When realty doesn’t square with reality

Mumbai’s commercial rentals have dropped,partly because of new business districts taking the pressure off — but so much remains to be done

Written by Gautam Patel | Published: March 3, 2012 12:28 am

Mumbai’s commercial rentals have dropped,partly because of new business districts taking the pressure off — but so much remains to be done

Cushman & Wakefield,a real estate consultancy,recently downgraded Mumbai (specifically,Nariman Point) from 8th to 15th place in a ranking of the world’s most expensive commercial rentals. This is probably an accurate reflection of changing perceptions,aspirations and needs,and is no bad thing.

South Mumbai’s astronomical commercial property prices once rivalled those of Paris,Sydney and even Manhattan. In contrast to those cities,however,Nariman Point had very little to offer: badly constructed buildings,the unrelenting tedium of concrete canyons and an infrastructure that was clearly inadequate. Architecturally,too,the Nariman Point commercial district was entirely out of tune with the older city immediately to its north,the area from Mantralaya to Bori Bunder. That area shows mixed use — a large number of differently graded commercial spaces ranging from corporate and law offices to shops,and some residential spaces in between. The buildings here are older and do not provide in-house facilities. Instead,there is a vibrant life at street level,which caters,at reasonable rates,to officegoers’ needs — equipment,stationery,food. Nariman Point had none of this. Food is hard to get and where it is available,it is more expensive. The area is a taxi-ride or a long and uncomfortable walk from any railhead. Street parking is inadequate. The office buildings,put up in a rush,do not have space to provide facilities in-house.

The funnel-like topography of the southern end of the Island City ensured a shortage of land for new construction,and even less for the infrastructure to support it. But the cachet of having a Nariman Point address,no matter how squalid,and the proximity to political and administrative power at Mantralaya (essential at the peak of the licence raj),ensured that Nariman Point’s realty kept five steps ahead of reality.

Perceptions change,and,as businesses grow,so do needs. In the last 10 or 20 years,with the opening up of the economy,the exposure of Indian businesses to commercial hubs abroad and the perceptible disentanglement from permission-based systems,large corporate and commercial undertakings,especially in banking and finance,no longer feel the need to remain in geographical proximity to political power,and have begun looking elsewhere. The Bandra-Kurla Complex is a natural choice. It offers space: for self-owned building with in-house facilities,wide roads,sufficient parking. The Bandra-Worli Sealink now makes commuting from south and mid-town Mumbai that much easier. People who work there are known to remark “it’s hard to know that you’re in Mumbai”.

While it’s questionable if this is a good thing,it certainly reflects a changing perception of South Mumbai,and a city-user’s influence on town planning,a vote for urban change. From the businesses’ perspective,the migration is toward a place that offers more; from a planning perspective,the result is a process of decentralisation and load-shifting and that is precisely what a city confined by a certain geomorphological inevitability needs.

This is a very small change,and it isn’t nearly enough. Nariman Point will continue to have high prices for some time,simply because old perceptions do not change overnight. To change these,and reduce the pressure on the south,the city needs more alternatives with better facilities. That does not only mean wider roads; it also means public transport alternatives for the 88 per cent of the city’s population that uses it,and planning for mixed use with shorter commutes. The answer is not in the grand engineering of freeways and sea links along the city’s western seaboard. When they push these projects,our city planners show themselves directionless,even literally: India lies to not to the west — the general direction of Iran — but to the east. What Mumbai needs is a high-capacity,multi-modal transport link to developed hubs on the mainland.

There was such a plan,once,to develop a planned satellite city across the harbour. Its 22,000 hectares were meant for mixed-use housing,commercial hubs,and the supporting infrastructure for which the Island City had no space. Critical to the proposal was the shifting of power centres — government offices,Mantralaya,the legislative assembly,courts — to Navi Mumbai. Absent political will,the plan failed. But the idea is as valid today as it was then. Sadly,the political resistance too continues.

In City of Slums,Mike Davis estimates that by 2025,Mumbai,with a projected population of over 33 million,over 70 per cent of which is already in slums,is unlikely to be biologically or ecologically viable. If that eventuality is to be avoided,the politics of planning must shift focus,if necessary under pressure from commercial demands. Till then,Gunter Grass’s extraordinary description of Kolkata — “a bloody great mess that was dropped by God” — will remain equally true of Mumbai.

The writer is a Mumbai-based lawyer

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