Mumbai: Amidst government apathy, many landlords pray that Fort falls down

Jun 17, 2018, 15:15 IST | Jane Borges

Controlled rents' high maintenance and little financial assistance means that only few can afford upkeep of British-era buildings that give city character

Mumbai: Amidst government apathy, many landlords pray that Fort falls down
A fire gutted Kothari Mansion on June 9. On June 24, a UNESCO committee meeting will decide on the heritage status of Fort and Marine Drive

Last Saturday' after a major fire gutted the British-Era Kothari Mansion' yet another chapter in South Mumbai's Fort area came to an end. Historian Deepak Rao' who until a year ago' lived a few kilometres away from this four-storey structure' remembers how the building was once the dug-out for office-goers' who'd head to the Light of Asia restaurant - situated on its ground floor - to grab a quick chai or have kheema pav.

A collector of rare books on the city' Rao skims through his 1947 edition of the Bombay Street Directory' which apart from the iconic eatery also mentions the guesthouse Deccan Lodge' Hindu Hotel and other electrical and pharma offices that decorated this structure for over half a century. If there was any semblance of their existence' it either disappeared in the billowing grey clouds of smoke that engulfed the building or got lost under piles of rubble' still waiting to be cleared.

The incident at Kothari Mansion is just a sneak-peak into the uncertain future of other structures in the vicinity' especially along DN Road - also known as the Heritage Mile - that are currently in a state of disrepair. "What is happening to Fort in micro is already happening to the rest of the city in macro. The old is making way for the new'" said an 80-year-old long-time resident' on condition of anonymity. He blames the authorities for ignoring this centuries-old precinct. "There is no strength lacking [to save Fort]' there is only will that is lacking'" he rues.

V Ranganathan' former chairman of Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC)' also the honorary secretary of Somaiya Vidyavihar Trust that owns the famed Somaiya Bhavan near Flora Fountain' says there is nothing more pressing and urgent than rescuing Fort' which falls under A Ward of the BMC' from this state of apathy and neglect. "In Mumbai' this is the only part of the city' which has got great heritage value. Without Fort' the city will be characterless'" he says.

Part of Kothari Mansion, which was home to the iconic Light of Asia restaurant, collapsed after a fire broke out inside the building on June 9
Part of Kothari Mansion, which was home to the iconic Light of Asia restaurant, collapsed after a fire broke out inside the building on June 9

Why nobody loves Fort
There are two kinds of buildings in the area' says city conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. "One is the grain and the other' landmark. Grains' which are part of the residential fabric of the city' play the inconspicuous matrix of the city' while landmarks [like Rajabhai Tower] stand out' as they identify themselves and give legibility to the city'" he explains. Outside of Fort' several grain structures are now being redeveloped' and as they grow taller' they end up becoming prominent landmarks' too. "But' with Fort being a designated precinct' vertical development is next to impossible. Hence' many developers don't take up redevelopment of buildings here' as there is no extra incentive' like added FSI etc'" said a senior official of MHCC' on condition of anonymity.

What is' however' proving to be a major roadblock is that most of the buildings in Fort are tenanted and governed by old tenancy laws' under the Bombay Rents' Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act' 1947. As property prices began escalating' maintenance cost also started increasing' but there was a freeze on rent'" explains advocate Vinod Sampat' president of the Co-operative Societies Residents Users and Welfare Association. Over the years' landlords have made several appeals in court. When the Maharashtra Rent Control Act of 1999 came into being' the rents of tenanted buildings were increased' but negligibly.

DN Road is lined with several buildings of heritage value
DN Road is lined with several buildings of heritage value

Zubair Botawala' one of the trustees of the HIMS Botawala Charities Trust' which owns over 30 buildings across South Mumbai' and four near Horniman Circle alone' says he currently collects a paltry sum of R25'000 annually from one building. Of this' he pays R23'000 to the state authorities as tax and Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) as cess. "I don't make enough to pay my staff' let alone spare money to repair my buildings'" he says.

The problem is compounded by the bureaucratic hurdles' including extensive paperwork and permissions' required to undertake repairs of buildings in Fort. Rajesh Loya and his co-director Jaydeep Mehta' who run Techno Group' purchased four buildings in Fort in 2002' and have been working towards restoring them in a phased manner' mostly out of passion for preserving the architecture.

Rajesh Loya and Jaydeep Mehta, who run Techno Group, purchased four buildings in Fort in 2002. Loya says bringing down Modi Building 1 and 2, on Nagindas Master Lane, and building a new one would have been much cheaper than restoring it
Rajesh Loya and Jaydeep Mehta, who run Techno Group, purchased four buildings in Fort in 2002. Loya says bringing down Modi Building 1 and 2, on Nagindas Master Lane, and building a new one would have been much cheaper than restoring it

Currently' a majority of the buildings in Fort have been given precinct status' while a few also fall under the Grade II and Grade III heritage category. While repairs are allowed' none can be undertaken until permission is granted by the MHCC' which has to be notified about any changes being made within the structure. NOCs also have to be given by the BMC and MHADA' which is tasked with redevelopment of cessed buildings. Though MHCC is "lenient with changes being made within precinct structures' provided the basic character of the building is maintained'" Loya says permissions for each building alone have taken him anywhere between 9 and 12 months. "To be honest' I would not want my building to collapse. But if you see it from the landlord's point of view' these buildings are a white elephant for us' and it's sad that many pray that they fall down' without anyone getting injured'" adds Botawala.

Zubair Botawala. Trustee of HIMS Botawala Charities Trust, which owns 30 buildings
Zubair Botawala. Trustee of HIMS Botawala Charities Trust, which owns 30 buildings

Risk of fire
Just a week before the Kothari building fire' a major fire broke out at Scindia House in Fort's Ballard Estate' which houses the investigation wing of the Income Tax Department' destroying three floors of the right wing. "Most buildings in Fort were constructed a century ago' or even earlier'" says Ranganathan. "At the time' the fire safety standards that are now prescribed in various municipal regulations were not in force. So' you would find that these buildings were not designed with fire safety measures. The second aspect in the construction of these buildings was that a lot of times' wood was used' making the building inflammable in a fire situation'" he says.

Another reason for the buildings being fire-prone is its electrification' says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. She points out "how the electrical systems have been altered and wired ad-hoc by various users' which is often the root cause of short circuiting". The buildings were electrified for basic lighting and fans' but now have a large number of computers and ACs installed. "The electric wiring is unable to take that kind of load'" says Ranganathan.

V Ranganathan, former chairman of Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee
V Ranganathan, former chairman of Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee

If that's not any worse' the coming in of high-end eateries in Fort is also posing a risk' says Botawala' who has leased the ground floor of one of the trust's buildings to a restaurant.

In 2012' a few months after the Mantralaya building fire' Ranganathan' in the capacity of MHCC chairman' had suggested a slew of measures to prevent fire incidents. "We had asked the Mumbai Fire Brigade that they carry out fire audit [of these buildings] every six months' and do regular fire drills. We also requested examination of the electrical wiring system in these buildings' once every 10 years. However' the resources of the chief fire officer of the BMC were not adequate for such audits'" he says.

Under the Fire Safety Act' there is a provision for landlords to get a fire audit of their buildings done from a licensed auditor. But if they don't have the revenue to maintain the building' it's impossible to expect them to gather resources to carry out these audits.

DK Jagdale, chief officer, repair and reconstruction board of MHADA
DK Jagdale, chief officer, repair and reconstruction board of MHADA

The way forward
Ranganathan admits that the low rentals being collected from properties in Fort' is currently coming in the way of Fort's restoration. Loya' who enlisted the services of Dilawari to restore Modi Building' on Nagindas Master Lane in Fort' while refusing to reveal the expenses their company had to incur' says that bringing down the entire building' and making a new one would have cost him 2.5 times less. "But this is part of our city's history' and it is our responsibility to maintain it. We have to do whatever it takes to keep the buildings heritage value intact'" he says. Unfortunately' he says' the government does not recognise such effort.

Ranganathan says he had recommended to the government that certain incentives and concessions be given to the owners of the building. "For starters' if they are maintaining the building' their property tax should be reduced. We also suggested a heritage fund' so that if they are doing any major repairs' they can take assistance. In some cases' when the potential of the plot is not fully exploited' whatever is the balance potential they should be given Transferable Development Rights (TDR)' which they can sell in the market and get some money for maintenance."

"Today it's more lucrative to inherit the tenancy of the building' than its ownership. To freeze rental values in time is bizarre. The policy makers need to consider coming up with a special package for Fort alone' because it is' sadly on the verge of decay'" says Lambah.

The civic body continues to remain oblivious to the problems of the tenants or landlords' and is quick to blame them. Kiran Dighavkar' assistant commissioner' A Ward of the BMC' says' "In the case of Kothari Mansion' the building was vacated two years ago' after it was declared unsafe. What we noticed is that a tenant took an NOC from the MHADA to carry out repairs' but didn't end up doing the necessary work. We have instructed MHADA to file an FIR against the said tenant' because it is due to this person's idleness that we lost a heritage structure." He adds' "If landlords can't afford to repair these structures' they should let MHADA undertake the repairs' as it's the official body to do so."

However' both tenants and landlords are of the opinion that MHADA is incompetent to handle repairs of such nature. "They replace timber with steel'" says another resident from DN Road. Dilawari says that if steel catches fire' it wobbles' turns and falls down' putting the entire building at risk. "Wood is better than steel' because it only burns' and can be doused quickly'" he added.

DK Jagdale' chief officer' repair and reconstruction board of MHADA' says' "If people are not keen on getting the MHADA to repair the buildings' it's only due to dispute between tenants and landlord on their preferred choice of developer."

What can't be ignored is that one of the city's prized jewels is fast-changing. "It used to be the hub of Mumbai's workforce' but now most of the corporates have moved to BKC. It is slowly becoming a touristy destination with small eating joints opening up. The disadvantage of this is that the large corporate identity of these buildings is getting fragmented. The footfall in Fort has also reduced. This trend is not very positive' and indicates that growth has declined. It's the first sign of decay'" says Dilawari. "Fort is now a large tree' which is hollow and shrinking."

Also read: Mumbai Fire: Blaze guts mansion at Fort

RANGANATHAN'S SUGGESTIONS
* For those maintaining heritage buildings' property tax should be reduced
* Create a heritage fund so that those undertaking major repairs can get financial assistance

WHAT MAKES these BUILDINGS VULNERABLE TO FIRE
* They were not designed with fire safety measures
* Timber was used for construction' making them inflammable in a fire situation
* Over the years' electrical wiring has been altered ad-hoc — root cause of short circuiting
* Electrical system — built for basic lighting and fans — can’t take load of computers and ACs

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