the protests. It only shows the gravity of the problem of housing in Mumbai and Thane. As such, it requires serious attention by the Congress-led government, which had announced a housing policy in 2007, with a number of housing schemes.
The state has entrusted the job of creation of housing stock to the Maharashtra Housing And Area Development Authority (MHADA) and the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA). After developing a number of colonies, MHADA started construction of residential buildings in the late 80s and 90s.
But its housing stock was not an attractive proposition till 2004-05, due to the quality of construction. Clusters of buildings such as the one at Powai were lying unsold and the housing body had to convince central government agencies to purchase the high rises. When the rates of houses started zooming, lower and middle classes were left with no option but to buy MHADA flats. But the land bank of the agency has shrunk and there are very few locations left for mass housing.
The creation of SRA has always been controversial, as it is alleged that the agency was set up for builders and now it is run by the builders, for the builders. Today, one can see swanky towers built for open-market sale, on plots once occupied by slums.
On the other hand, rehab buildings for slum dwellers are in a pathetic condition. The state has ignored issues related to slum redevelopment. The day is not far away when buildings built for slum dwellers will be unliveable. An important aspect needs to be discussed now and it is about whether the state is interested in decongesting Mumbai or not.
Made of seven islands, the city has certain limitations that have been always bypassed for the sake of development, with an eye on profits of the construction lobby. Now that corporate houses are preferring to shift from south Mumbai to the suburbs and Navi Mumbai, the state should think twice before investing funds for new infrastructure projects in the island city.
Instead of forcing people to go to south Mumbai, the state should have put in its wisdom to develop the Mumbai Metropolitan Region with better infrastructure facilities along with business hubs and ideal townships. But who cares?
- The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY