INSIDE a 41-storey behemoth being given the final bells and whistles for its 450 prospective resident families is a black-and-white mural of Bhendi Bazaar. In a few years, the chajjas and colourful cantilevered balconies overhanging the aromas from streetside food vendors will be seen only in murals and photographs, as the iconic 16-acre sprawl in south Mumbai undergoes an overhaul.
The most heartening milestone for the cluster redevelopment project has just been reached, with 50 business owners having moved into shiny new units on the ground and first two floors of two towers now complete — one 41 storeys and the other 36 storeys.
“I opened my new store here just two months ago,” said Devendra Jain, a Jain by faith and a trader-manufacturer of ridas, the traditional colourful skirt-veil worn by Bohra women. “Business has already picked up because the shops are all facing the road, even those on the first or second floors.”
Retailers, doctors, a dental surgeon, travel agents, a major trader of foam mattresses and some hardware stores are among those who have begun doing business in the new towers. Like Jain, most have stories of crumbling and dank stores where they ran their business for decades. “It will be a new business altogetherin a tower shopping centre atmosphere,” said Miqdad Bharmal, an electrical store owner who will move into his new premises next year.
Possession of 80 shops has been handed over to their new owners, and 50 of these have already begun operating. Also, 614 flats will be handed over in the next three months, a handful of these agreements being registered everyday now at the Old Custom House registrar’s office. Further, an additional 40 commercial units will be handed over in the next two months.
The redevelopment of Bhendi Bazar, under the Maharashtra government’s 2008 policy to promote redevelopment of clusters of dilapidated buildings, stands apart in many ways from other urban overhaul schemes envisaged for Dharavi or Kamathipura and other proposed cluster redevelopment schemes.
For one, it is undertaken by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT), a not-for-profit that appointed architects and contractors after studying worldwide urban renewal projects. “We have tried to be people-centric, not benefit-centric,” said Yusuf London, an official with the SBUT. “Because it is an upliftment project.”
This means larger spaces for occupants — 350 sq ft homes is the minimum, opposed to the 300 sq ft space mandated by the government. “Even those tenants who lived in 60 sq ft spaces below a building’s staircase will get 350 sq ft homes,” said London. Shops and residences in the new Bhendi Bazaar will all be larger than the previously occupied spaces. And all additional square footage is being made available through the developer’s ‘incentive FSI’, given to developers to make viable profits. Each home is also optimised for large families with two rooms with separate washrooms, separated by a kitchen in the middle.
The SBUT will also construct four to five buildings for sale in the open market at a later stage, but unlike traditional slum rehabilitation and other redevelopment models, the proceeds from this will not offset the trust’s Rs 4,000-crore investment, raised entirely through the Bohra community’s charities.
In yet another departure from most other renewal projects in Mumbai, the vision is “not to transform the area into Shanghai or Singapore, but a new Bhendi Bazaar”, said a SBUT spokesperson. Local realities are therefore dovetailed into the new buildings under construction — arches and jharokha-grilles dominate the Fatimi-style architectural language, grilles also cover some portions of windows allowing clotheslines to be masked and plans are being drawn up for a souk-like shopping experience inspired a little by Cairo’s Khan-el-Khalili, the famous Egyptian high-street shopping hub built at the site of a mausoleum of Fatimid caliphs. Parts of the towers’ facade also feature the iconic Malad stone or yellow basalt, the stone used in several neo-Gothic heritage buildings in south Mumbai.
While there is excitement in the SBUT about the impending return of the first residential occupants of the new Bhendi Bazar — former tenants, who will now be owners, including many women who will be first-time property owners — the completion of the project is some time away.
Of 3,200 residential families, 400 are yet to vacate, and of the 1,250 commercial occupants, 450 are yet to leave. Several dozen are still holding out amid negotiations. Of the 250 buildings in Bhendi Bazar, 150 have already been demolished while 30 are being manually demolished. But 600 families moved out in only the last two to three months, and while the SBUT was formed in 2009, construction work actually started only in 2016.
The fact that various processes have picked up pace now has assuaged the fears of the hundreds of Bhendi Bazar families living in transit accommodation in Anjeerwadi, Ghodapdeo and Chunabhatti. The first tenants who moved out have been in transit homes for eight years now, but those moving out now can expect to return to self-owned homes in five years, said the SBUT.
“So many redevelopment projects are pending for 15 to 20 years. In comparison, I am going to get my home in less than 36 months,” said Taher Kapasi, among those whose flat ownership agreement was registered late in February. “Finally, I can call myself a Mumbaikar as a real flat-owner.”
On the other hand, among the families still to vacate are some who have approached the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, which was collecting a repair cess from tenants of the dilapidated buildings. At least one building’s residents told The Indian Express that their structure was not dilapidated and should not have been included in the cluster redevelopment scheme.
Despite those niggles, the mood in the transit spaces is upbeat. Over 50 per cent of the former Bhendi Bazar used common toilets in chawl buildings. They will soon move into a redeveloped Bhendi Bazaar that is being studied closely by municipalities of Hubli and Shimla before preparation of their smart city schemes.
The former Dawood-owned buildings auctioned under Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators (forfeiture of property) Act, 1976 (SAFEMA) rules were purchased by SBUT too, and the dark underbelly of the area will likely be crowded out in coming years. Podium spaces in the enormous towers will be kept aside for amenities, children’s play areas, indoor game areas and more. Chor Bazar and the kebab joints will remain, in renewed settings. As the SBUT spokesperson said, “The culture and character of the area will be retained, but a new Bhendi Bazaar is in the making.”