Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"If you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of" - An interview with Hafeez Contractor

What's your take on the atate of architecture in Mumbai, in terms of ideas?

Public buildings, which are heritage buildings are okay. But private heritage buildings are in a pretty bad condition. Barring some private buildings, good architecture is seen as a vital component of only public buildings. And there have been barely any public buildings built in Mumbai in the last 30 or 40 years. We haven't built stations, we haven't built schools.

When you look across the Mumbai skyline, there's a kind of sameness, nothing that catches the eye.

When you have a residential building, it consists of a living room, bedroom, hall, and kitchen. It's only when you have something different, like a museum, or a hotel, that things are different.

Do Indians, in general, not have good design sense?

It's a very sad thing. But I'll tell you, it's like survival. You don't have food to eat, so do you talk about table manners? When you have ample food to eat, you'll be like, 'After you, no, please, after you!' [Exaggerated table manners] More than 55% of our people live in slums. That's why you have illegal houses, structures, encroachments. There is a lot of creativity in extracting the maximum out of a limited space, mind you. Today, FSI (floor space index) controls everything. It's the place where people make a lot of money legally and illegally. They don't want to lose their hold on it. But to answer your question, we do care about design but when we don't have spaces to live... We've been asking to build smaller and smaller and smaller houses. Take the Urban Land Ceiling Act - it was asking people to create a 40sq meter flat in an 80sq meter area. It boils down to whether your bylaws go hand in hand with you to create something nice.

So you're saying that if FSI is raised, things like design will generally improve?

One hundred percent. It might take some time, but yes. It'll eradicate scarcity. Today you're paying for scarcity, not for the product. You increase FSI, and the scarcity will be removed.

So who exactly benefits from this scarcity?

This is a great game which few understand. If you say that FSI should be raised, the media says 'oh, the builder lobby has asked for the FSI level to be raised, and they will gain from it. Whether you have 1 FSI or 2 FSI, the lobby will gain from it. But if you have more FSI, demand and supply will equalise. By restructing the FSI, the percentage of profit is higher for the builder, and there is more corruption in the city by restricting it. Percentagewise, the buyer is also paying more. But if the builder pays less for FSI - which is raised at the same time - the builder will be happy, and the buyer will be happy.

But do builders want this?

There are types of builders. There are some who buy single buildings and keep extracting the money. But there are professional builders for whom turnover is more important. But unfortunately not many people understand that. Whenever there is a debate about FSI, people say, 'Oh, the builder will make more money!' Initially, yes. But it will taper off.

You once said that if the FSI was raised and Mumbai moved upwards, we'd have more parks and playgrounds. How can you be sure about this?

See, nobody is Raja Harishchandra that they would want to do good things for people. In all other countries and cities, incentives are given. You make a restaurant, you get fsi, you occupy more than 50% of the plot you don't get additional FSI. That's why you have so many little parks and gardens in New York. It's not that they're in love with art. They're in love with money. So they're forced to do it. But we don't want to understand reality. In Manhattan the FSI is five, and with bonuses you can go up to 25. This is how they make cities more beautiful. In this city we are all very selfish. We don't want any construction in our back yard, we don't want our thing to change. This is wrong. The city does not belong to you. We have to provide for the future. It's held up by a bunch of retired people who don't want their lifestyle to change. On one side they demand green spaces, on the other they want low cost housing. Are they really clear about what they want? They are against any development.

The government has raised the FSI level for Dharavi, and they plan to move existing residents into new apartments. But only 51,000 families live there officially, whereas you have a hundreds of thousands who don't. What do you make of this?

I've always said that if you are providing for slums, and are providing for a housand people, make a provision to create for another thousand. You need to construct ten times more than what you are constructing today. We're 16 million people today, and will go to 25 million in the next tren years. Just imagine what will happen. In this 16 million, 55% don't have houses. And of this 55, 30% are staying in dilapidated buildings. That leaves only 25%. All these people are going to be out on the roads. People can't fathom this. They are after people who enclose a balcony, things like that. The only people gaining from this are government officials. They get their flats for free. They don't understand the plight of the ordinary person. In Dubai and Hyderabad there is unrestricted FSI. Take it from me, Hyderabad will overtake Mumbai. The money from the additional FSI should be ploughed back into the infrastructure.

We've said that making buildings and should go hand in hand with building infrastructure. On the face of it, this is a reasonable argument. But given the lack of political will, is it possible?

No, initially it won't happen. Nothing will happen because it's set in the system. It will take some time.

So is the source of the problem the laws and lawmakers themselves?

See, we have impractical laws. And the trouble with the urban scenario is that by the time you realise the laws are impractical, five to six years would have passed. By the time you think about making a new law, the whole real estate scene is so criminalised that people think that, 'If I make this change people will think I've taken the money.' So they let the law keep running, until it gets out of hand. A lot of laws are there for the appeasement of the poor. You can't do cities like that. Nobody has ever created poor man's housing, let us be very clear. All large low-cost housing is created when you have a larger new area for the rich.

Can a good transportation system help you with decentralisation?

Look at history. You will make the poor go further and further away. We've been talking about such wrong things for so many years. All our younger kids' minds are corrupted. These are not facts. Study the history of any city, and you'll see what urban plannning is. You'll see why there's been a scarcity of housing, why 30 people live in a one-bedroom flat on Mohammad Ali road. It's because you've been focussing on the railway, never the road, never the rich. I've always said that if you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of.

You've described mangroves as ghaas-phoos. Do you believe that they aren't a natural flood buffer?

Not at all! I have always said that, against mangroves, I'd like to have promenades and forest lands. I'm a lover of mangroves. But I don't like them at the Bandra seafront. I'd rather have a garden where a man can walk. They've been saying that mangroves have been here all the time. I've sene it with my own eyes at Bandra creek when I studied architecture: there were no mangroves. If you don't do anything near the sea, mangroves will come there. When I said ghaas-phoos, I meant it as wild growth. But am I against greenery? No way. But in the city there should be greenery for human beings, and in the hinterland there should be greenery for wildlife.

Last year, after the cloudburst, you said: "The nallahs are overflowing because of the garbage. The city is not equipped to cope with the clearing because it is not earning enough. The reason for that is because half the city comprises slums that only sponge on the city as they do not pay anything..." How do they sponge on the city?

They use your drainage, your water supply, your roads. They use every aspect of your city facility, they don't pay any taxes. If in every city you pay land tax, and assessment tax, here they pay nothing. That's the main thing. I'm not saying that you should throw them out. I'm saying they are there because your housing laws are not proper.

The environmentalist Girish Raut found out that of the 800 million litres of sewage dumped in everyday, only 2 million come from the slums. The rest comes from big industries.

To prove facts and figures you can twist things. Look, if everybody were to live the way the people in the US live, you would require 12 earths. Definitely, their means and sewage must be small. Definitely. But how does it get dumped? Does anybody clear the garbage? The main dumping area is the nallahs, which get cleared once or twice a year. The Kurla nallahs get cleared with god's good grace. And because oif the sewage they get three or four feet more and their backyards increase. That's why the nallahs have become smaller and smaller and there's more flooding there.

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