Geetanjali Minhas | November 10, 2014
One of India’s most renowned and celebrated architects, Hafeez Contractor is empanelled with the housing boards of several states – Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. He has been instrumental in introduction of the slum redevelopment scheme for Mumbai, and convincing the government about the advantages of highrise housing vis-a-vis low-rise structures. Contractor is also the winner of 70 national and international awards and has designed iconic buildings like the 23-Marina Towers in Dubai and Infosys Technologies’ IT Parks. In bet-ween meetings at his Mumbai office, Contractor spoke to Geetanjali Minhas on issues ranging from future planning for cities, difficulties builders face in getting approvals to garbage disposal policy, among others. Edited excerpts:
How do you look at the real estate regulation bill, which, among other things, proposes a national regulatory body for the realty sector and lists steps to set the skewed buyer-seller equation right?
I am not a legal expert. My expertise is design. But yes, we have very difficult laws for real estate (sector). For the building industry, we not only have many laws but (have) very complicated laws. Not only that, laws are being made every second month and to add to that, overlapping laws are being made and we don’t know which law to follow. By the time you follow a law, a new one comes in for environmental approval, or the CFO (chief fire officer) makes another law. This never happened in the past; (earlier) laws were consistent and were modified to make life easier.
I heard that Thane, too, has started asking for (earmarking) 20 percent (space for) garden on ground. Without understanding the implications, some person has made a law. Laws are meant for the good of the general public. (But) everyone thought real estate is a huge money-making industry. There was a time it was, but today, I do not think it is making money. Facilitating investment – getting capital – is the biggest cost (for the sector) and all money is getting off there. (So) paying interest, premium, government duties, getting approvals, etc., have become very difficult. There are then delays in approvals. We must first have regulations for getting approvals within a fixed time. Are there, for instance, any laws stipulating that environmental approvals have to be given within a certain time?
It will be best to have all our approvals computerised and the approval should come in one day. For example, since computers have all the plans, the approvals should be fed in. If you want a concession you feed that and comply with required duties – and it should be done within 24 hours. Why are we making laws which are restrictive and make you go to the officer to beg for concessions? Like Hyderabad, where FSI (floor space index) is unlimited, we should open up and do the same.
When the government is setting up new infrastructure by developing NAINA (Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area) in Navi Mumbai why is it not giving unlimited FSI to the new township, and is, instead, restricting FSI? When Mumbai had 2 FSI all other cities of India had only coverage. All of them have now gone ahead but we have slowly become a rotten city to live in.
In terms of skewed buyer-seller equations, both are at fault. Sometimes it is the buyer’s fault and at other times the seller’s.
Is it because Mumbai’s population has increased manifold compared to the land available in the main city?
Everything in Mumbai is very expensive and beyond the reach of the average person. We could have developed Navi Mumbai many years ago instead of doing it now. If we had constructed the ring road, Malad and Marve would have been places earlier. But we do not want to build roads or invest in a proper metro network. Look at Dadar: it has become a mess because of the monorail. Why could we have not done an underground railway network?
We aren’t looking at the city for the future, for the next 50-60 years. We are looking at addressing the problems of today. We save costs by putting up railings by the side of the road which does not last for even six months. In New York, London and Paris once the railing is put up it is there for a hundred years. If we divide the road to make a garden, it will be maintained for six months. After that, it will lie neglected. Nothing here is done with permanence, looking at the future – neither planing nor city governance.
Mr Narendra Modi has been talking about toilets, which are very important, but what about garbage which nobody is thinking of? Go to any tier-II city and you see garbage lying anywhere. In Mumbai, garbage is dumped at open places almost everywhere. Does the city have a proper policy where it can dump its waste? If I demolish my building, is there a place where I can dump the debris?
If I have to do renovation in this building they will give me a hundred reasons how I cannot do renovation; and I will get a notice if I do it. But if I want to do it illegally, I can do it tomorrow. Everyone, including our city fathers, knows it but nobody will do anything about it. The recent DC (development control) rules are absurd and have taken the building industry back by 50 years. Yes, some people were taking advantage by illegally building more due to the demand. So, instead, why not give more area and charge a premium?
When you say you don’t have infrastructure to give more area, are you able to control the influx of people into Mumbai? You do not want to have legalised density but you want to have illegalised density. All slums are illegalised density. Noida is giving 4 FSI [meaning, a builder can construct up to four times the size of the plot], Bangalore 3 and Chennai, too, is giving a higher FSI. They also have roads, and the biggest infrastructure is water, which we have a great supply of. Roads can be built today or tomorrow but we don’t want to recognise that. Everything in Mumbai is throttled, and that is what is not right.
What are the major problems plaguing the real estate sector?
Time (taken) for approvals is a major hassle. Environmental approval, high-rise and CFO’s approvals can all be computerised. Besides transparency, time is also of essence.
In a rapidly urbanising India, slums are an important component. We cannot wish them away. How can the real estate regulation bill address the problems of slum redevelopment?
We must have policies whereby we are able to give affordable housing at an appropriate price. That means an ‘affordable’ price of '4-5 lakh. If you are not going to give them that (flats at that rate), slums are definitely going to come up because you cannot tell people who come here from villages to spend '20-60 lakh on houses. But the problem is, we do not want to address that situation.
That is because laws are not made because they are good for the public; they are made with an eye on votes. We (experts) give good ideas and they should be adopted.
Recent efforts to rehabilitate slum-dwellers have backfired in many places in Mumbai. Do you foresee any solution to the urban slum problem?
The policy for slum redevelopment is perfect in Mumbai. It is working well. Thousands of slum-dwellers have been given free housing. I feel it should be liberalised further. We were instrumental in initiating the policy.
There is a shortage of low-cost housing across the country. How do you think this problem can be effectively addressed?
As I said earlier, unless we construct houses for economically weaker sections and social housing is taken care of, we will not get rid of slums. Do you know how much time is wasted because people do not have houses to live in? If you ask your peon why he failed to come to work he will say he had an upset stomach because the water he consumes is not good; some other help will say there was water leakage in his house. All this causes delay in work and problems for many people.
What are your views on the government’s ambitious plan to create 100 smart cities?
It is a very good idea. I think though the prime minister is not an urbanist, he wants to develop smart cities because he sees the projections that there will be an influx of millions of people from villages to cities (in the years coming). How those 100 smart cities are going to be built is a question, and I am sure he (Modi) is going to consult many urbanists on that.
We need more construction and housing in cities, though how and where is the big question. People say these (smart) cities will come up on a corridor; I feel rather than a corridor, if these cities are made as an appendage to the older cities they will come out better and faster. You don’t make cities merely by (constructing) housing and industry. You need, theatres, hospitals and other necessary infrastructure.
Cities are made over years. Environmentally, too, we should not start new cities. Instead of spreading our services thin, we must have condensed and dense cities with underground railways, metros and proper water supply, among other facilities. You have to think of giving international-quality services, taking care of garbage, etc.
Tell us something about green buildings.
It is a building where they are teaching you not to waste energy. Too much is made of it but it is the only right way to construct a building so you save energy. A conscious person will do it but for those who are not, they are teaching how to do it.
The interview appeared in November 1-15, 2014 issue
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