‘It’s better to die here’
- Why don’t Mumbaikars leave dangerous buildings?
Sep 9, 2017-Amid the bustle of Mumbai’s western suburbs, in a dilapidated 60-year-old building, live Heena Tolani, her husband and two children. The staircase to her apartment is rickety, its wooden hand-rail held together with string. The road beneath is visible through gaps in the floor.
Inside her home, bamboo sticks prop up the ceiling. Sections of roof have collapsed on at least three occasions.
with notices to vacate the property since 1998, warning the building
could collapse at any minute. Occupying the apartment poses an imminent danger to the residents’ lives, yet they continue to do so. “Where do we go?” she asks.
Under the city’s extremely restrictive rent control acts, the rent of all buildings constructed before 1965 has been frozen at pre-1965 prices, with some held at pre-1940 levels--meaning monthly rents can be as low as 10 rupees (12 pence).
“The owners of these buildings cannot afford to repair them,” says MK Magar of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), “but it makes it extremely cheap for tenants, and keeps them from moving despite the threat of death.”
Tolani currently pays Rs 50 a month in rent, and says a similar house would cost at least Rs 20,000. “We cannot afford that. Sometimes I send my
kids to relatives’ homes, and hope that if tragedy has to strike, it does when they are away.”
Her building, the Firdouz Manzil, is one of the 19,600 residential structures in Mumbai that are at least 60 years old and in need of urgent repairs or demolition. One 117-year-old building in south Mumbai collapsed on Thursday, killing 33 residents and injuring 15 others. Two others gave way last month, claiming 23 lives. Despite the threat, though, many of the 4.5 million Mumabikars who live in such buildings refuse to leave.
Anju Ramsingh, 47, runs a fast food restaurant on the ground floor corner of Vithal Kutir building, which has been identified as “extremely dangerous” by Mumbai’s civic authority. Several residents left after they noticed the whole building tremble when they used the stairs, but Ramsingh won’t move. The cafe is her family’s only source of income.
She lives next door to the dilapidated building with her husband and three children--its basement adjoins their family home. “Parts of the building keep collapsing. We’ve held it together using bamboo scaffolding. If it falls, it’ll collapse on us, but there is little we can do.”
During an audit in April the BMC found 642 “extremely dangerous” buildings across the city that could give way at any instant and require urgent demolition. MK Magar estimates that each is home to between 80 and 125 people.
The BMC sends out notices for structural audits and the evacuation of the property. If residents do not comply after multiple notices, electric and water supplies are cut off. In several cases, however, the occupants have succeeded in obtaining high court orders against any demolition.
Ranjit Dhakane, deputy commissioner with the BMC, says progress is slow. Only 20 out of a total of 642 extremely dangerous buildings have been demolished since April, while 115 others have been emptied. Notices have been issued to 165 buildings, electric and water supplies have been disconnected in a further 158, and 146 have obtained blocking court orders. Thirty-six others remain in dispute.
“We’re doing our best to move these vulnerable residents to safety, but they just don’t conform,” says Dhakane.
Those who refuse to leave say they have their reasons. Many don’t want to end up in the so-called “transit camps” across the city where they are told to wait--often indefinitely--for their buildings to be demolished and rebuilt.
Ramsingh says those who vacated her Vithal Kutir building are now homeless. “The government has
done nothing to help them with alternative accommodation. Even if they do lodge us in their transit shelters, it is better to die here than in those roofless fodder camps.”
Prakash Reddy, the general secretary of Brihanmumbai Tenant Council, says residents live in abysmal conditions in the camps, with a family of four usually allotted a single 180 sq ft room and the use of communal bathrooms.
Some people have spent decades in one vast transit camp, home to around 20,000, in central Mumbai dubbed Patriksha Nagar (Waiting City), he says.
“With this track record people know there’s a risk that if they vacate their buildings to allow redevelopment,” adds Reddy. “Most occupants of these dangerous structures belong to the lowest income groups, and end up choosing the death threat over homelessness and poorer lives.”
Chandrashekhar Prabhu, a Mumbai-based urban development expert, says there is a “desperate need” for change. “The current government schemes are only aimed at uprooting these under-privileged residents from their existing homes,” he says. “They’re not meant to solve problems, but to create millions of rupees for builders and politicians. All those swanky plans are made in the name of the poor, but in the bargain, the average poor person gets thrown out on the street. And if he refuses to leave, he dies.”
Kirit Limbad, pays Rs 105 a month to rent a tailor’s store in the “extremely dangerous” Prabhu Niwas building. “Where will I take my shop? It’s my only source of income. And will the new place be as lucky? Where else will I find such a bargain? It will eat me up in rent.”
Prakash Shinde, 32, lives in the Sukh Sadan building in Mumbai’s northern suburbs with his wife and two children, aged four and two. The electricity and water supplies to his 100 sq ft home were disconnected after he and fellow residents refused to leave. But Shinde found a way round the power outage by striking a deal with a neighbour, who sells them electricity from his connection.
Shinde does not believe that the new apartments built on the site would not be offered at market rates. “We do not trust the builder. Who can be sure that he will give us an apartment in the new building after this one is demolished?”
It is not just a matter of money. “I’ve grown up here,” he says. “I have so many memories here--it is the only thing left of my parents. I want my children to grow up in the same home.
“My father bought this home. He’s the only one from our hometown who owns a property in Mumbai. It’s a matter of great pride. How do I abandon my father’s accomplishment?”
—© 2017 The Guardian
Published: 09-09-2017 07:59