Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar: A slumdog millionaire overhaul

In the Bhendi Bazaar district of Mumbai many residents live in overcrowded and crumbling rat-infested buildings. But a redevelopment project is under way that aims to transform the area.

A 30-billion rupee project to redevelop the 16.5-acre Bhendi Bazar, above, was proposed by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust. Subhash Sharma for The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In a market district in the heart of Mumbai, dilapidated old buildings line the streets. Many have cramped, dark, dingy interiors with crumbling staircases. Some are precariously supported by bamboo poles. Giant rats scurry across the floors.

Such decayed surroundings ought to be deserted, but Bhendi Bazaar district, where the majority of the community is made up of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, is bustling. The narrow century-old streets are lined with shops selling a range of wares from car parts to clothes. Homes that look as though they should have long ago been abandoned are filled with families of up to 10 people cramped into tiny living quarters.

But there are plans for this overcrowded mercantile settlement. A 30 billion rupee (Dh1.68bn) project to redevelop the 16.5-acre area is under way. The plan is to knock down all the buildings and rehouse the families and businesses in shiny, modern steel and glass skyscrapers.

The developer behind the ambitious project is a charitable organisation called the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (Sbut). It hopes that the project could serve as "a model for development" in Mumbai, a growing city of 20 million people where space for building is extremely scarce and land prices are sky-high. There are many poor quality buildings and districts, as well as slums, often located in prime property areas, across the overcrowded metropolis.

"Bhendi Bazaar unfortunately has been neglected for years," says Abdeali Bhanpurawala, the secretary of the trust. "There are a lot of problems."

Many of the buildings are at risk of collapse or outbreaks of fire because of old wiring, he explains. Out of the 250 buildings in the area, about four fifths are considered dilapidated and dangerous, he adds.

The trust hopes to secure all of the approvals by the end of this year and can start building work as soon as those come through, Mr Bhanpurawala says. "We plan to complete the project within a maximum of five years from the day we get all of our approvals."

The redevelopment is to rehouse 3,200 households and 1,250 businesses and provide the infrastructure the area needs. The tenants will become owners in the new development under the philanthropic initiative, while the remaining properties will be sold, according to the master plan.

Pre-construction work has already started and 17 buildings have been demolished and their residents moved to transit accommodation built by the trust.

Analysts say that such so-called "cluster" development projects, which involve the redevelopment of an entire area, are much needed in Mumbai.

"There are old developments in the city from decades back which are in dire need of repair or rehabilitation," says Gulam Zia, the executive director at Knight Frank India. "The viability of redeveloping these structures was very poor. When the government or the master planners decided to come up with this cluster development scheme in which the Far [floor area ratio] is improved to make such a development viable, that's exactly when the interest came in from various developers to redevelop these areas. Mumbai has limited amounts of real estate or land to develop."

The state government has taken steps to support such projects through a cluster development scheme and this year increased the floor space index for cluster projects to allow developers to build more homes on the land, improving the appeal for private developers further, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

"The potential benefits of redevelopment in a city are many," says Anuj Puri, the chairman and country head of Jones Lang LaSalle India. "It not only reduces urban sprawl but also improves the economic competitiveness of city's prime precincts.

"In addition to this redevelopment there can be an economic engine that unlocks land parcels for development in prime precincts in the city which otherwise are in urban blight, characterised by dilapidated buildings and inadequate and deteriorated amenities and services," he says. "This helps in creating additional, better quality housing or other real estate and helps in boosting property values. Consequently, this creates more jobs and business opportunities while improving the overall urban fabric."

There are significant hurdles faced by redevelopment projects, as they have to get the existing residents and businesses on board.

"The biggest challenge for cluster developments is the identification of beneficiaries," says Mr Puri. "For instance, getting the majority of stakeholders on board is a major task. Also, it is a long and capital-intensive process. Redevelopment may involve relocating businesses and people. However, it must produce tangible economic benefits so that the trouble and expense of redevelopment is justified."

Indeed, there are some residents that are opposed to the redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar.

Shiraz Kachwala, a 62-year-old shopkeeper, lives in one of the dilapidated buildings that has been acquired by Sbut.

"I don't want to leave," he says, adding that he does not care that the building appears to be unsafe. "My father was here since 1945."

The trust has acquired 85 per cent of the land that it needs for the development, but explains that there are some landholders it is struggling with.

"It's not that they don't want to give," says Mr Bhanpurawala. "They're asking some handsome money - they want to take advantage of the situation. Before they announced this project, the buildings were available for 15 to 20 lakhs [1.5 million to 2m rupees]. Now they're demanding 15 to 20 crore [150m to 200m rupees]. If the government is serious about developing the city, they must look into this. It's very difficult."

Other residents, however, are very happy to see the area redeveloped.

"It's not the ideal place to live in," says Nasir Kanchwala, a 51-year-old trader who lives in a 100-year-old building with his wife and daughter. "The area doesn't have any ventilated environments, no walking spaces." He says that getting ownership of a modern apartment and not having to pay rent is "the golden part of the story".

Fakhruddin Mithaiwala runs Fakhri Farsan Mart, a snack shop in Bhendi Bazaar. The shop has been in his family for 60 years, but he says he is pleased with the redevelopment plans.

"We're in the 21st century and everything is modernising," he says. "It's going to give us a great boom."