Putting poor in vertical slums does not make for safe housing: Experts

October 7, 2023

MUMBAI: A free tenement through the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme does not necessarily grant a better way of life, rather it is a shift from a horizontal slum with more amenities into a vertical slum with fewer amenities and far more outgoings in terms of maintenance, making life in these towers a health and safety hazard, according to architects, academics and housing activists.

Professor Amita Bhide, Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), said moving from a slum to a rehab building offers a lifestyle change which only about 25% of the slum dwellers are able to achieve.

“There is a vast section of vulnerable people whose livelihoods do not conform with living in buildings. Many do not have earnings, leading hand to mouth existence, to match the responsibilities like paying for waste management, electricity, water charges…these buildings are not designed for people whose livelihoods involve recycling goods or selling items which require storage, activities which are not allowed in a residential building,” she said. The fire at Jai Bhavani building, fuelled by the presence of combustible material gathered by Waghri community members, underscores her point.

Living in multi-storey rehab buildings is a huge financial burden on the poor, said Shweta Damle, founder of Habitat and Livelihood Welfare Association. “The maintenance goes up but their income remains the same with the result that many of them prefer to give out their tenements on rent or sell them. Maintaining lifts in these towers is an expensive proposition and fire exits are often not provided by the builder itself for whom profit is paramount,” she said.

Bhide said the first rehab buildings built in Dharavi under the Prime Minister’s Grant Programme (PMGP) were 3-to-4 storey buildings, but these later metamorphosed into seven-storey structures and are presently 25-storeys tall.

“Singapore initially had similar serious fires in settlements, but they changed their design in response. People do have aspirations to move into apartments, be part of the mainstream but this homogenisation policy needs a rethink,” she said.

In slum rehab buildings, risk is enhanced from the supply side by builders who bypass fire safety rules by not installing fire-fighting systems or by leaving insufficient widths of corridors and stairways; on the supply side, the residents are unable to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings.

From allowing a tenement density of 300 per hectare in the sixties to 1,300 units per hectare in the city’s latest Development Plan has meant less open space between buildings, relaxation of open space between the compound wall and the building, narrow corridors and stairways, ventilation of the poorest standard imaginable…in short poorly designed with a compromise on quality of life and safety, said Hussain Indorewala, architect and urban researcher. “These units are unfit for human habitation but they are tolerated because there is no alternative housing available,” he said. Indorewala said slum rehabilitation is being carried out under section 33(10) of Development Control and Promotion Regulations (DCPR 2034), providing higher floor space index, but this is leading to relaxation in open spaces and setback norms. Besides, people cannot maintain the buildings given their incomes.

Activist and architect P K Das said the problem lies in the government shirking from its primary responsibility of planning. Planning, he said, is about having a comprehensive vision, but that has been completely given up. “All development and redevelopment is individualised on a plot basis which is counter-productive to larger urban development both in social and environmental terms.” Das said they have prepared a master plan for all slum plots in Mumbai and it is possible to carry out rehabilitation in ground plus eight-storey buildings. “Unfortunately, the SRA, BMC and MMRDA, all of which are primarily planning authorities, have only become negotiating offices for approvals. In eminent cities across the world like New York, London, the planning agency is the supreme body but in Mumbai bureaucrats and politicians have replaced planners and are ruining the city,” he said.

  • Published On Oct 7, 2023 at 09:25 AM IST

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