Strolling through downtown Bombay one day during the recent monsoon, I passed a sign nailed high on an entrance to a building. It said: "This building is dangerous. It may collapse at any time. Enter at your own risk."
An unsettling sign any time. But at the time, it carried a special meaning, because the city was in the midst of what at least two papers called an "epidemic" of building collapses: four in a week. The most recent had been the previous Monday. An 80-year-old edifice near the old Metro cinema crumbled, killing six people.
One more tragedy, in a monsoon season laced with tragedy.
So laced, that even the words took on special meanings. Take "collapse". On that terrible July 26, an entire Saki Naka hillside collapsed, destroying over a hundred huts and 75 or 80 lives. Take "epidemic". Two weeks after the July deluge, people began dying of diseases contracted that day, likely by walking through chest-deep water contaminated with urine and faeces and other random bits of Bombay filth.
Over two hundred people died like that.
And then, the building collapse epidemic.
Yet the truth is that buildings that crumble are an old Bombay tradition. Every monsoon, a few more give up the battle to stay erect. Weakened by years of neglect and disrepair, they come down, invariably taking lives. And behind all this are, as is another Bombay tradition, some intricate and often seedy goings-on.
In 1996, the Tavadia building in Bora Bazaar collapsed, taking 18 lives with it. About six weeks earlier, a man was found dead in a cinema theatre in Pune. One Ramesh Kini, he was a tenant in a building in Dadar owned by one Laxmichand Shah.
Why have I mentioned both these probably forgotten episodes, and in the same paragraph?
I know a couple who lived in a gorgeous flat in an old building near Churchgate. For years, they paid the rent for the flat that the man's father had signed up for half a century earlier: twenty rupees a month.
Because they have something in common: the foolish law that governs rental property in Bombay. Whatever benefits the Rent Control Act may have had at one time, today it is little but a threat to property and lives. If it is not repealed, we must expect what happened to the Tavadia building, as well as what happened to Ramesh Kini, to keep happening.
The Act is simple: it freezes rent at a certain level. During World War II, floods of people, especially soldiers, came into the city. To prevent greedy landlords charging extortionate rents from them, the British put rent control in place. A limited number of buildings were brought under the Act when it first came into force. The Act allowed thousands of people to find affordable housing, at rents that were kept frozen at 1940 levels as long as the tenants stayed. (Rents could be raised if a new tenant came in.)
Of course, by now many of those wartime tenants have died. Their children and grandchildren stay on in the same flats, paying the same rents. I know a couple who lived in a gorgeous flat in an old building near Churchgate. For years, they paid the rent for the flat that the man's father had signed up for half a century earlier: twenty rupees a month. (Yes). The amount they extracted from their landlord, just for giving him his flat back eventually, allowed them to buy themselves a home in a small town in another state. That's where they are today.
By no means is this a unique or even unusual story.
Naturally, the amount a landlord earns from rent cannot begin to pay the costs of maintenance on his aging building. So he stops maintaining it and will not carry out repairs. The building becomes steadily weaker. In the end, it falls down, killing several of its tenants.
By no means is that a unique or unusual story either.
The strange thing about this state of affairs is not just that tenants pay absurdly low rents. They also want their landlords to carry out repairs and keep their buildings in shape. They also are unwilling to pay for the repairs themselves.
For example, one of the tenants of the Tavadia building told the press that she was paying a rent of Rs 100. But, as the Times of India reported, "she felt that the tragedy could have been averted had the landlord ... not ignored their repeated pleas to repair the building." It was in such bad shape, she went on, that "anyone walking with heavy steps would set off a tremor."
The lady lost her father in the collapse. I wish she and her fellow tenants had offered to pay to maintain the building. Her father might still be alive. I hope she understands that now.
But there is a more sinister side to the Act too. Real estate prices are so inflated in this city that many tenants can never hope to move from their rent-controlled flats. (Unless they move, like my Churchgate friends did, to a small town). So they have no option but to stay. Landlords, meanwhile, know how lucrative it would be to sell their property, particularly to a builder. But what's to be done with tenants who won't leave?
Landlords try persuasion. They try pleading. They try the courts, but that takes years. Eventually, some landlords turn to threats and force. That's what Ramesh Kini had to face. Eventually, he may have killed himself. Or he may have been done in by thugs. His death really remains a mystery, but in a profound way, Rent Control had a lot to do with it.
Everyone knows the damage the Rent Control Act does. But why isn't something done about it?
The simple answer: numbers. Tenants outnumber landlords. The low rent the Act has them paying outweighs all other considerations -- they want to keep paying it. Politicians know all about numbers. They are aware that the first of their breed who makes a move on the Rent Control Act will promptly lose the votes of millions of tenants. He will probably gain the votes of landlords, but that's poor compensation.
Which means: nobody touches the Act.
But there's a more complex answer as well. The Act can't be seen in isolation. The high price of real estate; the well known corrupt, violent but mutually beneficial connection between politicians and builders; the steps we have deliberately ignored that would have served to keep land prices down -- all of these have played roles in the persistence of this pernicious law. All have also flourished because of the Act. All will have to be taken into account in any review of the Act.
Which also means: nobody touches the Act.