A history of the attempts at slum clearance in Mumbai

The persistence of slums

A brick wall with photos of different building infrastructure in Mumbai
Mumbai is home to a wealth of housing types, from chawls to high-rises. Pic: Sabah Virani

This is the second and final part in the series on the history of building regulations in Mumbai. This part continues where the first left off, at the turn of the twentieth century amidst the administration’s efforts at slum clearance.

The Development Plan

Preoccupation with affordable rents and slum clearance remained the mainstay of urban planning and governance in the 20th century. At the same time, efforts to address issues such as access to open spaces, amenities and concerns of over-crowding, traffic on roads were formalised and debated upon. The very first Development Plan was introduced in 1964 and sanctioned in 1967 – imposing a master plan for the city to be realised by 1981.

In his book Outcaste Bombay: City Making and the Politics of the Poor, Juned Shaikh notes the planners were troubled by the congestion in the slums, heavy traffic, lack of housing, open spaces and other amenities. In response, the ambitious and impractical plan sought to fashion order into the city by dictating a neat and contained purpose for each plot of land. It aimed to limit the population growth and ensuing congestion with density zoning, decentralisation of commerce and industry, land reclamation of 70 sq km, and public housing, accompanied by slum clearance as usual. A balance was attempted between residential, commercial, open spaces, amenities, etc. Expansion towards the north was its crutch.

“The suburbs provide a wide scope for a more ambitious standard looking to the low densities prevailing and the availability of vacant lands,” the plan’s report read. The BMC had agreed to envelop Bandra, Santa Cruz, Juhu, Kurla, Ghatkopar, Thana, and Trombay into the folds of Greater Bombay not long ago in 1946, making those spaces ripe for shaping.

The key laws and building regulations brought about in this period:

  • The Development Plan introduced floor space index (FSI), which fixed the ratio between built-up space and open space – regulating the number of floors a building could extend to. The ratio differed in different areas and depended on a number of external factors, such as the width of the road before the building.
  • The Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act (ULCRA), 1976, capped the land an individual could own – at 500 square metres. Any excess would have to be given to the government at the rate of Rs 10 per square metre or used for public housing. (This act was repealed in 2007.)
  • The Maharashtra Vacant Lands Act (Prohibition of Unauthorised Structures and Summary Eviction), 1975, made it illegal to settle on vacant land and permitted eviction in case of non-compliance. (This act was repealed in 1977.)
  • The Bombay Rents, Hotel, Lodging House Rates Control Act, 1947, capped rents at the level they were in 1940, with measured periodic increases. (This Act was replaced in 1999 by the Maharashtra Rent Control Act.)
  • Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, 1966, further subsidised housing for the urban poor by diverting a portion of profits from industrial, commercial land and higher-income housing. Under the Act, the Bombay Metropolitan Regional Planning Board (BMRPB) was set up to prepare another regional plan for the MMR (then the BMR).

Read more: Looking at Mumbai through building regulations


Overcrowding persisted

As anticipated by many, these plans and building regulations did not always work out.

The Development Plan was a failure on many counts. Financial constraints meant little of the plan could be incorporated. Commercial and industrial lobbies opposed it. New Bombay was suggested as a panacea to the overcrowding, to little effect.

ULCRA, too, was only a marginal success. Around 12,500 acres of land fell under the Act, but the state government was only able to acquire 262 acres of it. Developers found loopholes and were able to skip past and excuse themselves from the law. As the exhibition led by Sameep Padora and team, (de)coding Mumbai, recounts, the state government gave 62 of those acres for the development of the Nagari Nivara Parishad Colony in Dindoshi, but only after the intervention of then-President Gyani Zail Singh. 70 acres were given to MHADA, the rest used for government offices and institutions.

The rehabilitation and redevelopment of slum areas were also hit or miss. Some slums acquired legitimacy and land rights, often spearheaded by political movements. Some, like the Kamathipura scheme of 1958, failed due to the resistance of slum residents. Others, in the upcoming areas of Bandra, Juhu and Andheri were forcibly uprooted for beautification and shifted next to the Deonar garbage dump in Shivaji Nagar.

And yet again, the state and corporation failed at their objectives. Between 1946, 1957 and 1981, the number of slums in Greater Bombay went from 88 to 144 to 619. “Slum clearance attended the processes of urban transformation and ended up creating more slums in the city and in the suburbs,” writes Juned. Migration continued, increasing overcrowding, densification and the population in slums.

Two buildings with cramped housing at either sides in Shivaji nagar, the site of relocation of slum clearance in Mumbai
Shivaji Nagar, where residents from various slum clearance projects were moved. Pic: M S Gopal, Mumbaipaused

Towards liberalisation and a market economy

Towards the 1980s, the tune changed. Until then, the state had been orchestrating the housing and real estate market in the city. But with the liberalisation, the private sector was about to be given a grand entrance.

The housing problem shifted from one of a shortage of affordable housing, to one of just a shortage of housing. Deindustrialisation was already on its way with the beginning of the 2-year-long textile mill strikes in 1982, and was further pushed by various planning committees in favour of commercialisation and financialisation. The geographical land boundaries of Greater Mumbai had been exhausted, shifting the focus from development to redevelopment. The invisible hand of the market, many argued, could regulate rents and clear slums.

Slum clearance was still a prime preoccupation of the state, as they were the last vestiges of unbuilt land in the city. But private players, such as builders, developers and companies, were now seen as stakeholders in the struggle to eradicate them.

But to turn this into reality, the state needed to incentivise affordable housing in the city. It attempted this by leveraging FSI; first reducing it to 1 in the island city and 1.33 in the suburbs, and then adding a whole host of exemptions and premiums by which additional FSI could be bought.

The Development Control Regulations (DCR), 1991, made these changes law. It introduced Transferable Development Rights (TDR), which turned development rights, including the aforementioned FSI, into a form of currency. Builders, developers and landowners could move development rights from one area (or project) to another to their advantage, whether due to development restrictions or greater profit margins.

Additional FSI was given to builders for developing:

  • Minimum 50 public parking spots on private land
  • MHADA land, which was to be used for housing the public and mill workers
  • Cessed, structurally unsound, buildings
  • Urban Renewal Schemes (URS), combining a cluster of slums, dilapidated houses and government buildings within a clear boundary
  • Slum redevelopment (The developer is also given part of the land to use for free sale.)

“What is common to these exe­mptions is that they allow for greater FSI to be consumed on a plot, whether by paying a fee to the government (premium), or through a grant from the government (bonus), or by buying extra FSI in the market (TDR),” write Sukriti Issar and Ishani Shukla in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Yet there is little evidence to say this has worked. Mumbai continues to have the highest number of vacant housing of all metro cities in India – at 5 lakh. Despite deregulation, the lengthy approval process for building, taking nearly 24 months, veers builders towards expensive housing. And at the other end of the spectrum, standards of safety, lighting and ventilation are lowered Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) housing, further “slummifying” the city according to the architect PK Das.

Till date

Back in 2020 during the first wave of COVID-19, Mumbai saw a pattern in infections and deaths that eerily mimicked that of the 1896 plague. The infection rate in slums was three times that of non-slum areas. The year recorded 22,000 excess deaths, most likely due to undercounting from the slums. Many migrants fled the city, reeling from the disease and loss of work. Yet unlike the bubonic plague, no change has spurred the city towards a healthier and safer future. 

The environmental catastrophe also has precedence in history. Not so long ago in 2005, the 944.2 mm rainfall received in 24 hours killed more than a thousand people. Unregulated construction, inadequate infrastructure, the narrowing of the Mithi river due to the Bandra Kurla Complex and slums at its banks were all blamed

The future looks grim. The effect of climate change-led rising sea levels poses another threat, as more and more of Mumbai will be at the risk of flooding. A projected 42% of the city’s population will live on 3.15% of Greater Mumbai land by 2050 according to de(coding) Mumbai – increasing the risk to life exponentially. 

Also read:

About Sabah Virani 54 Articles
Sabah Virani is a reporter for the Mumbai chapter of Citizen Matters, interested in matters of labour, policy and history. She is fascinated by the gradual swell of change in institutions and ideology over time. Sabah holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and has previously worked at All Things Small and Fifty Two. In the interludes, she can be caught reading, watching movies or driving, rather fast.

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