Mumbai’s towering ambitions brought low by legal disputes
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Three things stand out about industrialist Gautam Singhania’s new home in Mumbai, the first being its scale. The 36-storey residential skyscraper dwarfs nearby buildings in Breach Candy, an exclusive enclave of India’s financial capital abutting the Arabian Sea. At 145m, JK House will be India’s tallest family home, with two swimming pools, a spa, a helipad, and even a private museum, housing memorabilia from the Singhania dynasty, which owns the Raymond Group, a textile-maker and suit retailer.
Such unusually lavish features fit with Singhania’s flamboyant lifestyle, which includes an extensive collection of sports cars and hobbies ranging from motor racing to jets. Yet in Mumbai, the second thing to note is that these features seem oddly familiar, given that an extremely similar structure stands less than a mile away. That building, known as Antilia, boasts just 27 floors. But it features broadly the same cantilevered design, alongside correspondingly extravagant interior features, and belongs to billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.
Yet for a man with a love of speed, it is the third fact that must irk Singhania: namely that, for two long years, his new home has not been built at all. In 2012, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC) halted construction, citing planning violations. Legal wrangling followed, during which time the building’s unfinished skeleton had been covered in dark wrapping, as if shrouded for a funeral.
Singhania prefers not to discuss the dispute. In a recent discussion that I had with him, he talked freely about his textile business and love of high-end automobiles, but said only that he hoped his property troubles would soon be resolved. Yet the industrialist’s difficulties are also part of a wider problem, in which Mumbai’s decade-long building boom has recently come partially unstuck amid the city’s Byzantine planning system – leaving many tall towers stalled, or at least badly delayed, like zombies on the skyline.
“This problem of incomplete and delayed projects has been happening a lot more lately,” says Vaidehi Tandel, an urban analyst at the IDFC Foundation, a Mumbai-based research group. “Once a building gets embroiled in the legal system, it can take years to sort it out.” And that logjam, in turn, is slowing the transformation of this teeming Asian metropolis of more than 20m people into a truly high-rise global city.
The Palais Royale is another such stalled building. Mumbai’s first “supertall” skyscraper (meaning at least 300m in height), the project stands a few miles north of Singhania’s. Its construction has also stopped, pending the resolution of a court battle. A range of other supertall buildings are also planned around the city, but planning and other troubles mean just a few have begun to take shape.
Mumbai’s tallest existing residential structures, the twin 254m Imperial Towers, were similarly delayed by legal challenges. Another notorious 31-storey development, known as Adarsh, lies abandoned in the south of the city after a corruption scandal in which apartments were gifted to politicians, rather than to war veterans and their families as originally planned. Elsewhere the skyline is dotted with half-completed blocks: some merely delayed, others effectively abandoned.
A property slump is partly to blame. As Asia’s third-largest economy slowed in recent years, so Mumbai’s building bubble popped, according to Ashutosh Limaye, head of research at property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle in India. Many struggling developers, whose finances are precarious even in good times, put projects on hold.
The larger problem, however, stems from changes to the city’s already convoluted planning process. Dating from the early 1990s, Mumbai established a highly restrictive system of height controls, partly designed to push development away from its crowded, slum-ridden downtown. “We often don’t have the kind of infrastructure which supports high-density buildings,” says Jitesh Brahmkshatriya, an architect. “The water supply is not enough, we don’t have the public transport, we don’t have the roads.”
As the city boomed over the next two decades, a parallel process developed. This allowed developers to build higher if they rehoused slum dwellers, for instance, or paid extra fees. Numerous other loopholes emerged, creating a system that was both opaque and vulnerable to corruption, according to one urban planner working with the BMC who asked not to be named.
“Mumbai’s development control regulations are hugely over-specified, and this lends itself to rent-seeking,” the planner says, referring to a broader phenomenon in which companies seek economic benefits – or rents – via political lobbying and influence-peddling, rather than fair competition.
Politicians and bureaucrats would ignore certain regulations in exchange for payments from builders. Many such height restrictions, stemming from fire departments or airport regulators, were sensible. Others took an almost comic turn, including an extensive list of exempt architectural features.
“You had more than about 80 of these things, including flower beds, kitchen lofts, and even lily ponds,” the planner says. These would feature liberally in architectural plans, allowing developers to build higher. Later, with the project complete, the flower beds would be revealed as balconies; the lily ponds as bedrooms. “There was an informal understanding . . . They’d take payment from the builders to wave it through.”
This rule-flouting helped to foster high-rise developments across Mumbai, albeit while saddling its property market with a grim reputation for graft and mismanagement: “There is no doubt about the connection between the developers and politicians,” says Tandel at the IDFC Foundation. More recently, however, two changes began to put that old system under pressure.
First came the legal challenges, often from local pressure groups or residents’ associations, unhappy about nearby tall buildings. Developers complained too, about especially flagrant violations from competitors, according to another planning specialist familiar with the BMC. “There was no level playing field among thieves,” he says. “There were fights among the builders, and they started to inform on each other.”
These were compounded by a second factor: the aftershocks of the corruption scandal over the Adarsh building, which led to the resignation of a number of politicians and bureaucrats. Planning regulations were subsequently tightened, including a crackdown on lily ponds and other loopholes. Some tall buildings that won approval under the old regime found themselves under renewed scrutiny. According to one developer hit by the changes, “the BMC’s attitude seemed to have become ‘stop it, stall it, and for any permission given before the scandal, reverse it’ ”, he says.
The 75-floor Palais Royale was one prominent project caught in the resulting confusion. Having originally won construction approval, its owners ultimately put the building on hold pending the outcome of a court case, partly relating to disagreements over fire safety regulations. The developer denies wrongdoing, while in private many Mumbai builders feel aggrieved that projects which won full permission under previous rules are now in question.
Details of Singhania’s dispute, meanwhile, have not been confirmed by either side. Reports in the Indian media say the BMC has retrospectively alleged a range of irregularities, despite clearing the original proposal, some relating to the height of the tower, which lawyers for Singhania have in turn disputed. A spokesperson for Singhania declined to comment, although the industrialist has also consistently denied wrongdoing.
Ultimately, the odds are that his and other buildings stuck in Mumbai’s planning system will continue, although perhaps with modifications and penalties, and some grumbling from those living nearby. And even in a city where family-owned skyscrapers remain something of a novelty, this would still fit a broader historical pattern, according to Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at the city’s Sir JJ College of Architecture.
“Bombay has always had a history of ostentatious homes of the very rich, built in full public gaze. In the 19th century, several of the wealthiest, like . . . the Tata family built large townhouses, heavily ornamented and very well appointed,” says Dalvi. Many of these constructions were controversial and their builders inspired envy. “[But] they were also the great philanthropists of the city and are now remembered as city fathers,” he adds. “In that sense, Mr Ambani and Mr Singhania are simply the latest exponents of that hoary tradition . . . I believe they can build whatever they want and for whatever cost, as long as it is within the rules.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai bureau chief
Photographs: Subhash Sharma
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