Cities & Architecture

Nitin Gadkari’s Burj Khalifa Dream Has Many Mumbai Tenants Worried

Slums on Mumbai Port Trust land near Dockyard station. Credit: Urbz (on flickr)

Slums on Mumbai Port Trust land near Dockyard station. Credit: Urbz (on flickr)

Mumbai: The eastern waterfront of Mumbai does not make it to the tourist brochures or any popular representations of the city. Skirting the coast, the 15 km or so stretch is mainly populated by abandoned godowns, warehouses, small businesses, low-rise housing and slums. It is used by the trucks that enter and exit the city carrying goods. Beyond a secure boundary lies the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), at one time the leading port in the country but now overtaken by more modern facilities.

But where the visitor might see an industrial wasteland, Nitin Gadkari sees a glittering future city. In the area now being called Portlands – a nod to the Docklands in London which was transformed from a decrepit area into an ultra luxury neighbourhood – Gadkari sees marinas, helipads, leisure centres, malls, promenades, luxury sea-facing apartments. His vision also includes a London Eye-like attraction and a building taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

“Burj Khalifa? Smart Cities? By all means build those, but why at the cost of our livelihood and our lives,” asks Pervez Cooper, who, till a year or so ago, worked out of an office in the area. In May 2015, Cooper and 60 other tenants of Nazir building, where they had been based for decades, were thrown out of their offices by their landlord, the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT). The Port Trust took this action because the lease on the building had long run out. While this is factually correct, the tenants say that they became casualties in a fight between the MbPT and the original lessee who has since passed away.

Nazir Building was leased out to Jimmy Nazir in the 1930s for 50 years. Sometime in 1986, the lessee “sold” the lease to a third party. The Port Trust did not recognise the transfer; instead, it sued both of them. The tenants were left in a lurch; on court orders, they began depositing the rent with the court and the new lessee kept on collecting it, says Cooper. But she did not hand it over to the Trust. This went on for three decades, till one day last year the MbPT decided to take possession of the building; Cooper says the tenants got an hour’s notice and with the help of a police posse, all of their belongings were moved on to the road. Decades worth of businesses were simply wiped out.

This may sound like a straightforward legal issue, but it is not. All along the Portlands stretch, there are tens of thousands of tenants who are in a limbo because of conflicts over expired leases between heirs of original lessees and a newly aggressive MbPT. There are buildings in which the residents – mainly old tenants – are not paying any rent, since they don’t know who to pay to. Not surprisingly, the Port Trust – which collects a bare Rs 150 crore rent annually – is locked into a large number of legal cases.

Pervez Cooper stands outside the building from where he and other tenants were evicted by the Mumbai Port Trust

Pervez Cooper stands outside the building from where he and other tenants were evicted by the Mumbai Port Trust

“For years, the Port Trust wouldn’t take any action against all those people who had illegally transferred their lease. It wouldn’t even acknowledge something was wrong. Tenants who went to ask who they should pay the rent to were shooed away. Life just went on-we even hoped for proper, permanent tenancies. But now the Port Trust wants its properties and is issuing eviction notices left and right,” says Cooper. The Port Trust is using the Public Premises Eviction Act of 1971, a law that was originally devised to prevent government servants from taking over housing given to them as part of their jobs. “That law does not apply to us – it is completely unfair,” says Cooper.

The Trust’s website lists nearly 800 lease holders and 2005 ‘tenants’, but the total number of residents in these properties runs into lakhs. Rooms as small as 200 square feet to tiny garages to large apartments and huge offices, warehouses and even iconic buildings like the Taj Mahal Hotel – they all are “owned” by the Port Trust, but leased out. Many of the original lessees have either ‘sold’ the leases, died or are still sitting on the properties despite theie leases having ended. Some tenants claim that influential lessees managed to keep getting extensions of 15 months at a time. “This couldn’t have happened without some greasing of palms,” says a tenant who did not want to be named.

Big landlord

The Mumbai Port Trust is the biggest landholder in the city and is sitting on 1800 acres of prime land, which Gadkari wants to monetise and exploit. Its lessees include numerous large private and public sector organisations at the one end and middle-class tenants at the other. It is the latter who seem to be feeling the pressure.

“My grandfather had taken an entire floor in Madhav Bhavan, a building near Darukhana in 1942,” says Shridhar Shenoy, who runs a small restaurant near Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. In those days of informal arrangements, various relatives moved into the rooms, leaving a small portion for the Shenoys, where Shridhar, his wife and two daughters live. The upper floors too were occupied by tenants.

In the 1950s, the building’s lease passed on to another buyer but the Port Trust did not react then. Taxes and rent began mounting and every now and then the Port Trust and the Bombay Municipal Corporation made demands on the tenants; till recently they somehow managed to pay the lakhs of rupees in arrears but it has become increasingly difficult. The Port Trust does not recognise the new lessee, but at the same time has not been able to track down the original one (who, it turns out, died a long time ago.) The result? It’s the tenants who are caught in the middle. “It is an unfair situation – we have to pay and there is no guarantee that if there is any resolution we will get to keep the place even as tenants,” says Shenoy. “We could be thrown out at any time,” adds his worried wife, Preeti.

While these problems are not new, the Port Trust has gone into overdrive to get hold of its properties, never mind if there are people living and working in them. This thrust is clearly linked to Gadkari’s grandiose plans to completely overhaul the area, turning an old, rundown section of Mumbai into a glittering smart city by the sea.

It is not always that an enormous land parcel comes into the Mumbai land market. In the 1990s, over 600 acres had become available in central Mumbai after the great mill strike of 1982 had devastated the textile industry. All manner of noble declarations were made to utilise that land for not just building apartment blocks and offices but also public amenities and affordable housing for thousands of mill workers who were thrown out of jobs. The way it turned out was exactly the opposite – there are no parks or public amenities in the area but a lot of malls and high-rises; the workers have been left high and dry.

The 140-year-old Mumbai Port Trust’s holdings are an even more lucrative prospect. It is sitting on 1800 acres, of which 1000 acres can be used for “development”. Not surprisingly, Gadkari – and Mumbai’s businessmen and developers – are excited about the possibilities. The problem is that the free land is not contiguous and is occupied by lakhs of tenants. And these tenants are proving to be an obstacle.

In 2014, Nitin Gadkari set up a committee under the former Port Trust chairperson Rani Jadhav to outline the future of the Portlands; promises were made that the report would be ready in three months. Yet, a year and a half after the report was submitted, it has still not been made public, though it is available online. Some media reports have suggested that the committee had advised that a special purpose vehicle be set up to take over the entire Portlands development project, but the shipping ministry does not want to let go. Other observers say that the committee’s recommendation that 30% of the land be used for maidans, parks, gardens and plazas open to the general public might be a sticking point. Emails to senior officials in the ministry of shipping about the report and the status of tenants went unanswered.

Admiral I C Rao (retd), who is part of Apli Mumbai, a citizens’ initiative to develop the Portlands says Jadhav’s report presents a “balanced approach” to the use of land. “The report recommends that the land must be used for creating open spaces, public amenities and transport infrastructure, but some vested interests are opposing it”, he says.

Yachts and promenades

A sketch of a proposed plan by APLI Mumbai for Mumbai's Portlands

A sketch of a proposed plan by APLI Mumbai for Mumbai’s Portlands

Apli Mumbai, which calls itself “A citizens’ plan to re-imagine Mumbai” has produced its own report which has artist renderings of beautiful promenades, day night eateries and luxury yachts and speaks of a nature park and even a “Sanskriti corridor”, which will be created around an old British-built fort in Sewri that otherwise barely gets any official recognition. Redevelopment, tourism hub, marina — all the buzz words and phrases are present, but the intractable – and human – problem of how to deal with long-resident tenants still looms.

At a recent seminar organised by the group, Sanjay Bhatia, the new chairperson of the Port Trust, acknowledged that all the stakeholders would have to be taken on board. These include not just those who were in occupation of Port Trust land, including slums and “unauthorised occupants” but also its employees and over 35,000 pensioners. He said work on a new master plan for the Port Trust lands would soon begin and those leases that fell within that area would not be extended. “There are environmental concerns to be addressed and there are many aspirations, ranging from public utilities such as gardens, to a waterfront, restaurants, public transportation hubs, hotels, Burj Khalifa, an International cruise terminal, water sports etc.” There is another impediment, however: as things stand, the land use policy only allows for port-related activities; “some changes will have to take place,” he said.

What these changes will be is what worries citizens groups. Darryl D’Monte, journalist and environmental activist, who has written extensively on how the city’s mill lands were appropriated for constructing luxury towers and malls, says a bigger pattern is emerging to completely alter the city. “There is a ‘Toxic Trio’ consisting of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, environment minister Prakash Javadekar and transport minister Nitin Gadkari, all from Maharashtra. They are blinded by the notion of ‘development’, but what they are planning isn’t vikas (development) it is vinash, (destruction)” says D’Monte.

He lists an example of this full throttle approach to create massive infrastructure: the Rs 12,000 crore coastal road is being given the go-ahead without waiting for final environmental clearances, including a just-commissioned 9-month study by the National Institute of Oceanography on the impact of reclamation on tides.” The road will reclaim 160 hectares of land, including 27 hectares of mangroves and will completely block off access to the city’s “most prized asset, its seashore,” he says.

With the coastal road on the western side and development of Port Trust property on the east, large tracts of land for development will open up. Activists say that these plans will benefit car owners and developers and big builders.

But even those who are supportive of the need to build some infrastructure for water transport are not fully convinced with the government’s plans. Aashim Mongia, a former national sailing champion and proponent of the need for marinas, says the government’s approach is very ad-hoc and not based on full scientific study. “They seem to be in some kind of hurry. We need marinas, we need a terminal for luxury ships, but the question is where? Why construct new infrastructure while the existing one is available?” His reference is to old docking berths which have fallen into disuse after much of the Port Trust’s business moved to the more modern Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust across the harbour; instead, the plan is to construct jetties and marinas near the Gateway of India.

Central to the entire issue is the question of what to do with those who occupy Port Trust land. While slum dwellers may get alternative housing at distant places and institutions, such as oil companies and large corporations have the clout to get the best possible deal, it is the tenants who are going to get hit the most.

Milind Deora, the former MP in whose area most of this land falls, says he had almost worked out a solution to this long pending issue. “The Mumbai Port Trust is one of the three in India which holds so much property. When I was the minister of state for shipping, I had proposed that the Port Trust regularise tenants with some kind of one-time payment and a reasonable rent. We are talking of lakhs of people here. But our government got voted out and the proposal was forgotten. Now they are talking of eviction and huge rent increases”

Deora and his party have taken up the cause of the tenants and regularly hold public meetings that are packed with those who fear that one day they too will be thrown out on the streets like the tenants of Nazir building were. Online campaigns to reach out directly to the PM have been started and legal options are being considered. The mood is one of frustration and pessimism. “We had really thought that this government, with its promise of Achche Din would look after us and give us a just deal. But its turned to be exactly the opposite,” a dejected Pervez Cooper says.

  • method man

    Hello

    I’m a bit confused as to this article’s basic premise. The human interest portions seem to be entirely devoted to the tenants, who are facing eviction. But what is the basis for allegations of unfair treatment? That the port trust did not enforce its rights to arbitrate on leases in the past… does that mean that they have no right to enforce these rules at present?

    Instead, could we have pieces on how the land use policies are implemented? I would believe that no government has done a good job in this, and hasn’t been able to provide stable public amenities whenever this sort of change is made.

    The coastal road story seems a lot more important. because environmental destruction is one of those difficult responsibilities of the state, especially given that public perception would be in favour of the fancy road.

  • Rama Krishna

    If India has the rule of law at all, the illegal squatters should be evicted by due process, assistance offered for finding alternate housing, and Mumbai Port Trust severely penalized for late action that amounts to egregious contempt of its fiduciary responsibility. All power to Mr. Nitin Gadkari as he struggles to save the great city of Mumbai from parasitic slumlords and indifferent officials!