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Mumbai's residents resigned to living in dangerous buildings

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The top two storeys have already been torn down and workmen with sledgehammers are hacking at what's left, but at Mumbai's Botawala Chawl apartment complex four families refuse to leave.

They are among many in the Indian city stuck in dilapidated or poorly built structures, whose plight was highlighted last month when a residential block came crashing down killing 60 people sleeping inside.

"The builders haven't given us anything in writing," said 57-year-old tenant R.K. Tiwari, who has verbally been promised an apartment in a replacement high-rise block.

"As long as we don't get anything on paper, we won't move."

Her dilemma is just one of a complex array of reasons why people continue to live in dangerous buildings in India's densely populated financial capital, where land and affordable housing are scarce.

Corruption, negligence, and outdated laws have all contributed to the troubled housing situation in Mumbai and its surrounding areas, where six major building collapses in recent months have killed more than 160 people.

While a heavy monsoon has exacerbated the problems, poor maintenance and shoddy construction have been highlighted since the collapses. Experts say rogue developers are cashing in on the desperate need for cheap housing.

AFP first visited the century-old, three-storey Botawala Chawl in southeast Mumbai in 2005 after officials declared it one of about 30 "extremely dangerous" buildings that would have to be vacated within a week.

Eight years later, Tiwari is still there, the ceilings of her home starting to buckle.

She lives near a five-storey building owned by the civic government, providing accommodation to its employees, that tumbled to the ground on September 27, killing 60 of more than 90 people inside.

The 30-year-old block had earlier been found unsafe and in urgent need of repairs, according to local reports. Residents were asked to leave but were not transferred to safer homes.

But Tiwari would rather risk her home falling down than voluntarily give it up with no future guarantees -- possibly to be stuck in one of the so-called "transit camps" that house thousands of people while their homes are rebuilt.

"They have heard several stories of people leaving, getting accommodation in transit camps and the redevelopment never happening or getting delayed," said Ashutosh Limaye, head of research at Jones Lang LaSalle India, a property consultancy.

A recent survey by the municipal government found 959 dilapidated buildings in the city -- although some say the real figure is likely much higher -- while more than half of Mumbai's population of over 18 million people is said to live in slums.

Yet around 40,000 apartments in various stages of construction lie unsold or empty, priced out of reach of most people, according to Mahesh Khalap, strategic consultant at Jones Lang LaSalle.

'It's beyond repair'

In April, an illegal multi-storey building that was still being built collapsed in Mumbai's neighbouring district of Thane, killing 74. In June, three buildings came crashing down in Mumbai and Thane killing 27, including 10 at the Altaf Manzil apartment block in the city centre.

"I feel like crying every time I see this," said Amy Patel, 72, looking at the remains of Altaf Manzil from her next-door residential block -- itself more than 80 years old.

She and her family have agreed since that collapse to move out while the landlord knocks down and rebuilds their home, in which a mess of wires hangs overhead and the stairs creak with age.

"It's beyond repair," said her 44-year-old son Merzi.

The family currently pays as little as 500 rupees ($8) a month in rent -- but the strict controls on hikes that keep prices down mean landlords have little impetus to pay for building maintenance.

On some collapsed buildings, including Altaf Manzil, potentially damaging structural changes and other alterations had been carried out, such as the addition of marble floorings.

"There's a constant state of upgradation," said Naresh Fernandes, author of the new book "City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay".

As new affluence takes hold in old structures "people do whatever they want on their buildings" -- often flouting cumbersome regulations, Fernandes said.

Architect Chandrashekhar Prabhu said several of the recently collapsed structures were built around the 1980s, a time when good quality cement was in short supply. Air and land salinity in the coastal city can also corrode properties.

While politicians and construction firms are accused of colluding to cash-in on the over-priced housing market, some say the best structures are ironically now found in the slums, built by local masons.

In the big business of redevelopment "neither the builders, contractors, nor the state have shown that level of quality consciousness", said Rahul Srivastava, a Mumbai-based co-founder of the urban research collective URBZ.

"They are only interested in producing an exchange value in what they are constructing, only interested in returns, not good quality homes."

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