Monday, 27 July 2015 15:34

Building collapses in Mumbai show need for new urban planning

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All fall down

In April of this year 74 people were killed, including 18 children, when a seven-storey building collapsed in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai. Thane is a municipality where there are literally hundreds of illegal buildings, and they keep falling down.

Ten people, including six children, were killed June 21 when a 35-year-old three-storey building collapsed in Mumbra town in Thane district. The next day, seven people were killed when an abandoned building collapsed following heavy rains in Dahisar another suburb of north Mumbai. In the early hours of 3 July, three workers lost their lives and 24 more were injured when a two-storey garment factory crashed down. The building was reported to be about five years old, and still under construction.

Other reported disasters include a 34-year-old building that fell killing at least 10 people in June, and the collapse in early July of a building, about a decade old, that killed at least six people and injured more than two dozen. A bystander was killed when a dilapidated building fell down on Sunday 14 July 2013.

Illegal building

An interesting article in the New York Times that I read while on holiday in the USA makes the point that the conventional wisdom in India has been that it is old buildings that fall down, whereas what we are witnessing is the lack of safety in new, and even incomplete, construction.

The article succinctly explains “illegal construction” – it is “neither authorised nor overseen by any official agency”. It is widely acknowledged that builders of such properties use poor quality materials and that methods of construction leave much to be desired. “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.”

In these circumstances, such developments might reasonably be described as “an accident waiting to happen”. Of course, those most likely to pay with their lives and limbs for the shoddy construction are those who cannot afford to pay with money for safer and more convenient premises in which to live or work.

How can such illegal construction happen? The consensus opinion following April 4th collapse was that there are, at the very least, tacit understandings between the developers and the police and municipal authorities which mean that a blind eye is turned towards illegal constructions. Speculative development goes unchecked, and the housing shortage in Mumbai (and elsewhere in urban India) means that there is always a ready demand for the accommodation.

A planning problem, not just a matter for building control

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.

While building safety is largely a matter for engineers and building regulations, it is important to recognise that urban planning policy is also a contributory factory to this developing crisis. The block that collapsed on 4 April is located on the periphery of Mumbai. People move there if they cannot afford to live closer to their work in the city. They commute on overcrowded trains to earn a living. Development of decent affordable housing has simply been unable to keep pace with the city’s economic growth.

Speculative real estate development has filled the gap. As the New York Times article observes, dozens of skyscrapers are under construction. However, “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.”

Slum demolition or upgrading?

In Mumbai roughly two-thirds of the people are slum dwellers. Any solution to the chronic housing problems has to find a means of accommodating and improving the slum housing. There is a wealth of literature now from India and elsewhere in the rapidly urbanising world that shows the importance of slums as a means of affordable housing, and a basis for micro-economic activity, based in and around the home, that can make the difference between destitution and survival.

However, in Mumbai, it appears that the Slum Rehabilitation Authority plays a part in facilitating the clearance of the slums and their replacement by formal but badly-built high-rise developments, provided that part of the site is used to rehouse some of the displaced residents.

The urban challenge

India is still a predominantly rural country, and the urban transition is posing major problems. In 2012, India’s urban housing shortage was estimated at nearly 19 million households, according to a report by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. India’s economic ascendency depends on and will feed urbanisation. There is an urgent need for planners to convince policy-makers that such growth needs to be planned for. Participatory slum upgrading will need to be part of the development strategy for the foreseeable future, and ways need to be found to regulate the quality of construction without constraining the supply. I know that’s easier said than done, and that’s why urban planning needs to be reconfigured and given much more prominence in the policy and research agendas.

This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 17 July 2013.

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