Originally Published 2012-01-03 00:00:00 Published on Jan 03, 2012
For long we have been fed lies. Mumbai has no scarcity of houses and the key to the truth lies in using digital technology to unlock the city's housing potential.
Mumbai - A city of maximum contrasts
Seven hundred million litres of water is lost every day in Mumbai due to thefts, illegal connections and leakages. That's seven followed by eight zeros and the total daily water supply to the city of Pune. This astounding secret was revealed to me by my friend, colleague and water expert Dhaval D. Desai whose eye-opener of a report on the ticking water crisis in Mumbai will hit the stands in a few months. Mumbai might as well be renamed as the city of maximum contrasts. So stark are these inequalities that constant exposure to it, ironically, starts numbing basic human sensibilities. The numbers don't paint a pretty picture.

Provisional 2011 census figures say that 22.7 million people live in the Greater Mumbai region. Using the methodology evolved by the Pranob Sen Committee, it is estimated that 54 percent live in slums. The none-too-impressive national average is 23.5 percent. That's the official line. Apply internationally accepted definition of a slum and the percentage shoots over 60. But in the context of the enormity of the problem, it's a minor quibble. Just to rub it in, Faridabad, Meerut and Aligarh, to name a few, have a fewer proportion of people living in slums than Mumbai. Yet the same Mumbai generates 6.16% of the country's GDP, contributes 10% of factory employment, 25% of industrial output, 33% of income tax collections, 60% of customs duty collections, 20% of central excise tax collections, 40% of India's foreign trade and Rs4000 crores in corporate taxes. The city also has a per capita income of Rs486,000 (NSSO 2010), which is almost three times the national average.

Contrasts are a manifestation of the extreme inequality prevalent in the city. Complex explanations aside, inequality is essentially the lack of affordable accessibility. Affordable accessibility means that every single individual in the city of Mumbai should have an equal opportunity to access the socio-economic and civic support systems in a manner where his cost of access and ownership is proportionate to his current and potential earning capacity. If the access and cost of access to any socio-economic and civic product, service or an agglomerated eco-system is limited by factors of privilege, capital, class, caste, religion, linguistic origin, corporate backing, political affiliation, muscle power, bureaucratic intransigence and corruption then the dynamics of affordable accessibility get skewed, pushing up opportunity costs for the average citizen. An inflated opportunity cost, while benefiting certain sectors in the shorter run, is bad business for the city's economy as it pushes up the input costs for companies and institutions in the longer run.

Let's take housing. Everyone needs a house. More so in a city and most of all in an apparently tight real estate market such as Mumbai. Conventional wisdom paints Mumbai as a city where getting a roof over your head is a hard-fought battle that one often loses than wins. It's a battle of attrition, no doubt, but not because there aren't enough houses available. Liases Foras, an independent non-brokerage real estate research firm, in its latest report has let the cat out of the bag. Mumbai has 96,000 unsold flats. Assuming that an average Mumbai household has five people, it works out 480,000 people who are without a house because the dynamics of affordable accessibility has been subverted. And, there's more. Only 2 percent of this unsold stock is available in the range of Rs25-50 lakhs, which surprisingly has been defined as affordable housing price range by the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI). The remaining 98 percent cost a minimum of a crore of rupees. So an average Mumbaikar earning Rs486,000 per year is expected to shell out almost 25 times his annual salary to get a roof over his head. If at all there was a Nobel Prize instituted for Bizarre Economics, nothing, I repeat nothing at all, will beat this to the winning tape. The report has even more damning nuggets. The total unsold flats occupy 110million square feet. Habitat experts say that for a humane quality of life for a household of five people, which is the city's average, 500 square feet is the bare minimum. That means that over 2.2 million housing units could have been constructed, instead of the current 96,000 vacant ones, and these units could have accommodated 11 million Mumbaikars -- that's all the slum residents of Mumbai and ample more. The Mumbai real estate market is a basket case of extremely skewed dynamics of affordability and accessibility. It's also one of the reasons why cost of doing business in the city is exorbitant.

It's absolutely crystal clear. Mumbai does not have any scarcity of real estate. So the question is: why do Mumbaikars still struggle to get a roof over their head at an affordable price? The answer is as complex as it is simple. The single most important growth ingredient in a city is land. In comparison to other cities, Mumbai doesn't have enough of it. Power, said Mao Zedong, flows from the barrel of a gun. But in a city it flows from the control of land. Every city manages land use through zoning and tools like Floor Space Index (FSI) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Zoning is expected to give town planners and policy-makers the total available land to the last square feet. It's only when the basket of available land is quantified, can tools like FSI and TDR give the desired results.

Friend and passionate environmental activist Rishi Aggarwal helped me stumble upon two secrets recently when he had to meet civic officials for a walkable urbanity project that he was executing for a civil society organisation. Since the project involved refurbishment and expansion of walkways, Rishi wanted the schematics of the drainage system of a particular area. For several localities the schematics were not available, and where available were hand-drawn and outdated. Discussing his experience with me, Rishi asked a simple question: Why can't a Mumbai's drainage system be GPS-mapped?

It's a simple and workable solution indeed, but one that has never been discussed or debated in the policy circles. Curiosity piqued, I asked a source who is a high-level bureaucrat in the state government, and he let out the first secret: "GPS mapping is threat to a lot of people. Before every monsoon there is a budget of approximately Rs200 crores sanctioned to clean and repair the city's drainage pipes and system. Contractors and bureaucrats in collusion with each other execute projects where work is carried out only on paper or certain 'easy' sections are targeted repeatedly. GPS mapping is real-time and will expose the corruption." But that's just the tip of iceberg. Probed further he revealed the second secret: "The government does not know the total available land in the city and zonal-level bureaucracy do not have any clear idea of how much commercial and residential construction has been carried out." Despite cheap and accessible technology being available, it's not being used to accurately map the most critical resource in Mumbai. This is where information and communication technology, with its whole suite of digital solutions, can make the real estate market transparent, accountable, accessible and affordable. The following are the digital solutions that need to be implemented in the city of Mumbai:

 1.  Use real-time GIS and advanced GPS mapping to accurately account for the total available land, including protected land, for each zone. Today due to the lack of quantifiable data on the total available and usable land, developers in collusion with local bureaucrats routinely flout environmental norms, building norms, FSI rules and even go to the extent of encroaching upon protected CRZ and forest areas. Mumbai doesn't need to look far. Delhi is already considering a proposal to map its land resources using GIS and advanced GPS mapping.

 2.  Mash the GPS mapping with real-time satellite imagery to find out deviations, violations and overall land-use patterns. Mumbai does not have usable data on land-use patterns. Some of the data available at the zonal offices are of the 1970s vintage. A city cannot plan if it doesn't know what its land is being used for.

 3.  Link satellite-based land-use patterns to town-planning tools like FSI and TDR. Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai and several other Asian cities do that in a routine manner. It's because of this quantifiable mapping that FSI in Singapore, for example, goes up to as high as 15 in the business districts and as low as 2 in the suburbs. Mumbai is probably the only city in the world where FSI in Nariman Point in 2.5 while the FSI granted to some projects in Central Mumbai area and suburbs is as high as 6.

 4.  Digitise all land records, including flat registrations, title deeds, sale deeds, resale transactions and development of specific areas and make them available in a searchable format.

 5.  Processes associated with Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) should be digitised and made available to the public on a real-time basis. It's precisely because of the lack of such transparency that just six developers hold 70 per cent of the 2.5-3 million sq ft TDR available n Mumbai. The price of TDR has also surged to Rs2,500-Rs3,000 per sq ft from Rs800-1,000 sq ft in the past six months.

Once total available land, land use patterns and total available housing inventory is clearly quantified, then FSI and TDR will became tools of empowerment. In such a scenario real estate prices will be affordable and houses will be accessible. The eco-system to support such a market, like banking and financial services, will also find their cost of transactions and their NPAs drastically reducing. That's the power of digital technology. But that's also a power that threatens the few who control the system today.

(R. Swaminathan is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is also a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow)

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