Indian Cities Have Been Reduced to Just Real Estate

In the process, ecological sustainability has been sacrificed, as can be seen with Aarey.

“Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of this earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
~ Jean Jacques Rousseau

On Friday, the Bombay high court dismissed four petitions challenging the car shed for the Metro project in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) moved swiftly – within 24 hours, it cut 2,134 trees out of 2,646 trees on the site. The massive public outrage that followed compelled the Supreme Court on Monday to stay further tree cutting in Aarey.

Meanwhile, the government continues to insist that there is no alternative to building the facility in Aarey, since other sites are not publicly owned, and therefore may be too expensive to acquire. Aarey is an approximately 1,200 ha of green cover contiguous with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Nevertheless, one alternative site for the car shed project is a large vacant plot of land in the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) – that is public land, along the proposed metro line, and large enough to accommodate the facility.

But the site’s high real estate value makes this proposition unthinkable for the government. The Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the metro rejects this site because it can be “used more gainfully for property development [or] commercial exploitation”.

The business district of BKC itself, it must be remembered, was created in the 1990s by reclaiming the floodplain of the Mithi River, that was shown to be the leading cause of the Mumbai floods in 2005 that claimed hundreds of lives. A recent report by a Supreme Court-appointed panel called the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority’s (MMRDA) as the “biggest encroacher” of the Mithi river, for the creation of BKC.

And so, with full knowledge of the massive destruction caused by the BKC reclamation, the government is now planning to clear 30 hectares of land in Aarey, that provides vital ecological services to the city, exacerbating the threat of urban floods.

Also read: Mumbai’s New Development Plan Is About More Real Estate for Developers

The message is clear: the prospect of profiting from urban land is the sole criterion for determining how we shape our cities; no amount of environmental destruction, or risk to life and property of residents matters in the pursuit of commercial gain. The owners of the city, in other words, are prepared to gamble with its future while they profit from the earth.

A view of the construction site of a metro train parking shed for an upcoming subway line is seen in the Aarey Colony suburb of Mumbai, India, October 7, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

The real estate state

In all the progressive traditions of city-making, urban life has been seen as a site of struggle for emancipation, material equality, cultural diversity, democratic participation, and ecological sustainability. All of these ideals are premised on some conception of urban land as a collective good.

Increasingly, however, all of these ideals are being supplanted by a singular urban vision: the city as a site for profiting from land and property development. Land, in this vision, is recast as an exclusive object of private accumulation and exchange, and planning as merely the multiple creative ways through which property values can be elevated. This mode has become the primary source of urban capital accumulation: our cities have been reduced to real estate.

In his recent book Capital City, Samuel Stein describes the rise of the “real estate state” as a “political formation in which real estate capital has an inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the life we lead.” Mumbai has been captured by the real estate state.

As we survey the various projects that are being forcefully implemented in the city – Metro shed in Aarey, western coastal road, opening up of salt-pans, redevelopment of the century old BDD Chawls, where working class families have lived for generations, Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, port land, the neighbourhood of Bhendi Bazaar, etc – we can witness the enormous power of real estate interests in shaping and profiting from these socially and ecologically damaging ventures.

Making land, taking land

To profit from land, the first step is to make it appear scarce. So how will Mumbai produce ‘affordable’ housing? By filling up salt-pan lands. How will we build metro yards? By levelling and concretising our forests. How will we carve out highways? By reclaiming the coast. How will we house our millions? By snatching away land from the poor and stacking them in penal conditions. Meanwhile, all the land that lies under-used such as the defunct mills, the port, BKC, on the mainland, will make way – “more gainfully” – for commercial complexes, luxury housing, and shopping malls.

Also read: Mumbai’s People, and the Environment, Are Paying for the City’s ‘Development’

New mass-transit links such as suburban rail and metros have the potential to connect the city with hitherto unconnected areas, bringing in more land while keeping core-city land values in check. In Mumbai, in contrast, transport planning strategies are geared towards restricting land to a trickle, and to ensure that land values are restructured to benefit speculators and wealthy home or office buyers, rather than the wider population.

Projects like the Western Coastal Road, running along the coast from north to south, for example, are meant to inflate land values in already high-land value areas of the island city coastline, and to provide better facilities to wealthy residents. It also aims to open up the north-western suburbs of Marve, which is sparsely populated, to benefit strategic property developments there.

Similarly, all the elevated metro lines duplicate the system on the city’s existing road network, rather than connecting poorly serviced areas of the city, or the city with the mainland. While this helps construction contractors pour millions of tonnes of concrete, clear the road for car-users, and raise land values for property developers to milk these corridors, it does little for bus users or poor urban dwellers, who will find themselves priced out of the network.

High-rise residential towers under construction are pictured behind an old residential building in central Mumbai September 9, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Vivek Prakash/Files

Mining the air

And since land is perceived to be in short supply, the real estate state renders the sky into a fungible commodity. Filched from the street, the pedestrian and the poor resident, the sun and the air are mined for private gain. Increase of Floor Space Index (FSI) – or “upzoning” as it is called elsewhere – has been behind the radical transformation of the city’s built fabric, and a re-ordering of its social relations and networks.

Take the Bombay Development Directorate (BDD) Chawl redevelopment project. 15,238 families live in buildings constructed in the 1920s in 16 square meter units, on 35 hectares of land. Even if the house size for each of the families is doubled to 32 square meters, the project would require not more than 1.4 FSI to rehouse all the residents. Add a few hundred commercial units to cross-subsidise construction, and the whole scheme can be rebuilt as a 2.0 FSI walk-up scheme for almost no cost to the government.

Also read: Circumventing the CRZ: Unlocking Mumbai’s Coastal Real Estate

Yet, the project is being built with FSI 4.0, and all the existing residents will be rehoused on a small portion of the plot in high-rises. The result will be housing in extremely compromised conditions for the existing tenants, towering luxury real estate for investors, and a windfall for the government and developers. Land value elevated through upzoning will be monetised and captured through redevelopment.

The ‘play’ of planning tools

Since the second iteration of Mumbai’s development plan in 1991, the city government has ceased to build social infrastructure in Mumbai. Instead, property developers are the actual implementers of the city’s development plan. Schools, hospitals, community facilities, public housing – all of these can only be built by offering generous FSI “incentives” and regulatory “relaxations” to land developers.

This means that the central aims of development planning are inseparably contingent on real estate speculation. When residents ask for a better quality of life, the state responds by increasing FSI for projects. When slum dwellers ask for better homes, the state responds by reducing regulatory constraints on builders. When conservationists demand the preservation of older precincts, the state responds by offering Transferable Development Rights (TDR) to landowners. As land becomes more expensive, “incentives” and “relaxations” to the real estate industry are expanded in a continuous downward spiral of deteriorating living conditions and increasing cost of living.

And while plan implementation is outsourced to the private real estate sector, almost no attention is paid to basic municipal infrastructure and services. Storm water systems, preservation and expansion of ecological assets, municipal water supply, affordable public transport, basic services in informal settlements, pedestrian infrastructure – all of which require concerted state action – are neglected, starved of public investment and sacrificed for the singular aim of promoting urban real estate growth.

Also read: Envisioning a Humane Urban Policy for India

Aspects of the city that cannot be made profitable through real-estate megaprojects are simply ignored. The outcome is an increasing slumification of the city’s public realm, while wealthy residents bypass the city on freeways, to eventually retreat into the security of their gated or elevated enclaves.

In such an urban vision, there is no room for the survival of other values. The value, for instance, of trees to the adivasi, who depends on them crucially for livelihood; of urban parks that provide recreational facilities for city dwellers; of undeveloped lands that provide vital ecosystem services to the city; of urban biodiversity and forest ecosystems, that are valuable for their own sake. All of these become encumbrances to be overcome, in the pursuit of more gainful uses.

High-rise residential buildings are seen in this cityscape of Mumbai. Photo: Reuters

Urban land as commons

Cities mean many things. To each of us urban dwellers, the city we envision for ourselves is both particular and incomplete. And it is through the just resolution of these often shared, often conflicting imaginations, that our cities ought to be cohabited and built. The cumulative, yet collective expression, of our manifold values, desires and interests constitutes the promise of urban life. A singular vision, a singular value, or a singular idea may produce dungeons and Disneylands, not cities.

It is, therefore, necessary to reclaim the conception of urban land as a collective good. All value in the city, we must remember, is collectively produced, and privately appropriated through urban development processes based on the logic of increasing land values and profiting from the land.

Urban social movements that are challenging projects such as the metro yard in Aarey, the Coastal Road or eviction of informal settlements, aim to resist the notion of land purely as an object of exchange, and reinstating its value as a shared commons. Like Rousseau, these movements seek to reaffirm, that the wealth of the city belongs to us all, and the city itself to nobody.

Hussain Indorewala teaches at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai.