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April 12, 1999


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Business Commentary/ Darryl D'Monte

Bigger, higher, no better: Bombay survives highrise builders

Everyone has a vision of what the future of a city ought to be. When it comes to Bombay, the dreams often turn into fantasies, because it is not only the commercial capital of the country but the home of Bollywood.

The film industry serves as the world's biggest illusion factory and many flock here, hoping to get a break on the big screen.

As is evident from the backdrops which roadside photographers create for family portraits, Bombay is idealised as a city of bristling skyscrapers and cavernous automobiles, jostling with each other for space.

The bigger and higher Bombay grows, it would seem, the better.

Hongkong inspires Bombay builders Even business and industrial interests share such illusions. Time and again, they conjure up visions of Bombay as another Hong Kong or Singapore. They believe that like these two Asian tigers, Bombay can also become a modern metropolis, with a burgeoning financial service sector.

Indeed, the "Hongkongisation" of Bombay is a familiar theme in many seminars on the future of the city.

Presumably, these serve as models because they are Asian success stories: if these two cities (and Shanghai or Taipei, or even Bangkok or Jakarta) can do it, why not Bombay?

Some architects and builders vigorously have fanned the flames of these fantasies. At a recent workshop on Bombay's notorious floor-space index or FSI -- the height permitted to raise a building in relation to the plot it occupies, known in other cities here and elsewhere in the world as the floor-area ratio or FAR -- the builder Niranjan Hiranandani castigated all and sundry for not possessing a vision, without which there could be no movement ahead.

Instead of opposing high-rise growth as a symbol of urban development, it could be employed judiciously. Singapore used only 15 per cent of its land area -- all of it reclaimed because of the shortage of space - for rehousing all its low-income residents, though he did not mention the coercion.

Three years ago, another member of this same family had spoken approvingly of China's experience in building entire townships of three-five million people with 70-storeyed office towers and 30- storeyed residential blocks. Cities like Schenzen, the new industrial complex on the former Hong Kong border, Guangzhou (Canton) and Pudong (Shanghai's brand new commercial area across the river), are all examples of this brave new world.

Hafeez Contractor, Bombay's most prolific architect, would heartily concur. He has advocated reclamation of further land for solving all of the city's building and transport needs. His outlandish `confections' mar the urban landscape today, the most jarring being a very slim multi-storeyed apartment rising opposite the US consulate in Breach Candy.

One wonders if slum-dwellers and workers share such a vision. They know that to own a modest roof over one's head is about as much as one can hope for. Although slum-dwellers comprise some 55 per cent of the population -- Greater Bombay, sprawling over 600 square kilometers, has around 13 million people today -- they only occupy a measly four per cent of the area! As for workers, their number is fast diminishing, particularly in the cotton textile mills, and they argue instead that Bombay should be a "Shramapura" -- a labourer's city, rather than a rich person's Singapore.

Planners introduced the FSI concept in the1964 Development Plan. In 1977, with the objective of arresting the runaway growth of parts of the city like Nariman Point -- Backbay has been in the vortex of real estate scandals since the 1920s! -- it was fixed at 1:0 in the island city, which is the area south of the Mahim Causeway, and 1.33 in the suburbs.

Of course, it has been abused terribly, with the active collusion of corrupt state government ministers, municipal officials and builders. The most shocking case was the manipulation of FSI in Pratibha Apartments where eight floors, comprising 24,000 square feet, were illegally constructed. Environmentalists took it to court and after much dilly-dallying, the extra floors were demolished. This illegal high-rise still remains unoccupied, as do a few others in south Bombay.

The state government now appears to be rethinking its policy on FSI. It argues that by restricting the height of buildings, it has actually contributed to the price spiral, deprived even the middle class of housing and not made available any land for the development of infrastructure, including the housing of the homeless.

Today, even after prices have fallen by up to 40 per cent since their peak in 1994, apartments cost an average of Rs 14,000 per sq ft in Cuffe Parade and Rs 6,000 in Dadar. It has also contributed to making, till recently, Bombay the most expensive office rental and property market in the entire world, according to surveys conducted by the firm Richard Ellis.

US cities, by contrast, use varying FSI.

In Ahmedabad, it has been proposed at 1.0, but is already higher at up to 2.5. Marine Drive and Ballard Estate enjoy the same higher FSI and are none the worse off for it. The old, dilapidated `cessed' buildings, some 18,000 of them in the island city, also have a higher FSI than permitted.

The imposition of `global' or uniform FSI for the island city as a whole has neither helped to preserve urban form, including heritage buildings, or meet its social objectives. As a planning instrument, the obtaining of physical permission for each building has opened the doors wide for corruption at every level.

The highest relaxations are permitted for hotels and hospitals, for instance. As it is, zoning restrictions have been relaxed to permit conversion of residential and industrial areas into commercial. There is now talk of relaxing FSI for infotech industries, which are in the service sector and non-polluting.

A `sister' planning instrument of FSI is the more recent Transfer of Development Rights or TDR, under which a landowner can surrender his property in return for rights to an equivalent area to be built northwards, in the suburbs.

At the Bombay workshop, Nayan Shah, the uncrowned `King of TDR', who deals in some one million sq ft of such rights, waxed eloquent about how the exploitation of TDR could, with one wave of the wand, provide the land needed for housing, roads and other amenities - and at no `cost' to the municipal corporation.

However, an architect demonstrated the havoc caused by unthinking use of TDR at the Juhu-Vile Parle scheme, a fashionable suburb reminiscent of many of New Delhi's colonies. Land-owners and builders had merely erected new structures over old, with no thought to form or open space.

While it is quite clear that blanket FSI rules are an invitation to mayhem in planning, somewhat like the draconian coastal zone regulation laws throughout the country, should they be replaced or amended?

Bombay's most influential planner advocated an alternative procedure: a developer should submit an outline of his proposal and the planning agency establish what the impact this would have on infrastructure (roads, water, parking, etc) and then suggest changes. There ought to be a public hearing for bigger schemes, like a new colony or complex. The need for transparency in such deals, a cause to which the crusading IAS official Arun Bhatia has devoted his career, cannot be over-stressed.

By pointing to the flaws in FSI, one should not do away with the principles it embodies altogether. It is important in every situation to study the carrying capacity of areas. If taller office buildings are allowed in the island city, for example, it will only accentuate the north-south transport axis, which has already placed an intolerable strain on the city's commuters.

There is also need for strict monitoring to ensure that land reserved for public use, like schools, parks, and open spaces are not sacrificed in the name of development. The 54 fly-overs that are being built along the city's highways are prime examples of sanctions which have been granted without any public scrutiny or thought to the devastation they will cause to public transport.

Darryl D'Monte

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