Why do so many Mumbai buildings collapse in the rains?

Apathetic municipal and urban authorities with overlapping remits are mainly to blame.

ByTanishka Sodhi
Why do so many Mumbai buildings collapse in the rains?
  • whatsapp
  • copy

When Rafiq Siddique stepped out on the night of June 9 to buy milk, he left behind the home he shared with his wife in Malvani, Malad, all his savings and belongings. When he returned about an hour later, it was all gone – the house, his savings, his wife. All that remained was debris of his belongings, scattered about the street.

Rafiq lived in a three-storied building on Abdul Hamid Road which collapsed at around 11 that night. Not just his wife, Rafiq lost his brother, sister-in-law, and six nephews and nieces in the disaster, which claimed 12 lives in all.

“If I had known the house wasn’t strong, I would have moved everyone out long back. I never expected such an incident to happen,” Rafiq said. “Within minutes, everyone was gone.”

Rafiq, who partly owned the building, told Newslaundry he had it checked after cyclone Tauktae, but the private repairmen he had hired didn’t find major structural damage. The building, which the local police said was raised nine years ago, fell on another structure, crushing homes and small shops, including Rafiq’s.

It’s been two weeks since the disaster but Rafiq is still fielding calls to complete the formalities that follow after losing loved ones – death certificates must be obtained, temporary shelter arranged, work resumed, routine rounds of police station done. Rafiq says he’s heard rumours of being an accused in the case regarding the collapse of his building, but the police have not said anything yet.

Rafiq’s life has been upended by a disaster that isn’t uncommon in Mumbai, a megacity known for torrential rain, a space crunch, and large slums. Building collapses are an annual occurrence, especially during the monsoon. The Malvani collapse was the fourth such between May 15 and June 15 this year. As per information obtained by RTI activist Shakeel Shaikh, 3,945 structures fell in the city between 2013 and 2019, killing at least 300 people and injuring 1,146.

The Bombay High Court described the Malvani collapse a “man-made disaster”, noting that there existed absolute lawlessness in the city’s municipal wards. The court questioned the state government and civic bodies when they would set up an authority to tackle the problem of illegal construction.

Rafiq Siddique surveys the wreckage of his house.

Rafiq Siddique surveys the wreckage of his house.

Tragedies despite planning

Ahead of the monsoon the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, or MHADA, each publicise a list of dangerous, dilapidated buildings in the city. The lists often feature structures from the previous year because these authorities would not have taken action in the meantime.

In 2021, the BMC listed 407 buildings, owned publicly and privately, as dilapidated. They are marked “C1”, meaning that they are beyond repair and must be demolished urgently. Of these 407 structures, 98 have been vacated so far, 21 are still being reviewed by BMC’s technical advisory committees, 154 have had power and water cut to get the tenants to leave, and 53 cannot be vacated for now as the tenants have obtained stay orders from the court, according to the list seen by Newslaundry.

Similarly, the MHADA conducts a survey before every monsoon to identify dangerous buildings. This year it has marked 21 buildings and vacated at least three so far, according to a MHADA official.

Neither list, however, features illegal structures, which account for the majority of the collapses.

“They are not included in the figures because they shouldn’t exist. They don’t have the right to,” said Anant Bhagwatkar, assistant municipal commissioner at the BMC’s Removal of Encroachments Department. “Slums have more chances of collapsing because they have a lot of unauthorized structures.”

As per BMC’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, half of the city’s population lives in its 2,397 slum clusters. These slums are on private, municipal, state, central and housing board lands.

The Malvani building was illegal. In fact, the streets leading to where it stood are swamped with illegal structures, raised on state land.

According to Chandrashekhar Prabhu, urban planner and former MHADA president, making a list of illegal slum-like structures in the city would amount to acknowledging them.

“These buildings and slums have been tolerated. The moment the government surveys them there will be a record that they are unauthorized and they will have to be demolished,” he said. “People don’t want to demolish the slums because the people living in them are a vote bank. But slums and illegal buildings aren’t made according to any plan or specifications. They are built by unqualified people, hence they collapse.”

Illegal buildings in slums aren't listed by BMC and MHADA.

Illegal buildings in slums aren't listed by BMC and MHADA.

Too many authorities

Mumbai is likely paying the price for having too many planning authorities with overlapping remits, which means the pressing problem of dangerous, dilapidated structures is buried in layers of bureaucracy. “There’s a lot of confusion because there are so many planning authorities in Mumbai itself. In some cases it can not be decided which authorities need to take action,” Anant said. “There are too many government resolutions as well. One of them says that whoever’s land it is has to get rid of encroachment, but that doesn't happen. And when we do it, the collector, MHADA, or private owner stops us and says the land belongs to them. It’s chaos.”

It is easy, he complained, for people and the courts to point fingers at the BMC, when there are so many factors at play.

“Accountability can be asked for only when you give full rights,” he said. “There is so much political interference and vote bank politics in all this. There need to be clear guidelines, without any ambiguity, which state which authority should do what.”

Nilesh Suryavanshi, an engineer for MHADA’s Repair and Restoration Department, added. “We don’t just declare buildings dangerous, we repair them,” he explained. “But it can't happen all at once. Engineers decide if it is necessary to repair a structure immediately. People also do not always cooperate. If they do commercial activities there, they think business will be hampered.”

A dilapidated building in Santacruz, Mumbai.

A dilapidated building in Santacruz, Mumbai.

Old structures

On June 25, a part of a five-storey building under the MHADA collapsed, trapping 35 people who were later rescued without having suffered serious harm. The building was not categorised as dangerous.

“It is in an area which has commercial activity. Tenants use their own money to convert the homes into business establishments, with permission from BMC,” said Suryavanshi. “It is a congested area. Planning should have been done accordingly but landlords didn’t maintain the building. Nobody wants to hear this, but tenants who make changes to buildings on their own are the biggest factor here.”

The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Act 1976 provides for repairing and reconstructing “cess” buildings, those where a tax called the repair fund is collected. There are around 14,500 such buildings in Mumbai, mostly in the city’s south, and many have not been repaired for years.

“Mumbai has 14,800 buildings which are 100 years old and more. They’ve outlived their effective lifespans,” Prabhu said. “Tenants do not have the money, so the building remains unrepaired and there’s a chance of it collapsing.”

In September 2020, a four-storey building in Dongri collapsed, killing a 65-year-old female tenant. The cess building was over 100 years old but hadn’t been repaired in a long time. “If the authorities had cut water and electricity to the building, maybe that one life wouldn’t have gone,” said Afzal Dawoodani, whose relatives still stay in the building, Razzaq Chambers. “People had moved out by then as the condition was bad but the lady had no option but to stay put. The building was declared dilapidated by the BMC, but no action was taken.”

Such is the case of several structures in the area, said Afzal, who blamed corruption and apathy within regulatory and civic bodies for the delay in repairing and demolishing them.

“Condition of these buildings is extremely bad,” Afzal said. “But the authorities don’t care, landlords don’t care, and ultimately people die. Only when there’s a big incident, the media comes and people pay attention for a few days. Fifteen days later, it’s back to the usual.”

The collapse of Razzaq Chambers is still being investigated.

Nearly half of Mumbai's population lives in slums.

Nearly half of Mumbai's population lives in slums.

Waiting for collapse

The 30 residential and 10 commercial tenants of Zuleka Manzil in Dongri live in perpetual fear. Whenever it rains, they worry their building will collapse. The cess building is over 70 years old, but hasn’t been repaired in years because the two private landlords are locked in a property dispute and money is scarce.

“It’s now been almost 10 years of wondering every monsoon if the building would collapse,” said Tabish Raza Syed, 36, whose family has lived in Zuleka Manzil for three generations. “We are scared, but not rich enough to afford to move out.”

They have obtained Rs 8 lakh from the MHADA’s repair fund, can get up to Rs 3 lakh from their MLA’s local development fund and raise some money from the tenants, many of whom have lost jobs during the pandemic, but it’s not nearly enough to repair the building. They would need at least Rs 70 lakh.

“If we do not have the money, how can we repair the building?” Tabish asked. “Every third building here is in this condition but we don’t get help. The water flows down until the first floor when it rains. For two-three years, we have been putting plastic on the roof to at least reduce the flow of water, we don’t expect it to stop.”

The tenants, unlike in the past, aren’t demanding to be sheltered in transit camps because they are usually far from their places of work and schools. “It will take four-five lakh rupees if we were to take this matter to the court,” Tabish said. “Here, we do not even have the funds to repair the building.”

Pictures by Tanishka Sodhi.

newslaundry logo

Pay to keep news free

Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

You may also like