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On paper, it all seems pretty logical. To address a pressing shortage of low-income housing, bring in the private sector, and provide the incentives for developers to build free mass housing for this often overlooked income group. Better yet, what if you could have the developers do it at no cost to the government?
This was the plan of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai anyway when the authority introduced “Floor Space Index Regulations” (also known as Air Rights) as a way to make a dent in the city's accumulating housing shortage, as the city's economy boomed in the 90s.
More than twenty years later, it's clear that nothing has gone according to plan. The altered Mumbai skyline bears testimony to this.
“Yes, there have been some benefits to the people receiving free housing. But, on the whole, it is something that has benefited developers more than it has the people who are the supposed recipients of the benefits”, says Anthropologist Vyjyanthi Rao.
“I'm fed up!” Rao says. She has spent the last twenty years researching the effects of regulations like air rights on communities across the city. These unintended consequences include a surge in the construction of hundreds of gleaming, new high-rise buildings throughout the city that have permanently altered its skyline, casting their shadow over an equal number of newly built, crammed, low-rise, poorly constructed apartment blocks into which the poorest of the city are being relocated.
According to Vyjayanthi, the consequences of “Floor Space Index Regulations” (Air Rights) go beyond just housing and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s failure to enforce its regulations. It has enormous consequences for the future of the city. Furthermore, Air Rights, after being pioneered in Mumbai, have now become a critical tool adapted by many cities globally to facilitate development.
Understanding this innocuously titled statute and its impact on Mumbai is our focus on episode two of The City Show (TCS).
Can other cities learn anything from what has happened in Mumbai?
Dhashen: So there’s this massive skyscraper in India… It’s officially 27 storeys high, but it stands nearly twice as tall as that because of the high ceilings ...
NEWS TAPE: ....A SILVER STAIRWAY, MAGNIFICENT CRYSTAL CHANDELIERS, 6 FLOORS - JUST FOR PARKING…
Dhashen:... It has three helipads on the roof, a movie theatre, a temple... and an ice cream parlour. And even that is not what’s surprising about it....
Tau: what IS surprising is it’s a private residence // it’s called Antilla / it’s owned by Indian super-billionaire Mukesh Ambani
NEWS TAPE: ....[00:00:34] THE FIFTH RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD AND THE RICHEST IN INDIA.
Tau: ..and its worth $2b... if you can believe it
NEWS TAPE... MAKING IT THE MOST EXPENSIVE HOME ON THE PLANET. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE, INCLUDING A SEPARATE GYM FOR EACH FAMILY MEMBER
Tau: Ambani lives there with his family of six // according to reports, 600 servants work in the building.
NEWS TAPE... A SWIMMING POOL, A JACUZZI, AND EVEN A PERSONAL HELIPAD
Dhashen: It’s in Mumbai, and it’s not the only insane skyscraper in that city...
Tau:...and it's the reason we are going to India in this episode. We want to know what kind of system enables this sort of grandiose single family development….and at what cost...
Dhashen: Thanks for joining us, and welcome to The City Show - a podcast that goes well beyond the headlines to figure out what makes cities tick. I’m Dhashen Moodley.
Tau: And I’m Tau Tavengwa. In each episode, we’ll tell you a story you might already know, then pull at its edges a little to see what the fuller picture looks like. As we are find out...sometimes it’s complicated.
NEWS TAPE: ....AND IF YOU THOUGHT THIS HAS ALREADY SURPASSED YOUR WILDEST IMAGINATION, FEAST ON THIS. PLANS TO MAKE AN ICE ROOM FOR THE AMBANIS TO BEAT THE HEAT ON A HOT SUMMER'S DAY IN A MANMADE SNOW ROOM IN MUMBAI.
Tau: That’s just one side of this surprising city. There’s the OTHER Mumbai -the one in which 60% of the city’s residents live in slums, with little or no access to basic services. Despite what YOU might think, a home in a slum is NOT cheap...
Vyjayanthi Rao: THEY'RE NOT COST EFFECTIVE IN ANY WAY. NO, NOT AT ALL. IN FACT, YOU KNOW, A SLUM HOME HAS TO BE REBUILT CONTINUOUSLY... EVERY SEASON IN FACT…
Dhashen: That’s Vyjayanthi Rao, our guide to this story. Based in NY, she’s an anthropologist and writer, born in Mumbai, which has been her area of focus for the last 20 years. Vyjayanthi deeply understands how India’s super rich came to live so close to such extreme poverty.
Vyjayanthi Rao:…MIGRANTS WERE ARRIVING EVERY DAY BY THE THOUSANDS IN THE 70S, 80S, 90S\
Tau: This shouldn't have been surprise / Since India’s Independence, the city, like many others across the country, was experiencing a boom of sorts
Vyjayanthi Rao: MUMBAI, BOMBAY, AS IT WAS THEN KNOWN, WAS REALLY A MAGNET FOR ALL KINDS OF DREAMS AND EVEN REAL FORMS OF GROWTH AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL.… MOST OF THESE NEW SETTLERS WERE MAKING THEIR WAY INTO WHAT WE NOW CALL SLUMS. AND BY THE BEGINNING OF THE 2000S, THERE WERE ACTUALLY AROUND TO AROUND 2000 OFFICIALLY DESIGNATED SLUMS
Tau: Because of this incredible growth, there were massive housing shortages. The government had to do something...it tried to discourage more people from settling in the city — but, of course, that didn't work. Some of the policies had some...interesting and, unexpected consequences...
Vyjayanthi Rao: IT WAS A VERY PARADOXICAL AND IRONIC SITUATION THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANTED TO BE DESIGNATED AS OFFICIALLY LIVING IN SLUMS. BECAUSE, IF THEY WERE RECOGNISED AS SLUMS UNDER THE MAHARASHTRA SLUM ACT, WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IS THAT THEY BECAME ELIGIBLE FOR SOME BASIC SERVICES.
Dhashen:...The state government’s slum act gave people access to water, sanitation and some healthcare...ONLY IF they were living in one of 2000 officially-designated slums in Mumbai.
Tau: Around the same time — that's in the late 90’s, the government had another idea. It was meant to radically address the housing shortage in the city. THAT idea, and how, over 20 years later it has led to massive skyscrapers like Antilla — that Ambani building — is one of the most interesting stories I have come across in a while…
Vyjayanthi Rao: THEY CAME UP WITH THIS SCHEME, WHICH REALLY IS SOMETHING THAT WE'VE SEEN PROLIFERATE ALL OVER THE WORLD. BUT I WOULD SAY THAT IN MUMBAI, IT WAS PIONEERED BY THIS GOVERNMENT.
Tau: It was basically an early kind of public-private partnership...designed by Mumbai’s local municipal government and the private sector. Its main purpose?— to move people from slums into a high density social housing...
Vyjayanthi Rao: SO THE IDEA WAS TO MOVE PEOPLE EN MASSE INTO THESE BUILDINGS AND THEN USE THAT LAND VACATED TO CONSTRUCT MARKET RATE HOUSING, BECAUSE BY THIS POINT, THE ECONOMY WAS BOOMING IN SOME SENSES. THERE WAS A HUGE MIDDLE CLASS ALSO WHICH WANTED HOUSING. THEY WANTED TO EITHER RENT OR BUY NEW HOUSING. AND THE ONLY WAY TO PRODUCE THIS WAS TO CREATE THIS FORM OF EXCHANGE.
Dhashen: It sounds simple enough. To reduce the number of residents living in slums across Mumbai, the government agreed to incentivise private developers to take on the costs of building public housing. In exchange, they adopted a property development model that depends on what in India is called Floor Space Index Regulations… also known informally as AIR RIGHTS.
Tau: It’s really complicated. But, let me try to break it down. Property developers use air rights to maximise the total amount of floor space in a single plot. This allows them to build vertically — as high as they want. For every square meter of housing for the poor a developer builds, they get the right to build more...and higher — Sometimes, on another project...
Vyjayanthi Rao: THEY DIDN'T HAVE TO USE IT AT THE SITE WHERE THE SLUM HAD PREVIOUSLY EXISTED. INSTEAD THEY COULD THEY COULD COLLECT THE RIGHTS THAT THEY WERE ENTITLED TO BECAUSE THEY WERE CONSTRUCTING THIS HOUSING FOR THE POOR, FREE OF COST AND MOVE IT TO ANOTHER LOCATION WHERE IT WAS PROBABLY MORE PROFITABLE FOR THEM.
Dhashen: And thousands of people are getting to escape the slums, and move into housing with better amenities…is this good or bad?
Tau: It gets complicated again Dhashen...let's go back to Vyjayanthi.
Vyjayanthi Rao: WELL, I THINK THAT'S THE PARADOX HERE, BECAUSE, YES, THERE HAVE BEEN SOME BENEFITS TO THE PEOPLE RECEIVING THE FREE HOUSING. BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, ON THE WHOLE, IT IS REALLY SOMETHING THAT HAS BENEFITED DEVELOPERS MORE THAN IT HAS THE PEOPLE WHO ARE THE SUPPOSED RECIPIENTS OF THE BENEFITS.
Dhashen: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the developers seem NOT to have the best interests of the new occupants as their main concern. …The free flats continue to be constructed with tight, narrow corridors, squeezing in as many units as possible, sometimes with little ventilation or sunlight. For example, in the Lallubhai Compound, in north-east Mumbai— a family flat is about 20 square metres --- that’s only three times the size of a standard European prison cell
Vyjayanthi Rao: THE DEVELOPERS WERE EAGER TO CASH IN. THEY WERE CONSTRUCTING THESE RAPID DISPOSABLE TYPE OF HOUSING OF VERY, VERY POOR QUALITY, TRYING TO SPEND THE LEAST AMOUNT OF MONEY THAT THEY COULD. AND THE RESULT IS, YOU KNOW, IT'S PLAIN TO SEE WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE UNITS, YOU CAN SEE HOW THEY'RE NOT GOING TO LAST BEYOND, YOU KNOW, 10 YEARS OR 20 YEARS INTO THE FUTURE.
Tau: As often happens in stories like this, it comes down to one thing - Enforcement. There’s been an insane lack of oversight by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. There don’t seem to be stringent, enforceable, laws governing WHERE developers could use their newly acquired air rights.
Vyjayanthi Rao: IT WAS VERY DISCONNECTED FROM THE DEVELOPMENT PLAN OF THE CITY. SO THE URBAN PLAN ITSELF DOESN'T SHOW ANY, YOU KNOW, ANY SPACE FOR THESE KINDS OF VERTICAL DEVELOPMENTS. THAT MEANS THAT THERE IS NO INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNED FOR THIS SORT OF CRAZY EXPANSION.
Dhashen: So, what may have started as a well-meaning social measure trying to ease Mumbai’s housing problems, turned into something ugly… And residents in some of Mumbai’s slums pushed back.
Dhashen: What you’re hearing are the sounds of a demonstration led by residents of Golibar, Mumbai’s second largest slum. In 2011, they mobilised when hundreds of police officers came to demolish their houses enforcing a court order. But residents accused the developer of forging their consent signatures. The court also ordered the developer to provide alternative accommodation to residents, which never happened.
Vyjayanthi Rao: PEOPLE COULD FINALLY SEE WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO THEM, THE WAYS IN WHICH THE LAND THAT THEY HAD OCCUPIED WAS BEING KIND OF TAKEN AWAY FROM THEM. AND ALONG WITH IT, CERTAIN KINDS OF RIGHTS THAT THEY HAD CREATED FOR THEMSELVES, THAT THEY HAD APPROPRIATED THROUGH SQUATTING AND TO BE HONEST, THROUGH THEIR VERY HARD LABOUR OF BUILDING AND REBUILDING THEIR SETTLEMENTS, OF TRYING TO GET SERVICES AT A VERY HIGH TAX TO THEMSELVES.
Dhashen: Beyond how air rights have altered Mumbai’s physical landscape today, Vyjanthi sees other problems with this policy…
Vyjayanthi Rao: THIS IS SOMETHING THAT I'VE CALLED THE CONVERSION OF PEOPLE INTO CURRENCY, A CURRENCY THAT CAN BE TRADED, AND OF COURSE, IT RESULTED IN A HUGE AMOUNT OF CORRUPTION, AS WELL AS A LOT OF DISPLACEMENT. IN FACT IT DISENFRANCHISED A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN ELIGIBLE FOR THESE FREE HOUSING UNITS.
Dhashen: After spending her career trying to figure out how Mumbai’s many urban challenges can be better addressed, Vyjayanthi is losing patience
Vyjayanthi Rao: I USE THE WORD FED UP, BECAUSE I WHAT I FIND IS THAT PEOPLE HAVE NOT LEARNT FROM THOSE LESSONS OF THE RECENT PAST. IT'S PRETTY CLEAR THAT AT LEAST THE POLITICIANS AND AT LEAST THE GOVERNMENT HAVE NOT REALLY RESHAPED THEIR THINKING.
Dhashen: We spoke to Vyjayanthi in October last year — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.... Around the same time, researchers were looking at the covid infection rates in slums across India.. The study found at least half the residents of Mumbai’s slums contracted the virus.
Vyjayanthi Rao: THIS REALLY IS A VERY BAD MOMENT FOR THE CITY. A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE MIGRATED OUT OF THE CITY DURING THE PANDEMIC. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT THAT WAS ONE OF THE MOST POIGNANT THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN INDIA DURING THE PANDEMIC, WAS THIS KIND OF MARCH, THIS LONG MARCH, SO TO SPEAK, OF PEOPLE OUT OF CITIES.
Dhashen: As the initial responses to the pandemic ended, many of those who had left Mumbai headed back...pulled by what had driven them there in the first place — the promise of jobs and better livelihoods....and Mumbai has to deal with the influx of returning, and new residents...
Vyjayanthi Rao: I FEEL LIKE THE SAME KIND OF SITUATIONS THAT WE WERE SEEING IN THE 90S ARE GOING TO BE REPLAYED. THE QUESTION IS, DO WE HAVE THE RESOURCES? DO WE HAVE THE KIND OF MENTAL STRENGTH, AND POLITICAL WILL TO ACTUALLY CHANGE THE STORY?
Tau: So, in some way, Mumbai has come full circle...but it's also fundamentally a different place from what it was in the 90s...
Vyjayanthi Rao: THE BONDS OF COMMUNITY CONVIVIALITY HAVE BROKEN IN A VERY FUNDAMENTAL WAY. BUT HOW THEY'RE BEING RECONSTITUTED IS NOT CLEAR YET. AND THE YOUTH, YOU KNOW, WHO, IN THESE NEIGHBOURHOODS, THE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE SIMPLY NOT. HOW DO YOU SAY? I MEAN, THEIR ASPIRATIONS ARE VERY DIFFERENT. THEY'RE NOT GOING TO SETTLE FOR WHAT, YOU KNOW, THEIR PARENTS SETTLE FOR IN THE PAST.
Dhashen: In April 2021, the second wave of coronavirus infections hit. At the time of recording this, India is getting close to 20 million total cases. The going rate for oxygen is over two thousand US dollars. And in Mumbai, vaccine shortages force inoculation centres to shut down for several days. As always happens, the people who live in the shadow of opulent buildings face the most traumatic backlash.
Vyjayanthi Rao: SOMETHING’S GONNA CHANGE, AND I THINK THERE WILL BE AN EXPLOSION OF RAGE…SO I'VE WRITTEN ABOUT THE SERIAL BOMBING OF MUMBAI IN 1993 AND ALSO ABOUT THE 2008 ATTACKS ON MUMBAI. THESE KIND OF COME OUT OF A LOGIC THAT IS NOT IMMEDIATELY CONNECTED TO THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND THESE KIND OF INEQUALITIES THAT ARE EMERGING IN THE WAYS IN WHICH PEOPLE LIVE IN THE CITY. BUT MY ARGUMENT IS THAT ACTUALLY THEY ARE. AND BECAUSE THEY ARE ACTUALLY BREAKING DOWN, WHATEVER KIND OF CONSENSUS THERE EXISTED BETWEEN MANY OF THESE COMMUNITIES THAT HAD BEEN MANAGED OVER, YOU KNOW, DECADES AND EVEN CENTURIES …
Tau: So, sometimes a billionaire’s mansion can tell a more complex story about an entire society
Dhashen: A well-meaning big idea to provide “free housing” and amenities for the poor can create other, sometimes larger issues on the ground that might just end up reinforcing the problems it's meant to solve...
Tau: As we say on this show...cities are complex.
Dhashen: Thank you for joining us. I’m DM
Tau: And I’m TT.
<<< CREDITS >>>
Season One of The City Show will take listeners to Cape Town, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Beirut, Tijuana, and Lagos. The season is funded by Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (MPI-MMG) with support from African Centre for Cities (ACC). Our production partner is The Radio Workshop. Season 1 is part of the CompleXities / DataRama project.