July 12, 2013
Op-Ed published in the New York Times on Friday July 12, 2013.
A recent wave of building collapses has brought attention to this city’s large number of poorly built structures. It feels as if every week brings fresh reports of a new disaster. The death toll is expected to rise with the monsoons.
News media and political attention have mostly focused on the vast stock of old buildings from the pre-independence period and immediately after. Yet old age wasn’t the cause of the collapse of a building in Thane, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, that killed around 74 people in April. That building was still under construction. (And, like a majority of buildings in Thane, the construction was illegal — neither authorized nor overseen by any official agency.) Old age cannot explain the caving in of a 34-year-old building that killed at least 10 people near here last month either, nor the collapse of a building, about a decade old, that killed at least six people and injured more than two dozen last week.
Intangible factors, like faulty urban policies and unchecked real-estate speculation, bear the prime responsibility.
Most of the recent casualties have taken place in the far periphery of Mumbai, where one finds a sprawling landscape of hastily built residential blocks meant to absorb white-collar middle-class Mumbaikars who struggle to find anything even remotely affordable in the city. Many of them commute for hours daily in trains so packed that people routinely fall out — collateral damage of the speculative euphoria.
A bombastic real estate sector has simultaneously pushed up the price and heights of buildings, accelerated the speed of construction and lowered the quality of new structures in and around Mumbai. Many properties are conceived primarily as assets, to be bought and sold to investors. Owners often prefer empty flats because they can be traded more easily. This partly explains why, according to a government census in 2011, nearly half a million houses and flats are vacant in one of the most crowded metropolitan areas on earth.
Officially, the promotion of a vertical skyline has been justified on the grounds that high-rise structures are the only possible response to Mumbai’s huge population and land shortage. Dozens of skyscrapers, 300 feet high or higher, are under construction in Mumbai. Investors are planning to build, at around 2,300 feet, the world’s second tallest structure.
But the argument for verticalization has long been rejected by architects and city planners. Every vertical push also requires a horizontal spread — new high-rise inhabitants need access roads, open space and other services. Besides, the higher you build, the more expensive the construction and maintenance. High-rise structures are also outside the budget of India’s low-income groups, which explains why, in the last decade, south Mumbai has seen both more high-rise buildings and a declining population.
Following the same faulty logic, the authorities are promoting the transformation of slums, which can be found in all parts of the city and where over 60 percent of the population is said to be living. Since the 1990s, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority has offered to let investors raze slums and redevelop the land, so long as they devote part of the site to new housing for the displaced residents.
Inevitably, that housing is squeezed into high-rises, in order to leave as much land open for development as possible. These structures are often shoddily built disasters. Maintenance is expensive, and rust, leaking roofs and cracked walls are common after only a few years. In addition, the buildings are not amenable to the kind of home-based economic activities and street retailing that characterized the old neighborhoods. Eventually, many sell and move out to a slum.
What the government calls “slums” have infinitely more potential to become functional neighborhoods than the hurried development that replaces them. They are habitats where extreme population density is made bearable by pedestrian streets that come alive during bazaars and community festivals, and where children can play under the watchful eye of socializing neighbors.
The problems faced by these neighborhoods, like inadequate water and sewage systems, are serious, but they do not justify wholesale redevelopment. Updating the infrastructure of dense urban environments is not rocket science. It was done successfully in Tokyo and parts of Mumbai in the 1980s, and is being done in many South American cities today.
Moreover, we found that the quality of construction is often much better in these neighborhoods than in other parts of the city. In most cases, local masons build the houses. To get contracts, they rely on their good reputation among their neighbors. This is unlike large developers, who are usually nowhere to be found after a building is sold, let alone if it collapses.
As civic authorities try to stop these tragic building collapses, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the vernacular neighborhoods that they now see only as raw material for redevelopment. And big developers could learn from the work ethic and craftsmanship of local builders. The city will not solve its overcrowding problems by promoting buildings that could become lethal liabilities in the near future.