Free to grow

The Doppler radar obstacle may have gone, but space-starved Mumbai needs more imaginative planning.

A Doppler radar installed in November 2010 atop an 18-storey building in Navy Nagar, the southernmost tip of Mumbai, to forecast weather, had turned out to be a big obstacle for redevelopment projects in the island city. Nearly 50 projects have been stuck in the last two years because the Indian Meteorological Department refused permission to construct beyond a height of 75 metres, if located within a 10-km radius of the radar. After two years of wasted opportunity, the new radar may well be installed at a different location, paving the way for the construction of tall buildings.

The Doppler radar, though, is not the only reason why projects haven't taken off. The Airport Authority of India, for instance, puts height restrictions for projects in areas such as Bandra Kurla Complex or Wadala, given their proximity to the airport that is situated right in the city. Besides these, the stringent Coastal Regulation Zone notifications have, for all practical purposes banned reclamation, making any expansion of the city along the coastal stretch impossible. Until this June, environmental clearances were required for buildings based on the width of the road that they are located on, and the distance from fire stations. This February 2012 notification practically killed building activity in Mumbai, which barely has any roads 30 metres wide. It took a great deal of lobbying by the state, the eating of humble pie by its chief minister, and the prime minister's personal intervention to extract a relaxation from the Union environment ministry.

In the last 15 years, the state adopted a populist policy of providing free housing to tenants of cessed (constructed before 1969) buildings in 1998. A mere 8 per cent of the 16,000-odd have been redeveloped. The populist policy hasn't worked. Mumbai is a city starved for open spaces. It has no fresh land parcels available for construction in the island city. But it definitely deserves better. The government needs to be more imaginative in urban planning and design. There is a desperate need to increase the minimum cluster size before allowing developers incentives of higher floor space index, and there is also a strong case for the state to intervene when a handful of tenants threaten to hold redevelopment projects to ransom. Clearly, there is a compelling argument for allowing reclamation, at least for projects that promise a larger public good. But at least a beginning has been made.

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