One of Bollywood's most favoured locations is the complex of tall buildings with blue domes and a series of arcades, all of which appear surreal. Audiences tend to think this is some location abroad. But truth be told, this complex is at Powai, northcentral Mumbai. And the constructions are the works of Hafeez Contractor, one of India's best-known architects.
Contractor is also controversial for his bold views on developing Mumbai city, whether it is the greening of an increasingly concretised Mumbai or by reclaiming more land from the sea, or by allowing more and taller skyscrapers to meet the burgeoning needs of India's commercial and financial capital.
In an exclusive interview to Amberish K Diwanji, he spoke about what ails Mumbai and his ideas for regenerating the city.
Let us start with your new proposal to reclaim land off the east coast of Mumbai. What are you aiming at?
Everyone knows that Mumbai has several major problems such as housing, infrastructure, environment, and the lack of resources for the city. We need more housing for the 16 million people of the city, which will be 22 million by 2020. We need to upgrade our housing standards and increase housing density to make available accommodation for these numbers. At present, 55 per cent of Mumbai lives in the slums. But the problem is we don't have infrastructure or the resources to accommodate them all.
So I have given a proposal to reclaim land from the sea off the east coast of Mumbai, which will link up to the mainland [see map, the area marked in yellow is what Contractor proposes reclaiming]. This solves many problems at one go: it creates 3,400 acres of land for us to build houses upon, and creates a lake, which after three monsoons will be a fresh water lake that can serve Mumbai's need. So we will have a lake next to Mumbai, fed by three rivers, which at present just disappear into the bay.
Moreover, by linking Mumbai to the mainland through the reclamation and the making of a dam, the trans-harbour link that has been planned and which is going to cost us billions of rupees, is created for no cost. Also, since the mainland is easily accessible, that makes available more land to meet Mumbai's growing needs.
And finally, when the government sells the reclaimed land, it can earn up to Rs 120 billion, which can be used as seed money to upgrade infrastructure in the city. In fact, this idea is so simple and solves so many problems at one go that nobody will believe me.
Because if I tell you that all your problems can be solved but you are in a distressed state of mind, you will not believe me. We in Mumbai are in that state of mind.
Do you see your idea being implemented?
Today we have too many people voicing too many opinions. Every stupid guy has an idea to help Mumbai. We have opinions after opinions, yet every time we think about implementing them, someone or the other comes up with an objection to it, saying this idea creates this problem. Every idea will have problems, but that doesn't mean we do nothing. Let us do something. We only keep shooting down ideas by bringing up problems; no one wants to solve the problems.
What problems do you envisage with your proposals?
The problem with my idea is that it involves reclamation, which actually is not a problem. So many other countries have increased their land by reclamation from the sea every second year. But we have decided that it is a problem. It is a believed truth here that reclamation is a problem, not in the international market.
Take Hong Kong, Osaka, Singapore, Dubai, Bahrain... all cities where reclamation 10 times more than what I have proposed is taking place. The reclamation I am suggesting is only about four to five kilometers.
Have you taken your idea forward?
I am not politically inclined to take my idea forward. I have given it out. Now it is for someone wise enough to take it. But then, my previous idea too languished.
The most strenuous complaint against further reclamation comes from the environmentalists, who say more reclamation only worsens the mess in the city, such as reducing the green space...
On the contrary I am creating more green space by making available more land.
The main problem is that for the last few years, we have been hearing only what the environmentalists are saying. I am not saying that we have to do things that go against the environment. But I am saying that not doing anything is also going against the environment. I am giving ideas that are pro-environment, but we have to do something. I don't believe that the best protection to the environment is to do nothing. We are not doing anything and things are getting worse.
Take the case of the [Sanjay Gandhi] National Park [located in north Mumbai and which houses leopards]. What is happening there is that hutments are encroaching into the park, eating up land. If we had taken some steps, such as increasing our FSI (floor-space index), then perhaps the park would not have been encroached upon.
You have spoken of increasing the FSI in the past. Would you please expound upon it.
Mumbai has a very low FSI compared to other cities [varying from four to five in different parts of the city]. Cities with comparable population of 15 million such as Seoul, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, they have FSI of 15 or 16 or 18. Worse, these cities have areas of 2,000 square kilometers whereas Mumbai has only about 436 square kilometers. In such a scenario, we should have an FSI of 30!
You think we should take our FSI to 30?
Don't take me literally. In most of these countries, people require much larger areas for their living spaces; we Indians manage to live in much smaller spaces. We are happy with smaller flats. But we have to raise the FSI.
One complaint is all such measures only add to Mumbai's population growth when the thrust should be to develop outside Mumbai.
It is very nice to say that the thrust should be opposite. But by saying so it will not happen. There is a thrust outside with so many people settling in other cities such as Delhi and Bangalore. But forget migration into Mumbai, let us note our huge population rise. In spite of all our measures [to decongest Mumbai], just see how much our population is growing. Can you imagine that in just a few years, Mumbai's population will be 22 million. That is a huge number? Do you know any other city with that number?
Do you see anything happening?
I do. With all this talk of infrastructure and more infrastructure, there are plans on the way such as the MUTP and MUIP (Mumbai Urban Transport Project and Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project respectively, both financed by the World Bank). The Cabinet has passed laws too. So a lot of things are happening.
Most of the world's largest cities are actually conglomeration of two or three cities such as Tokyo-Osaka-Yokohama or New York-Philadelphia. Is that happening here? Do we see a Mumbai-Pune conglomeration?
Mumbai today also comprises the cities of Thane (to the north) and Panvel (to the east), but employment is still generated by Mumbai and hence we still see it as Mumbai. But with better transportation and better connectivity, this should happen.
That is why we need better roads and infrastructure. Mind you, roads across India are getting better and this will help development.
You had also suggested a plan to develop a green belt along Mumbai's western coast?
That too is a good idea that someone can implement. It is an easy project to construct. But it is lying unused.
Where are the biggest roadblocks in implementing ideas in Mumbai
We have two kinds of problems. First is the lack of a political will, and the second is that we have a group of environmentalists who believe that every project is undertaken merely to make money and that if someone makes money from a project, that is wrong.
But in any development, someone or the other will make money. But I am not looking at that. I am looking at how the city benefits and becomes more beautiful, and what the future generation gets.
If tomorrow I suggest we make a garden, and to maintain the garden will need a sweeper who will make money for his efforts. Now if we get jealous that the sweeper will make money and therefore refuse to build the garden... that is how the environmentalists are today, to be very frank. This is my view.
So are the environmentalists the problem?
Let me put it this way, and I say this in all my interviews. The environmentalists have done some very good things. But their role is that of a watchdog. They are not there to imagine and provide solutions, and they lack imagination. To give an example, when I suggested greening the west coast of Mumbai, some environmentalists opposed me because they thought I was trying to circumvent the CRZ [coastal regulation zone that bars any construction activity up to 500 metres from the coastline]. But I had no such intention nor was I doing it. It was only an idea to make Mumbai more green, and it was actually a plan that would benefit Mumbai's environment.
If the environmentalists were not there Mumbai would have lost a lot, I give them that credit. But they should not tell us what to do. Worse, come up with a proposal and they will give you 10 different objections, with the feeling that let us hang on to what is there.
I don't agree with that: I say let us upgrade what we have. That is the only thing we can give our future generations. They say protect the environment; I say, protect and develop. Otherwise, it is not protection.
Another demand has been to preserve Mumbai's heritage, which some say impedes development, especially in a city like Mumbai where so much is changing.
To an extent, the need to preserve our heritage is well meaning. And Mumbai is not like St Petersburg, where 99 per cent of the buildings are heritage buildings. In Mumbai, only a few buildings or areas come with the heritage tag. But we need to approach the demand for heritage with a progressive attitude. What is really our heritage we should preserve as artwork. But I am against constantly declaring new precincts or areas as heritage. My views are very straight: I believe in heritage but at a give and take level. We have to have our heritage along with development.
What are Mumbai's unique problems?
I think our biggest disadvantage is that Mumbai really cannot expand. Every other second level city in India like Surat has a ring road. But Mumbai does not have one. We are still using our antiquated roads and making flyovers or expanding our existing roads. Mumbai should have made a ring road decades ago.
The other problem is the sea. That is our advantage, making Mumbai what it is, but it also prevents the city from expanding.
And worse, Mumbai is too often controlled by Delhi, where no one has a clue to Mumbai's problems. And they make laws for us! How can Delhi make laws for us? We should have the people sitting in Mumbai making laws for us. That is our biggest disadvantage. They come here on a flying visit and then frame our environmental laws. And that really hurts us.
How would you compare Mumbai vis-à-vis other cities in the world?
We are nowhere. If you want to feel good about Mumbai, then you should visit Bangladesh. Even if you visit Sri Lanka or some African cities, you return here and feel disappointed.
So do you think anything will get done to change, or there are just plans being made?
No, I believe things will change. There are many plans and surely something will get done. I am confident of that.