For those battling the narrow, congested and impossible-to-negotiate streets of Bhendi Bazaar in South Mumbai, its revamp project promises a fairytale-like transformation. But the Rs 3,000 crore project, conceived in 2009 by the Bohra community’s spiritual head, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, and implemented by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT) faces a few hitches and challenges too.

To be built in nine clusters comprising 17 towers of 20 to 40 storeys and spread over 16.5 acres, the project will provide residential space for the existing 3,200 families and office space for the 1,200 retail outlets operating out of the crowded area. Planned at an 80:20 (80 per cent will go to the present occupants and SBUT will sell the other 20 per cent at market rates) ratio, all the occupants of the 4,400 units — some 25,000 in all — have been promised “bigger and better premises”.

I gingerly make my way through some congested streets with eateries, shops selling leather goods, textiles, utensils, and a host of other items, dodging a two-wheeler here, a garbage dumper there, countless handcarts, and hassled drivers of four-wheelers trying to steer their way out of the area. My driver heaved a sigh of relief and ran for his life — actually snaked his way out of the narrow, labyrinthine street — when I told him I had to walk around to talk to a few people.

Ambitious project

Basically a redevelopment venture, this ambitious project is being implemented in close co-ordination with MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Agency) and other government agencies. It’s very close to the iconic Raudat Tahera, the mausoleum built for the previous spiritual head, Syedna Taher Saifuddin.

As they await the last batch of government clearances to commence work on the first cluster, which will accommodate 550 families, project CEO Abbas Master fills me in on the details. Once the final clearances come in, work will begin in three months, and complete in three years. “It will have three floors of underground parking space, two floors of retail or commercial space, and residential units. At present, people live here in congested, squalid conditions; once ready, this project will completely transform this entire area.”

That transformation envisages a main road that is 50 ft wide, a far cry from the narrow streets now, lots of trees — the Bohra community celebrated the 102nd birthday of Syedna Burhanuddin by distributing saplings all over Mumbai and the rest of India, children’s playground, and even gyms where residents can work out. We are seated on the 19th floor of the swank Hussaini Tower, where the SBUT project office is located across several floors, and which gives an indication of the kind of housing and retail space in the offing.

“This is basically a welfare or upliftment project where all the families that are staying here will be given not only much better, but also bigger accommodation.” Normally, in any development venture the builder-resident ratio is 50:50 or even less, but here 80 per cent of the developed space will go to the present occupants, says Master. “Some people live in barely 100-150 sq ft, we will give them 350 sq ft.” While construction is on, residents will have alternative accommodation. “We have acquired land very close by… in Mazgaon, about 3 km away, and built 750 units of transit accommodation. MHADA has given us another 1,100 units in an area that is just another kilometre away,” he says

About 800 families have already moved to the transit area, where “they don’t have to pay even electricity charges. They are given furnished units with a kitchenette, toilet, carpet, cupboard, curtains and a washing machine. They can simply move in.” The carpet area in these units is about 250-500 sq ft. Master, a civil engineer from BITS Pilani who has a Masters from Georgia Tech in construction management, returned to India in 1994 after working in the US for a large conglomerate for 20 years. He joined this project three years ago.

Hitches, challenges

One of the major challenges lies in vacating people and convincing them to move to the transit home or retail space for a few years while their new accommodation gets ready. Master says about 70 per cent of the residents/ shopkeepers in Bhendi Bazaar are Bohras and the rest are mostly Muslims, but there are Hindus and others too who have retail space here. While the Bohras might come on board easily as this project is implemented by their highly revered spiritual leadership, others are yet to take a call.

“It’s basically a matter of trust and guarantees,” says Aziz Virani, a leather merchant, who does an annual sale of Rs 40 lakh from his 165 sq ft tiny shop. His family moved into this, their second shop, in 1973. “We have another shop here, which we first bought in 1955.”

He is a non-Bohra Muslim from Mumbai and feels there is no clarity and transparency on the entire project. “They are not giving us a clear picture; for us to vacate this shop and agree to move out and then move back after three or four years, we need a written agreement. It should all be spelt out in black and white. The crucial factor is, kitni jagah dengey aur kaha dengey (how much space and where). They are telling us it will be within one km radius, but that is not sufficient for us; after all, we’ve been doing business here for 60 years,” he says. He and some others are trying to put together an association to protect their interests.

Abdullah, who has a hole-in-the-wall shop selling trinkets, also shakes his head vigorously when asked when he would be shifting to another shop. “Nobody has approached me and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been here for over 45 years,” he says resolutely. There is also suspicion among the non-Bohras that this will be developed as an exclusive Bohra hub.

SBUT Secretary Abdeali Bhanpurawala denies this and says all the communities currently occupying the demarcated area will be relocated. About 90 per cent of the present occupants are tenants and the challenge comes in persuading those who do not have proper documents to vacate. MHADA, which is examining the documents and doing the paperwork for the entire project, is very strict about documentation, and this is the hitch.

Master also agrees there are challenges in convincing people; “there are two aspects here, that of people being either owners or tenants. Till now we have managed to get 80 per cent consent of both owners and tenants, and we are working on the rest. The entire certification process has been done by MHADA; they had to go to all the tenants and verify that they are the legitimate tenants of the area, and they did the measurements too.”

With the Maharashtra environment panel (State Environment Impact Assessment Authority), which scrutinises all projects over 20,000 sq metres before giving a green clearance, expressing concern that the tenement density in the area will be “extremely high” and would impact the quality of life, this project faces another hitch. The panel has recommended an increase in the road width and scaling down the sales component of the project.

Bhanpurawala said this is being examined and “everything that is in interest of the city and the environment will be done”.

Internal funding

This would be a rare project of this size where there will be no bank financing. Asked about the project’s funding he says, “We don’t borrow money on interest, so the funds are being arranged from internal resources and community funds.” And when all the nine clusters and 17 towers are ready, 20 per cent of the accommodation — homes and offices — will be sold at market rates. On the likely market rate, the CEO says it is early days yet and the details have to be worked out. Their focus is to get started and relocate the present occupants.

He adds that some of the best designers and master planners from around the world are on board. “Our focus was on making it commercially viable for the businesses/ retailers. So the project is designed in such a way that all the commercial units will face the main 50-ft road. There will be footpaths, trees and parking for 1,500 cars.” Also, it was decided not to go in for mall-type retail outlets “because the shopkeepers here did not prefer it. They want a marketplace, high-street kind of shopping.”

While the business units will be accommodated in ground-plus-two buildings, above which will be a green podium that can be converted into a children’s park or recreational area, the residential towers can rise up to 30, and even 40 storeys.

(This article was published on March 7, 2013)
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