Mumbai: Tenants-landlord tiff leaves heritage SoBo building on shaky ground

Updated: Dec 27, 2018, 20:10 IST | Arita Sarkar

Repair work of Kitab Mahal goes into limbo as occupants oppose owner's efforts to get them to vacate their shops

Mumbai: Tenants-landlord tiff leaves heritage SoBo building on shaky ground
Kitab Mahal is in serious need of repairs, but the landlord and tenants do not agree on evacuation. Pic/Suresh Karkera

These are shaky times for the tenants of Kitab Mahal, a landmark building in the city's heritage precinct. They fear that the landlord is trying to displace them under the pretext of repairs, while simultaneously putting their lives at risk with alleged illegal alterations to the structure. This includes locking the staircase in the west wing, one of the main exit routes of the building.

Tenants alleged that the landlord, Moti Bhatia, had locked the staircase on the west (facing Excelsior Cinema), which the sole exit route from that side of the building. While the east side (facing D N Road) also has a staircase and an elevator, if a fire were to break out that side, the tenants would have nowhere to go. Niloufer Kapadia, a member of the Kitab Mahal Residents Welfare Association, said, "In case a fire breaks out, only the east staircase can be used. But if there is a fire in the east side, we will all be trapped. We are now fighting for the survival of the building."

Unauthorised changes?
The association also sent a complaint to the fire brigade, heritage committee and A ward office last month, alleging that Bhatia had created additional toilets on the second floor and converted the passageway into rooms, despite no additional FSI. The tenants' concern further grew after the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) sent a letter to the BMC on November 9, mentioning that based on their Building Condition Survey, Kitab Mahal is in a very severe condition and dangerous for the occupants. The MMRC had undertaken the survey to gauge any potential danger to the building from the construction of Metro 3.

mid-day found the west staircase locked during a recent visit
mid-day found the west staircase locked during a recent visit

"The landlord submitted a structural audit report which stated that the second and third floor is in good condition, but major structural repairs need to be carried out on the ground and first floors, which will have to be evacuated. The tenants of the building, however, submitted another report which stated that the repairs can be carried out without evacuation," said an official from A ward. A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) heard the issue and, on November 26, decided that the ground, mezzanine and first floor will be partially evacuated during repairs. The TAC's written order is still awaited.

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Don't want to vacate
Meanwhile, other tenants alleged that the landlord was just searching for an excuse to displace them. One of the 40-odd tenants who have set up shops and offices in the ground-plus-four-storeyed building is the Indo American Society (IAS), which hosts classes for public speaking and communication skills. "We have been hosting classes here for the past 60 years and now the landlord is trying to get us to vacate the premises. Despite several attempts to convince the builder to let us carry out repairs in our premises, he refused," said C Parameshwar Iyer, one of the executive committee members of the Society.

He added, "A couple of years ago, Bhatia had repaired the second and third floors, but deliberately left out the ground and first floor." Another member of the IAS management, Upendra Sheth, said that their lease agreement expired in 1999, but the landlord is unwilling to renew it. "We have concerns that if we leave then we may not be allowed to come back again," he said.

The landlord says
Moti Bhatia claimed that none of the alterations were illegal. When asked about the locked stairway, he said that it was done by tenants on the first floor for security purposes. "A guard is posted at the gate and he has a key. Anyone can access the gate. I have adhered to all fire safety norms," said Bhatia. Referring to the Indo American Society, he said, "They are illegal tenants; their lease expired in 1999, but I never took action against them. I offered to take care of all the repairs but they are not willing to vacate. I am even ready to rehouse them after the repairs, and we can have discussions about it."

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