MUMBAI, April 12 (Reuters) - Aslamkhan Bhikankha sold his
wife's jewellery and used all his savings to buy a flat in a
Mumbai suburb which he now fears will soon be razed, leaving his
The flat is in one of numerous illegal buildings in Mumbra
that house poor migrant workers and face demolition by
authorities over safety concerns after the collapse last week of
a 7-storey block nearby in which 74 people died.
"If they break this building, they should run the bulldozer
over us and kill us too," said Bhikankha, a plumber who moved to
Mumbai three years ago from a village 350 km (217 miles) to the
north in search of a livelihood. "It will be better than losing
all our money and living on the streets."
The building collapse and Bhikankha's plight underscore the
government's failure to develop policies to house the millions
of people who flood from rural India into cities to do the
low-wage jobs in a modernising economy, Asia's third-biggest.
While building collapses are not uncommon in India, many
were shocked by the Mumbra disaster, one of the deadliest such
incidents in recent years. The apartment block crumbled in
seconds, instantly killing dozens of construction workers and
their wives and children who had been living there.
A shortage of affordable housing in Indian cities has led to
rampant illegal construction by developers using cheap materials
and shoddy methods in order to offer low-cost homes to low-paid
workers, paying bribes to officials to turn a blind eye.
Despite several promises by the government to build
affordable homes for India's poor in densely populated cities,
the country's urban housing shortage is estimated at nearly 19
million households. That lack of affordable housing is
especially acute in Mumbai, India's financial capital and home
to some of the world's costliest real estate, where an estimated
six out of every 10 people live in slums.
"This lack of quality affordable housing is why thousands
choose to invest their hard-earned money in sub-standard
construction," said Brotin Banerjee, CEO of Tata Housing, which
is part of salt-to-steel conglomerate Tata Sons and
is building cheap homes in Boisar, on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Developers argue that expensive land, high interest rates,
and corruption and red tape that cause delays make building
low-cost homes financially unviable.
"There is a need to increase affordable housing in the state
and we are taking steps," said Sachin Ahir, the state of
Maharashtra's junior housing minister. "The government needs to
think about how to rehabilitate those who will be displaced."
"We have tried to create affordable housing, but people have
their own restrictions and aren't ready to go far from where
they live," he added.
Ahir said the government is also reviewing its rental
housing scheme, designed to provide affordable homes for the
poor. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority,
the state body that builds homes, has also been asked to do more
to create joint venture partnerships with private developers to
increase the stock of cheap homes, he said.
OUT OF REACH
A report by property consultant Knight Frank shows house
prices in Dadar, a middle-class area in central Mumbai, are
20,000-30,000 rupees ($370-$550) per square foot, out of reach
for people like Bhikankha, 28, who earns 7,000 rupees a month.
He paid 605,000 rupees for his sparsely decorated 2-bedroom
flat on the ground floor where he lives with his wife,
2-year-old daughter and 12-year-old sister-in-law.
The top three floors of the 8-storey building have been
reduced to rubble by local authorities who in the aftermath of
the nearby collapse broke down the walls and ceilings of empty
flats built without approval. Electricity to the building has
been cut and residents served evacuation notices.
Bhikankha said he has spent the last few days at home as he
fears authorities will evict his family and demolish the
building when he's at work.
As workers combed through the rubble of the collapsed
apartment, another illegal and occupied building on the same
site was being torn down. That 6-storey structure crumbled like
a sandcastle as an excavator clawed at the walls, reducing it in
moments to a pile of mangled steel and concrete.
"The builders and government are playing with people's
lives," said 32-year-old rickshaw driver Mohammad Khalid Sheikh,
who lives nearby.
Thirteen people have been arrested and charged on various
counts, including culpable homicide and bribery, in connection
with the collapsed building that left 74 dead and 62 injured, a
spokesman for the local authority said.
Built in under two months with poor quality materials and
without the proper approvals, the apartment block stood on
forest land in an area where nine of 10 buildings are illegal,
officials say. It was still under construction when it
collapsed, with the mainly migrant workers and their families
living on the lower floors and paying as little as 500 rupees a
month in rent.
If a building, despite being illegal, is part occupied it
cannot be demolished. That encourages developers to rent out
flats at cheap rates while they continue building more floors.
"People who are greedy and can exploit the system will
continue to build these kinds of projects even if there was
availability of affordable homes because they have figured an
easier way of making money," said Chintan Patel, director of
real estate and hospitality at Ernst & Young.
Reshma Ansari lost the only earning member of her family in
the Mumbra disaster. Her 60-year-old brother-in-law, who earned
about 10,000 rupees a month at a bakery, was selling bread in
the building when it collapsed, as one witness said, "like a
pack of cards".
Ansari, 20, lives with her husband and infant daughter in
another illegal building because it is all they can afford. She
said the government should do more to make housing available.
"This happened because of their negligence and now they are
out to break every building in the area and put us on the
streets, but we won't leave."
($1 = 54.6300 Indian rupees)
(Editing by Tony Munroe, Ross Colvin and Ian Geoghegan)