Mumbai City is now just for two classes of people – the prosperous and the penniless. All the rest take the 6:22 fast to Bhayandar or Kalyan, which is the local train carrying them from work to home in the ultra-distant suburbs that until 10 years ago were grazing pastures for buffaloes.
Though the bovines are gone, the cattle connection remains as Mumbai’s populace is transported in smelly rail carriages packed two heads per square foot. People, who are slightly well off, travel for hours in hatchback cars to reach their 800-sq-ft homes in Borivali and Thane.
Apartments between Andheri and Borivali now come between Rs 12,000 and Rs 25,000 a sq ft, making it a shocking Rs 2.5 crore ($500,000) at the top of the range for a 1,000-sq-ft flat, which actually comes to 700 sq ft because of the super-built-up swindle.
In one word, it’s “Mad”. Flats south of Mahim start at Rs 30,000 and go up to more than a Rs 1,00,000 a sq ft. That’s why, only the two above-mentioned classes have newly-acquired dwellings in Mumbai. The rich in swanky apartments and the poor under plastic sheets strung up on three sticks on the sidewalk.
The Good News
But here’s some good news – life for the people taking the railway home in crushing discomfort is not all that bad. They have cleaner air, far better roads, decent water supply and power, great vistas of nature and most importantly, they don’t pay Rs 2.5 crore to stay in a garage.
The Mira-Virar segment on Mumbai’s western flank and the Sanpada-Khargar belt on the city’s eastern side are providing decent housing and great infrastructure to the millions thronging Mumbai for jobs.
Khargar, for instance, has a 198-acre park landscaped like London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park. It has an 18-hole golf course and CIDCO, the local authority, has recently given out tenders to develop a hill in the region into a world-class amusement city.
Flats in Khargar currently sell between Rs 5,500 and Rs 6,000 per sq ft in buildings with very basic amenities. But some developers think that Khargar is now attractive enough to people who want larger flats with class and could pay up to Rs 8,000 a sq ft with ticket sizes going up to Rs 1.5 crore for an apartment.
Gangs to Homes
On the western side, the Mira Road to Virar area has had a similar story of phenomenal growth, though with a lag compared with Sanpada and Khargar. Mira-Virar’s delayed growth was due to the presence of gangsters who found the salt pans, swamp land and creeks flowing into the Arabian Sea an ideally solitary place to bring in dhows of gold, watches, terylene fabric for bell-bottom pants and later narcotics.
Economic liberalisation in 1992 put paid to this business as all of that much sought-after merchandise, except drugs, became legally available in India. Known as “bhai”, or brother, these peddlers became politicians and businessmen. Why a bandit is given the endearing title of brother remains a mystery, but their family-owned land banks did spur them to develop the region.
At that time when only thieves and dogs dared strut in the area, flats there could sell at not more than Rs 700 a sq ft and even then it had to be a fairly desperate man to put down his money.
This made it unviable for builders as the marshy land there required piling to reach rock 80 feet below. That cost Rs 200 a sq ft. At Rs 700 a sq ft sale price, it was senseless. At Rs 5,500 a sq ft, which is the current prevailing price in Mira Road, it works like honey. The desperate man of the early 90s is today sitting pretty with an eight-fold increase in asset value in 10 years.
The giddy rise in a decade has knocked off chances of further appreciation in that quantum. Nevertheless, prices continue to rise with new projects in Mira Road offered at Rs 6,000 a sq ft. Neighbouring boroughs like Vasai and Virar today go between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000.
Vasai-Virar’s development has historical roots as it was established even before Mumbai was by the British. The region, including Nala Sopara, was a big trading centre and harbour and is referred to as Ophir in the Old Testament of the Bible. Teakwood from India’s western forests was shipped from the ports here to the area, which is now Israel, and was used in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Mira Road’s development has more recent causative factors. It’s the railway station immediately after the rail-head of Borivali and commuters zip down there in autos and two-wheelers to get a seat on the train. That’s provided they spring into the air and in the next instant cling on to the train while it’s still rolling into the station at 30 kmph, with neck ties and sari ends fluttering in victory.
The pincer growth on either side has now just left a large patch called Naigaon in the middle, where flats are now going at Rs 3,500 a sq ft, making for flats below Rs 20 lakh. They are of basic quality but their virtue is they are the only places where a couple with a combined income of Rs 30,000 a month, and no family financial support, can still buy a home.
Close to the park and the golf course is a site where the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is building one of its opulent temples, the kind they have all over the world.
Khargar is also home to the Tata Memorial Cancer Research Centre and to several top educational institutions, spurring the authorities to stamp it as a “No-Alcohol Zone”.
By train, the travel time from Naigaon to various stations along the Western line are: Borivli, 20 minutes; Andheri, 36; Bandra, 49; Dadar, 59; Mumbai Central, 70 and Churchgate, 81.
Its other advantage is that in a village called Juhichandra, the Diva-Thane line passes through, providing residents of Naigaon access to the Eastern Railway network.
It has severe deficiencies too. There is no piped water supply, no sewage and drainage system and a 12-hour power cut for one day each week. All of this is annoying to residents who are taking solace from the recent past for a glimpse into the future.
Mira Road, at Rs 6,000 a sq ft, had no water supply and survived on tanker-truck supplies. They didn’t have sewage and sanitation systems either. Today, it’s all there, explaining why the desperado of the 90s is looking like a man with foresight.
Naigaon’s infrastructure may come in faster than it did for Mira Road because the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation has been identified among a few dozen other “near mega-city townships” across India for central infrastructure funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
With this money, work on piped water supply coming from the Surya Dam to the Virar-Mira Road area has started. Similarly, tenders have been awarded on a sewage disposal and drainage system.
On the suburban rail network, Western Railway is expanding Mira-Virar to six tracks from four, work is due to begin on the second phase of Mumbai’s Metro rail going into this region and there’s a flyover connecting Naigaon east to west.
Along the Western Express Highway, six out of eight flyovers between Mira Road and Virar have been completed, providing excellent road connectivity to Mumbai city.
Water to Rescue
These paddy fields turned bustling townships are perhaps luckier than Bombay has been. In 1998, there used to be a hovercraft service from Juhu Beach to Chowpatty Beach with a one-way fare of Rs 150.
The service, provided by a private operator, was killed by vested interests that feared that opening up water transport to and from Mumbai city would mean people could live anywhere along the coastline in beautiful surroundings at one-tenth of the cost. Who would then pay $500,000 for a crappy place!
The hovercraft service was made unpopular by some very simple techniques. No temporary walkways were allowed across the beach to the vessel, which meant senior executives dressed in suits had to waddle on sand to get to it and then spend 10 minutes emptying their shoes.
At Chowpatty, no shuttle services were provided to go to Nariman Point, Ballard Estate and the other business precincts. Bombay’s first marine commuters had to dart across the busy Marine Drive and then desperately hail down cabs.
The city and its extended suburbs may now have an alternative to the physical and olfactory challenges of train travel as the Maharashtra government in March invited tenders for a water transport system from Nariman Point to Borivali – the estimated commute time between the two points being 50 minutes. Other point-to-point services will be to Juhu, Bandra and Versova. Hopefully, this time commuters won’t have to wear divers’ fins to get to the boat.