The Bhendi Bazaar Cluster Redevelopment Project, also known as the Saifi Burhani Upliftment Project, is India’s pioneering, award-winning cluster redevelopment project. It promises to enhance the standard of living of 20,000 people in one of the most densely populated parts of the country – Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar. The project, initiated in 2009, recently won the Central Government’s Smart City Project award. It has been showered with praises by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for its vision and implementation. It is also the only private project to be identified as one of the top 20 war-room infrastructure projects by the government of Maharashtra.

The project’s CEO Abbas Master, in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Guardian, talks about the trials and tribulations of the journey, the difference Narendra Modi’s vision has brought to the otherwise tedious clearance process, and the salient features of the Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment Plan. Cluster redevelopment is the future for redeveloping cities’ infrastructure, he said, adding that India still has miles to go in the field. The policy and perspective are still individual building redevelopment-centric, and the vision needs to be recalibrated to ensure furutistic, cluster-centric redevelopment. This will need tremendous government support and shift in policy paradigm, he says. Excerpts:

Q. SBUT or Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment project is a pioneering cluster redevelopment project. What are its features?

A. The project is the foresight of Late Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. He believed in creating spacious homes for people and transforming this 100-year old infrastructure of Bhendi Bazaar into a magnificient urban setting. At a time when the dilapidated structures are being replaced by high-rises and towers, putting more strain on the local corporation, here is a project which envisions the redevelopment of the entire area, by retaining its ethos, and by taking the burden off the municipality’s head for waste management and sewage treatment. The project is spread over 16.5 acres land which is packed with 250 buildings, 1,250 shops. Most of these structures are dilapidated and have been declared unfit for living by the Municipal Corporation. We have redesigned the entire area in such a way that these 250 buildings will be replaced with 17 towers. There will be a lot of open space and play area which is currently completely missing. Even the green cover which is absent right now, will be provided. To add to it, the area will be developed to be an ace commercial area. It will have its own sewage treatment plants, waste disposal mechanism, solar energy. The flats have been designed in such a way that they will provide privacy to sub-units of joint families. The tenants will be given ownership rights and larger houses than the ones they live in at present. The second floor of all the commercial buildings will be connected to each other. The space will have eateries, shops. People will be able to walk from one building to another without coming down to the ground floor. This is a very unique feature, and as per my knowledge, it will be done in India for the first time.

Q. Why do you think that India should focus on cluster redevelopment?

Many urban centres in India have grown rapidly and haphazardly since the time they were first habituated. Many cities have clusters which have old structures that have rendered a personality to the area. While redevelopment of individual old buildings rob the area of this ethos, it also puts tremendous stress on the civic authorities. In contrast, cluster redevelopment helps envision the entire area in a different way. It helps add facilities for a community-centric life and eases the load on the civic administration. But India still needs to develop a vision for cluster redevelopment. To exemplify, Bhendi Bazaar area has only one tree at present. The tree cover will be increased substantially in the redevelopment process.

Q. What are the challenges for cluster redevelopment in India?

A. Cluster redevelopment is a massive thing. To add to it, there is credibility crisis in major Indian cities when it comes to the reputation of the builders. That is why the government needs to act as a guarantor of rights to gain people’s faith in the process. Each individual builder should not be given the liberty to choose which area he or she will develop. The community should define the cluster and the area which needs to be redesigned. A detailed plan of redesign should be drawn. There is problem of cluster development because credibility of builders is not good, at least in Mumbai. The framework is lacking because the view is individual building-centric and not cluster-centric. We have given suggestions to the government, since we are the first cluster redevelopment project. There are peculiar problems faced by cluster redevelopment projects. The areas where these projects are taken up have crumbling infrastructures, they are cluttered. The priority is to retain the personality of an area and provide facilities.

Q. Your expectations from the government for better regulatory framework for cluster redevelopment.

A. The government should set a norm for consent at 70%, and fix fair market value of the remaining properties. This will build confidence among people and ease the process of acquiring land. If the government turns guarantor, people will have faith in the process. The government should intervene in case of non-cooperative tenants, and should ensure their eviction.

Q. What about the opposition to cluster redevelopment?

A. There is a bit of resistance right now because people don’t know the qualitative change it will bring to their lives. When people live in these areas, they will themselves demand it from the government. The government will realise that it is a game-changer. Also, for this to succeed, the ownership rights have to be transferred to the tenants. That is a basic thing. That is what everybody expects. The house should belong to them. For tenants, it is win-win situation. The only hassle is transit period. That period should be minimised.

Q. A major hurdle in cluster redevelopment is acquisition of government property. What do you have to say about it?

A. There should be easy regulation in terms of government properties. In many cases, the government land is leased out for 999 years. There are many tedious regulations for that. Instead, it should be given at a price. Decide the price and transfer it. Make it fast. They are anyway old, dilapidated structures, and the government doesn’t get anything out of it.

Q. The Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment Project was initiated in 2009. What difference has the change of governments made to your project?

A. The earlier government wasn’t able to move swiftly, either because of coalition compulsion or whatever. Approvals took a long time. That has changed now. Approvals have become swift. We are one of the top 20 infrastructure projects monitored by the Chief Minister’s “war room”. We can take our problems directly to authorities. But we have been pushing for single-window clearance. The government must look at one place (for giving approvals). If environment (department) says one thing, high rise (committee) says another thing. Acceptance for single window clearance is there, but it has not yet translated in policy.

Q. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken keen interest in SBUT. What has been his reaction?

A. He has talked about how a small community like Dawoodi Bohra Muslims can bring about such a positive difference. He has applauded us for the project and has said on public platform that the model should be emulated, in fact, multiplied. He has taken keen interest in this and has extended the government’s support. He told us that this (cluster redevelopment) happens a lot in China.

Q. The Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment Project has generated lot of interest nationally and internationally.

A. Yes. We feel very glad about it. Mayors from various cities have approached us to understand the project. We have received calls from Hubli, Hyderabad, Indore. Internationally, we have generated academic interest. The Columbia University approached us to understand this complex process at the heart of Bhendi Bazaar. We have also received calls of interest from Barcelona and London.

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