Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment: A Dream Recedes Further
The Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment, aimed at providing neat dwelling units in multi-storeyed towers to thousands of poor in Mumbai, has been brought to a grinding halt by the Shinde-Fadnavis government
The Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment Project, one of India’s largest revamp projects, spread across 16.5 acres in South Mumbai, has come to a grinding halt, thanks to the current Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government’s thirst for vengeance. It has forced the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to stop the ongoing construction activity on flimsy grounds.
A decision that has plunged the residents waiting for new homes and better living conditions into shock and despair. After being packed like sardines into an average of 80–120 square feet homes for decades, their anguish is entirely understandable.
Rashida Patanwala, 65, lived in the Kachwala Building in Bhendi Bazar all her married life—that’s 45 years. She recounts the painful experience of being squeezed into a tiny space with five others, having to wake up even before the crack of dawn to get early use of its single common toilet—standing in line with 35 people from six other families residing in this dilapidated century-old structure.
“There was chaos at the start of every day. We could never invite guests. If someone did brave a visit, we surrendered our sleeping space and bunked in with our neighbours.” Rashida now lives in the far more comfortable transit camp at Ghodapdeo, five kilometre from her old home, built for displaced residents by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT), which is redeveloping Bhendi Bazaar.
But it is still not home. She was so looking forward to her own space of 350 square feet with an attached toilet and bathroom in a modern tower with all the facilities.
If the problem is not resolved fast, she fears she might have to spend the rest of her life in the transit camp and never get her rightful dream home.
And she is not alone in her fear.
Hashim Zavadwala, 47, readily moved out of the 270 sq. ft space that housed ten family members in the Parsi Chawl at Pakmodia Street. “The ceiling used to leak all the time and we had tied plastic sheets below it to prevent the water from drenching us.
So it was no pain to vacate the house. My son was in Class 6 at the time. He has now graduated and is engaged to be married. We do require a better space with more privacy.
If the government is going to be so arbitrary, it will dissuade tenants elsewhere from vacating such dangerous structures. We are poor people who cannot afford anything else and to us our homes are everything.”
Nafisa Shaikh, 60, who had been living in Nabeel Mansion, surrounded by an overflowing gutter, ever since she got married says the government needs to be considerate to people like her. “Our entire life is concentrated in the Bhendi Bazar area and we are forced to go there almost every day for our daily chores. I spend more than Rs 3000 monthly in commuting which I can barely afford.”
“The government needs to complete the inquiry at the earliest and restart the construction. We desire to stay in bigger ownership houses at least in the last days of our life,” she adds poignantly.
While they readily recount their personal tales of woe what they all hesitate to mention openly is their suspicion that they are being put out to dry because they are Muslims, and their constituency is represented by Arvind Sawant of the Shiv Sena (UBT).
Sawant was the sole Shiv Sena minister in the Narendra Modi government who quit at Uddhav Thackeray’s request in 2019 when the latter broke with the BJP and became chief minister. He has stood fiercely by Uddhav even after the recent split in the Shiv Sena and is unlikely to be swayed by the BJP.
The Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment is a Cluster Redevelopment Scheme launched by the Congress-led government of chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2008 with the aim of undertaking holistic development of the area. Mumbai has over 25,000 dilapidated old buildings which are beyond repair and need to be razed.
However, since individual structures are on small plots of land where the revamp is very difficult to undertake, besides being unviable, the state government came up with the Cluster Redevelopment Scheme where any developer covering all the buildings in a given area—starting with a minimum of one acre (4,000 square metre)—would get a Floor Space Index (FSI) of four.
As the developer gets to construct and sell more flats in the open market, this translates to bigger and better compensation. Unlike individual structures going for revamp, here an entire belt gets a new lease of life, with a much-needed facelift and beefed-up infrastructure.
Developers did take interest in the scheme and submitted proposals. However, the government took its own sweet time and only two proposals have taken off the ground in the last 14 years.
Of these, the biggest ongoing project currently is the Rs 4,000 crore Bhendi Bazaar revamp scheme undertaken by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT) founded by the Dawoodi Bohra community in 2009. About 250 buildings housing 3,200 families and 1,250 commercial shops have been demolished to make way for the construction of six towers to rehabilitate all the original tenants in plush skyscrapers.
The first phase has already been completed, as a result of which 610 families and 128 shop owners have been able to secure homes and commercial spaces in the two brand new towers. Apart from the 360 square feet houses, residents have been provided with various amenities such as a gymnasium, a community hall, a library, walking tracks and toddler parks. A welcome change from decades of cramped living, common toilets, leaking roofs and overflowing drainage lines.
The second phase has been stayed, thus leaving the remaining 2590 residents and 1122 shop owners in the lurch.
Incidentally, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, who was responsible for halting the redevelopment, was a strong votary of this very same project in his time as chief minister between 2014 and 2019. Now he alleges that the Maha Vikas Aghadi tweaked the original plans, reduced the width of roads and increased the area allowed to developers.
Within three days of his making this statement in the Assembly during its late-August monsoon session, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation—which had approved the plans merely eight months prior—issued a Stop Work Notice bringing all construction activity to a grinding halt. Despite this, the BMC denies any irregularities and says it had to halt the work due to the stand taken by the state government.
“There is no illegality in the project as far as BMC is concerned and all the plans are approved as per the rules,” said Mumbai Municipal Commissioner, Iqbal Singh Chahal. He said the project was stopped since there were complaints and the matter was raised in the Assembly.
An inquiry had been ordered. However, to date despite the fact that an inquiry officer came with his team to look up the area, nothing has happened and the project continues to languish.
The residents whose futures depend on the project have started an online campaign demanding the resumption of construction work. Sawant too has condemned the stay order.
“The only work done by the Shinde government is to reverse all the good decisions taken by our MVA government. They don’t realise that they are depriving the poor residents of their legitimate houses only [out of] a need for vengeance against us.”
The industry too is not amused. The Builders Association of India (BAI), a leading association of the realty sector, called it a classic example of the malaise faced by the real estate sector. “We are often subjected to such arbitrary actions causing immense loss to the developers,” said Anand Gupta, Chairman (Housing and RERA committee), BAI.
“Such arbitrary actions make the residents staying in such structures lose confidence in the redevelopment process. The result is that people prefer to stay in dangerous buildings and risk their lives rather than opt for revamp.”
Pankaj Kapoor, Managing Director, Liases Foras, a leading real estate research firm, emphasises this point. “Bhendi Bazaar is a landmark project involving a massive tract of land in a densely populated area. Such hurdles will send negative signals and no developer will be ready to undertake such huge projects impacting the whole revamp scene across Mumbai,” he warns.
Needless to say, the residents rue the unjust hardships they are going through. Yusuf Bharmal, 57, a former resident of the Pagdiwala building, has already been in the transit camp for 12 years. “What is the logic of stopping the construction work when all the permissions are in place? We wonder who has complained when all the residents want the work to proceed fast so that we can get our houses,” said Bharmal.
Fakruddin Mithaiwala, 37, whose family ran a farsan shop for the last 75 years at Pakmodia Street, is currently operating from a transit shop nearby after vacating his earlier premises. “We are unable to expand our business or undertake any renovation as this is just our makeshift shop. We are eager to get our own premises,” said Mithaiwala.
And what do the developers feel?
“The entire project has been planned as per provisions of Development Control Regulations 33 (9) and is carried out in line with the approvals and permission of all authorities concerned. As per [the] Deputy CM’s recent statement that Bhendi Bazaar is a landmark project and work will not be terminated, we are positive that the notice will be lifted soon,” says a statement issued by SBUT. Cautious, pointing no fingers, and hoping that they can resume work soon and limit the huge losses incurred every day by the stay order