More on Mumbai Floor Area Regulations

The post from September 2nd on Mumbai’s floor area regulations which was largely based on Alain Bertaud’s  (AB) report very succinctly identified major issues that limit supply of housing in Mumbai. A contrasting viewpoint was recently presented by Shirish B. Patel in a national daily newspaper in India. This post complements the earlier post and aims to elaborate on the urban planning issues of Mumbai.

Commonplace wisdom dictates that increase in floor area is usually accompanied by a corresponding increase in population density for that area, and to accommodate this increase, improvements in infrastructure are essential. The argument presented by AB as to why increased Floor Space Index (FSI) in Mumbai would not create crowding is interesting. According to his analysis, the net population increase through the years (accounting for birth rate, death rate and migration) is not correlated with the changes in FSI. Furthermore, the reduction in FSI since 1964 from 4.5 to 1.33 in large parts of Mumbai [1] has not resulted in the anticipated reduction in population density in the area. What happened instead is that Mumbaikars (moniker for Mumbai residents) are squeezing themselves into smaller spaces and hence the average space per person is 48.4 square feet as compared to an average of 430 square feet in Delhi [2], 365 square feet in Shanghai (AB) and 714 square feet in Manhattan. This lack of space has also resulted in squatting on sidewalk. Hence, AB argues that increasing FSI will not increase the density but allow more space per person.

Shirish B. Patel compares densest neighborhoods in Mumbai and Manhattan. He argues that space in Manhattan is not being efficiently used as the residential area per person in Manhattan CD8 (688 square feet) is almost six times that in Mumbai C-Ward (107.6 square feet[3]). This, according to him, is one of the main reasons for requiring a larger FSI in Manhattan. This comparison brings out the issue of extravagant residential space that sometimes is required by New York City regulations (this issue is currently being studied through adAPT NYC), but Patel’s argument falls short of explaining the solution to the lack of housing problem.

Patel further argues that another factor that should be considered in evaluating whether an FSI increase is necessary and viable in Mumbai is the Plot factor (buildable land area/street area). This value is about 1.7 in Manhattan CD8 (37% of land area is dedicated for roads) and 2.4 (29% for roads) in Mumbai C ward. This translates to about 2190 people per hectare of street in CD8 versus 4690 in C-Ward, which means Mumbai’s C-Ward already has more than double the people on its streets when compared to densest neighborhoods in Manhattan. He argues on this basis that there is a positive correlation between increase in FSI and increase in congestion. Clearly, this viewpoint contradicts AB’s thesis that increase in FSI would not lead to increase in density.

Mumbai is a complex city and I feel that issues are more complex than presented in either of these articles. These issues – of less supply of land for development, artificially low rents (due to rent control act), lack of redevelopment of buildings built prior to reduction in FSI, insufficient  infrastructure – have all been identified multiple times by both Indian and International policy makers. Owing to the identification of these issues, there are efforts underway to increase FSI in strategic areas, to create multiple business districts that would take away the burden from Nariman Point CBD, there are infrastructure developments planned or in progress, such as metro rail, sea link, 2031 Mass Transit and road concept plans and  2052 concept plan for Mumbai that seems to incorporate many of the urban planning solutions that have been identified for a dense city like Mumbai.

But there are issues that go beyond urban planning solutions that must be discussed to understand the problem in its entirety. The biggest issue may not be supply of housing, but supply of affordable housing. There are empty apartments in many new developments, but the market prices are artificially jacked up making the supply of housing limited. So people prefer to rent/buy smaller spaces in Dharavi (one of the largest slums in the world) where rent control act and FSI regulations do not apply, or in the extreme even squat on sidewalks. I am reminded of an illuminating anecdote from Maximum City (by  Suketu Mehta) which talks about the difficulty in removing squatters from the sidewalk because these people can rebuild their temporary housing in an hour’s time and any number of attempts to remove these resilient people remains futile.

No analysis of the situation on ground is complete without considering the debilitating effects of red tape and land mafia that cripples any developmental efforts in Mumbai, which both Maximum City and (the Chairperson’s note in) this white paper allude to. The land mafia exists in Mumbai, working in close coordination with some powerful politicians. Inspite of the presence of many reliable builders, the local mafia controls the housing market as they moved partly into films, and partly into real estate, when smuggling became irrelevant after the early 1990s reforms. According to Patel, the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act (ULCRA) has been repealed, at the insistence of the Jawarhal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), but vested interests have prevailed and much of the land has been kept unavailable for development. At the risk of stating the obvious, the housing and infrastructural challenges can not be met unless corruption in decision making is curtailed.

It is interesting to note that inspite of some really terrifying (read Maximum City) issues unique to Mumbai, people keep flocking here because they see it as a land of opportunities if one is willing to work hard. Though politicians in India often invoke the Mumbaikar spirit of resilience whenever tragedy – man-made or natural – strikes Mumbai, the challenges posed by an ever increasing population and climate change will stretch the limits of this city. However, all is not lost as the main ingredient that is required to convert Mumbai into a Shanghai (another oft repeated line in the policy circles in India) is political will and timely implementation of the several proposals that I have alluded to earlier in the text.

[1] Patel’s article as well as some other sources point out that FSI in many of the business districts (Bandra-Kurla Complex and Wadala), Mumbai’s C Ward is 4 and it can go higher for hotels, educational institutions, hospitals and the like. So, it is possible that the FSI map in AB’s article is not updated.
[2] (assumption by Delhi Development Authority to calculate space for future increase in population)
[3] There is a huge difference between residential area per person for Mumbai City (48.4 square feet) and for densest Ward in Mumbai (107.6 square feet). An in depth research is needed to understand why there is such a difference between the densest area and entire Mumbai. Possibly, the sidewalk dwellers are accounted for in 48.4 square feet which should be dealt with as a separate issue and should not be included to represent the floor space per person in Mumbai.

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