Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The devil is in Dharavi's details

HOW DO you bake a cake if you don't know the exact ingredients? Ask the Maharashtra government. This is precisely what it is attempting to do through the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), a scheme that is now expected to yield over Rs. 10,000 crore to the coffers of the state government.

The government knows the size of the area to be redeveloped - 223 hectares. But how many people live on it? The agency tasked with implementing the project has now acknowledged that it does not know.

Dr. T. Chandrasekhar, Officer on Special Duty for the DRP, has gone on record to say that no detailed survey has been done to determine precisely how many people are eligible for rehabilitation as part of the DRP. In other words, the entire plan has been finalised on what Chandrasekhar calls "a plane table survey, not a detailed survey". He has stated the obvious when he told a newspaper, "A survey is a basic necessity. It is a minimum accurate input required for preparing policy and implementing the project". Surely, this should have occurred to those who finalised the project. Instead, on the basis of "a plane table survey" it was concluded that there are 57,000 families that are eligible for rehabilitation as they will be able to prove that they have lived in Dharavi before January 1, 1995.

The absence of hard, accurate data is an extraordinary admission at a time when the government has already asked international bidders for expressions of interest and is on the verge of announcing a short list of eligible developers. At the same time, one must appreciate the fact that Chandrasekhar has taken steps to set this lacuna right. He is also trying to set up a more inclusive and consultative process so that all the objections that have been raised about the DRP, several from retired planners and bureaucrats, are taken on board before the project is implemented.

In the meantime, the number of 57,000 families is used in all official documents including the Ex pression of Interest (EOI) document that outlines details of the DRP while inviting bids. If the new biometric survey, commissioned by Chandrashekhar and contracted to a non-governmental organisation, actually puts the number of eligible families at twice that number, or considerably more than that number, then what happens to the economics of the plan?

Currently, the reason developers might be interested in redeveloping Dharavi is because of the value of the real estate on which it is located and its proximity to the Bandra-Kurla complex. The DRP requires to rehabilitate in situ all eligible slum dwellers and provide the additional infrastructure and civic facilities mandated by the plan. Once this is done, it is expected that there will be an adequate amount of land that would remain free for building either commercial or residential property, or both, for sale. This would more than compensate the developer for the amount he would have spent on the rehab component.

The DRP has also made two special concessions to attract developers. It has raised the FSI (floor space index) to 4, higher than the 2.5 FSI available for other slum redevelopment projects in the city. And it has waived the criteria of getting the consent of the residents of Dharavi before proceeding with the redevelopment. These two concessions together, it is hoped, will have developers rushing to grab pieces of the project.

Even before the first brick has been laid, the government has begun to collect money from those showing an interest. Once the bids are finalised, it expects to rake in around Rs. 10,000 crore as developers will be required to pay for the additional FSI they are being granted. In other words, the government expects builders to pay a minimum of Rs 450 per sq ft as premium for every additional square foot they will build after fulfilling the rehab component. Such bounty might have the mandarins of Mantralaya salivating, but will it grab the interest of the really big developers? This still remains debatable as the DRP has more than a few problems.

A major problem will crop up once the new survey is ready. For, if many more people need to be resettled in Dharavi as opposed to the numbers mentioned at present, the calculations on profits to be made will change quite drastically. It will be recalled that when the Slum Redevelopment Scheme was launched in 1995, initially there was enormous interest by builders. But once they saw some of the slums, and realised that selling property next to resettled slum dwellers would not be that simple, many of them backed out. Only slums located near major roads or in localities where property prices were high, found takers for redevelopment. In fact, even in Dharavi, the new buildings are all along the main roads.

Additionally, each of the developers bidding for the five sectors into which Dharavi has been divided will have to contend with the growing opposition to the project. The Kumbhars, for instance, have refused to be clubbed with other slum dwellers. They have petitioned the Bombay High Court to be allowed to design and execute their own redevelopment plan. Others too will not quietly accept what is on offer even if their consent is not needed.

Of course, if you listen to officials and politicians, you would never believe that there are any serious hurdles to cross before the DRP can be implemented. So taken is the Maharashtra government with the concept of the project that it has laid down in its new housing policy that all large slums will follow the DRP pattern of development. And not just the larger slums. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced that three smaller slums in Ghatkopar, including Ramabai Nagar which was the scene of clashes between Dalits and the police some years back, will be redeveloped on the lines of the DRP. This essentially means giving a licence to builders to profit from the real estate without bothering about the consent of the slum dwellers. So without waiting to see whether and if the DRP is practical or workable, the government is going ahead sanctioning more projects along similar lines.

Mukesh Mehta, the architect and prime mover of the DRP, remains convinced that all slum redevelopment, not just in Mumbai, but in the rest of India, will go the Dharavi way. However, he, and the rest of us, will have to wait and see, for the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And when the cook does not know the precise measurements of the ingredients, then the results are likely to be more than a little unpalatable.

(Published in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times on the Op-ed page on October 25, 2007)

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