Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mid-year round-up Mumbai, part 2

Part 1 of my round-up is here. This is the second, and concluding, part. Comments, as always, welcome.

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Real estate – going for broke

So, did your dream house get cheaper? Don’t be surprised if it didn’t. And heck, at least it didn’t get any more expensive. Brokers and builders – at least those in suburbs – are now a lot less arrogant than last year. They’re willing to talk, perhaps even negotiate if you’re a “genuine buyer”. Why? courtesy the interest rate hikes earlier this year, which pretty much took the steam off property prices in Mumbai.

But don’t rejoice. “Affordable housing” remains as believable as traffic-free roads in Mumbai. Builders remain firmly in control. And the Government remains firmly indecisive.

The much-hyped, toothless, housing policy was finally tabled in the Monsoon Session of the State Assembly and almost all experts believe it’s impossible to implement. Low-income group houses next to high-income group ones? No way. And what kind of builder would take up such a project? Ironically, the Government wants to encourage a public-private partnership with this policy. Don’t expect to hear too much on this front as we settle into the second half.

Do, of course, expect to hear more on the slum rehabilitation project at Dharavi. This is a project where politicians have made huge amounts of money – illegally. You couldn’t find a better example of the politician-criminal-builder nexus. RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, who filed a Public Interest Litigation on this matter, recently sent a mail detailing everything that’s happened – or not – so far. Read here for more details. Meanwhile, almost all of the large, organised, and now listed, developers like DLF, Unitech, HDIL, etc. are all bidding for a piece of what will be a vastly lucrative pie. For everyone.

Funny how the Government is moving with focus on Dharavi, while soft-pedalling on key regulatory issues like the housing policy.

Or like repealing the Urban Land Ceiling Act. We’re no closer than we were last year.

Why is repealing the Act so important? Simply because the city needs infrastructure funds from the Central Government, which makes these funds available to cities under their Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). But, cities have to fulfil certain conditions. Like repealing ULCA. And Maharashtra is among the last few states where the law still exists. Even after agreeing to repeal this law – which incidentally was followed in exceptions rather than the rule – the Government isn’t any closer to actually repealing it. It didn’t make it through the winter legislature session last year, and it’s not made it through the monsoon session this year.

So, what do we look forward to in the second half of this year? Property rates aren’t expected to fall, but not many expect a meteoric rise either. Don’t expect anything from the Government to increase supply. The Mill Land sales remain stuck over one issue or another. The housing policy could remain just another ineffectual document. While last year, the CM indicated that the Government might release lands acquired under the ULCA earlier to cool down property rates, nothing of that sort has happened.

Roads – Building bridges

Regular commuters on the western side won’t miss the hectic activity off Bandra Reclamation’s shores. Yup, the Bandra Worli Sealink (BWSL) is hustling and bustling with activity. And Public Works Minister, Shri Anil Deshmukh would give anything to be photographed cutting the ribbon next year, due April 2008. Yes, we’re all waiting. Waiting to be stuck in Worli, which will import Mahim’s traffic jam, once the BWSL is ready. Simply because, without the Worli-Nariman Point Sealink, the traffic could very much just shift from one place to be another, only quicker. Incidentally, the controversial Peddar Road Flyover seems to have gone into limbo.

But enough about South Mumbai.

Another sealink which was proposed 30 years ago, but hasn’t been as fortunate as the BWSL, is the Mumbai Transharbour Link, which would connect Sewri to JNPT (Nhava Seva). Nothing’s happened on this project so far in 2007. Just like nothing’s happened on Reliance’s SEZ plans in and around JNPT, Navi Mumbai. Coincidence?.

Coming back on the western side, if there’s one stretch of major road that the city can be proud of completion, as some sign of some progress, it is the Western Express Highway. Widening of this critical highway, around the Borivali and Kandivali area is almost done. 24km long, 61m wide, strengthened at a cost of Rs200crores. Phew, heave that sigh of relief. And you can see the difference if you’ve driven there. On the other side, a similar job on the Eastern Express Highway is also nearing completion.

On an east-west basis as well, the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR) and the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road (JVLR) are due for completion between Jan-June 2008. Even the World Bank – which had, btw, suspended funding of the MUTP road component in March-2006 – said it found “tangible process”. Let’s hope it stays that way. After all, in Mumbai, any progress is good progress.

That concludes my round-up. I will revisit these issues for the 2008 curtain-raiser.