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A file photo of the collapsed building in Thane, Mumbai. Photo: PTI (PTI)
A file photo of the collapsed building in Thane, Mumbai. Photo: PTI

Maharashtra Newsletter | Time to speed up rental housing policy

The Thane building collapse may force the state govt to expedite the issue of offering safe housing to working class

Mumbai: On Thursday, 72 people lost their lives and 40 were injured—some seriously—when a seven-storied building came crashing down in Lucky Compound at Sheel Phata area of Thane, a satellite town of Mumbai, once again bringing to the fore the issue of illegal constructions in the Mumbai metropolitan region (MMR), the unholy nexus among politicians, builders and bureaucrats, and the crying need for affordable rental and housing.

Spread over 4,355 sq. km, MMR covers Mumbai, and parts of Thane and Raigad districts and has a population of at least 20 million, roughly one-fifth of Maharashtra’s population—an urban agglomeration with the highest population density in the world.

Going by the Times of India’s report on Saturday, MMR has some 500,000 illegal constructions. This is despite the state having a law which holds local municipal ward officers and senior police inspectors responsible for illegal constructions and calls for their immediate suspension and prosecution.

Not a single civic or police officer has been suspended or prosecuted in last 15 years anywhere in the state for overlooking the mushrooming of illegal constructions till this event. On Friday, state chief minister announced suspension of a civic official and a police inspector in relation to the Thane building collapse.

The law also authorizes municipal commissioner to terminate membership of the corporator if it is found he or she either owns illegal construction, encourages them or protects them. So far, only two corporators have lost their position on this count and none of them is from MMR.

Two developers who built the Thane multi-storied building—Jamil Kureshi and Salim Sheikh—were arrested on Saturday. The builder duo had not only finished the construction in record time of three months but also sold most of the flats. The apartments were sold at 1,400-1,500 per sq. ft, whereas in authorized building in the vicinity, with construction plans approved by the municipal corporation, flats are sold at no less than 3,500-4,000 per sq. ft, making them unaffordable for most.

This means the buyers of the flats at the illegal building were as much a victim of greed as the builders who constructed them, with only difference being that Kureshi and Sheikh wanted to make money while the buyers were looking for an affordable roof over their head.

The demand for creation of affordable housing stock for Mumbai’s working class population is not new. Through Bombay Improvement Trust and Bombay Development Department, the Britishers had built some 350 chawls in city’s south central part between 1900 and 1940, offering tenements of 180 sq. ft to those who were working in railways, docks, textile mills, police and such other sectors.

Many private investors had built chawls across the city to earn rents, but the Rent Control Act of 1948 stopped this activity. And the 1976 Urban Land Celling Act sucked out land supply from the system completely, making real estate prices unaffordable for the common man.

This started northward migration away from city centre to distant suburbs from mid-1980s in areas such as Thane, Kalyan, Dombivali, Mira-Bhyander, Vasai, and Navi Mumbai.

But the northward push of population did not awaken the state government from its slumber till 2008 when the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) announced its new rental housing policy, offering builders sops for building rental houses.

It had lofty aims of creating 500,000 houses in five years but due to flawed design of the policy and poor execution, only 3,000 houses have been made, of some 30,000-odd rental houses for which projects have started.

More than a year has passed after the 3,000 houses got ready, but MMRDA has not been able to decide how to distribute them—should it directly let out these houses or appoint some non-governmental organization to manage these properties?

In 2011, when chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who also holds the urban development portfolio, realized that rental housing scheme was going nowhere, he appointed a committee under then MMRDA commissioner Rahul Asthana to make the scheme attractive to the developers. The Asthana committee submitted its report in February 2012, but the state government is yet to take a call on its recommendations.

Thursday’s tragic incident may now force the state government to expedite the issue of rental housing and offer safe and affordable housing to the working class.

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