One can get an inkling of the free-for-all that passes for “development” in mid-town Mumbai’s rehabilitated cotton mill land from the outlandish names of some of the “resto bars” and “gastro pubs” that have sprung up in Parel-Lalbaug where the tragic fire took 14 young lives late last week. In the ill-fated Kamala Mill premises itself, there are Smaash and Lady Baga, in addition to 1 Above and Mojo’s Bistro, both of which caught fire. The first was unauthorised as it was built on the terrace, meant to be kept open in the event of fires and other emergencies. The wayward Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) only demolished it after the towering inferno.
The BMC similarly and belatedly swung into action in Raghuvanshi Mill, removing the roof of Sheesha Ka Lounge. Ironically, such kind of bars and pubs have been eulogised by Aditya Thackeray, scion of the Shiv Sena, which has ruled the BMC for 32 long venal years, in his mission to keep Mumbai open 24×7. By his own admission, he had visited some such restaurants and observed the building violations. Incidentally, Mojo is co-owned by the son of a former Pune police commissioner.
The accident has received wall-to-wall coverage because the young victims are PLUs, even NRIs, and indicate the changing demographic of what used to be called Girangaon or mill district, but is now passed off as “Worli East” to camouflage its working-class origins. The presence of TV news channel headquarters in the premises heralds the arrival of new occupations to replace the mill hands, mainly IT and financial services. Risibly, when the owners of Phoenix Mills, by far the largest such “mill-to-mall” redevelopment, wrote to the BMC to seek permission for a bowling alley in the late 1990s, they claimed that the few remaining and idle mill workers were asking for this unaffordable entertainment.
The accident literally concerns what Karl Marx called the “superstructure” on Kamala Mill’s Trade House. But one should also study the “base” to establish how all planning norms have been given a short shrift in the unseemly haste to make a quick buck by greasing the palms of BMC engineers, the fire department’s supervisors and other decision-makers. According to the BJP’s city boss, structures — both new and retrofitted like those on Trade House — exceed the permissible floor-space index (FSI) in this mill by up to 10 times.
In 1996, the late Mumbai architect Charles Correa was asked to head a study group on the redevelopment of mill lands. This followed a 1991 amendment in the Development Control Rules (DCR) to permit owners to sell or redevelop mill land, provided one-third was surrendered to the BMC for amenities like parks or schools and another third for low-cost public housing. The owners were free to develop the remaining third but got the FSI on what they had parted with to develop vacant land elsewhere.
Correa’s report, which was never made public, made a case for treating all 600 acres of mill land holistically — and not piecemeal, as it has occurred. He recommended creating a Golden Triangle with land from eight contiguous mills including Kamala Mills by pooling their land, to create an area bigger than the triangle formed by the Hutatma Chowk, CSM Railway Terminus and Horniman Circle. Needless to add, nothing of the kind happened.
To add insult to injury, the Congress-NCP government surreptitiously amended the formula in 2001, requiring owners to part with two-thirds of only vacant land. Since mills occupy a huge footprint, this meant that Mumbai lost a whopping 400 acres which could have been used for open spaces and affordable housing. This is the tragedy on which the reckless development of Kamala and its sister mills rests.
As far back as in 1997, the independent Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti — as opposed to the Congress’s corrupt Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh — wrote to the BMC, pointing out that “illegal construction work is being carried out at Kamala Mills. Three illegal and unauthorised buildings have been constructed. Similarly, in the case of a single-storeyed building, two additional stories have been constructed. Despite the fact that the chief minister has found the construction of the aforesaid buildings unauthorised, construction activity is being carried out unabated and surreptitiously at night”.
In a document, “Double Speak of Manohar Joshi” — the builder who became the first Sena CM from 1995 to 1999 — the Samiti accused Uddhav Thackeray of personally intervening on behalf of Kamala Mills and requesting Joshi to legalise the illegal buildings. Failure to do so, it warned, would amount to “an open invitation to builders to flout all building rules, to illegally construct buildings and then subsequently legalise the construction”. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Nothing short of an entire overhaul of the municipal and state government departments which deal with planning permissions — including fire and structural safeguards — will ensure that other tragedies do not occur. But it is almost inevitable that till the Shiv Sena continues to rule the roost in Mumbai, which it sees as a heaven-sent opportunity to make money hand-over-fist, the corruption will continue. This despite the BMC having a budget of Rs 25,000 crore, all of which it doesn’t spend, and a mind-boggling Rs 61,500 crore in fixed deposits sitting in banks.
There is one last opportunity for Mumbai to wrest back land for the public from an area which is largely derelict. This belongs to the Mumbai Port Trust, three times that once occupied by mills, or 1,800 acres. Parts of it are even more valuable than mill land because these lie in south Mumbai. A government committee has suggested a slew of projects, like a Ferris wheel reminiscent of the London Eye, three marinas to dock luxury liners, a cruise terminal, several helipads, water sports and floating restaurants. The port trust’s chairman wants to develop 300 acres in the first phase for such amenities, which Union Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari has enthusiastically endorsed. The more things change…