In September, an illegally constructed five-story building collapsed in Mumbai, India, killing more than 60 people. It was the latest in a series of collapses this year alone, which included a section of a hospital and another three-story building. 

Though too late for this year's casualties, the Urban Development Ministry of Mumbai's Maharashtra state government recently rolled out a much-awaited cluster development program for new buildings in Mumbai. They will soon be taking bids from developers for commercial districts, including Crawford Market, Bhendi Bazaar and Mohammed Ali Road.

Cluster development addresses zones where, due to certain traditional and conventional presence over a period of time, there is high density of people and buildings, explains Ravi Ahuja, executive director, development services in India for Cushman & Wakefield. “These are traditional conventional locations where buildings that have a life span of 50 or so years have been standing for over 80 or 90,” he adds. “There are dilapidated structures in these areas and if you don’t give them respite in terms of redevelopment, they will collapse, as they do after every monsoon.”

Once the development takes place, says Subhankar Mitra, head of strategic consulting in Western India for Jones Lang LaSalle, whole areas will be rejuvenated, improving living conditions and boosting business. These are areas that have traditionally been home to wholesalers, including clothing merchants, and the buildings are densely packed, crowded and lacking in modern amenities such as parking garages or basements.

The shops just kept popping up right next to one another, joined together as they grew both upward and outward until there was no more space to grow. “There was no planning when these areas took off,” says Ahuja.

The task ahead is not simple. The government requires 70% of businesses in commercial areas or 70% of residents in residential colonies to agree to the idea of rejuvenation before any kind of cluster initiative can be undertaken.

“It’s a very tedious and time-consuming procedure with a lot of complexities,” says Mitra. “The number of stakeholders is very large, so to get everybody on board and then to undertake the project and provide all the infrastructure is really a challenging task.”

Ahuja says that the problem is especially acute when it comes to commercial hubs. “To dislodge wholesale markets when on a day-to-day basis they expect customers who come to their shops would mean hurting their livelihood,” he says. “You’re dealing with people and people issues on the ground. They’re not brick and mortar like real estate usually is, and so one has to be very careful about handling the whole transition process when working out these clusters.”

For cities like Mumbai, however, cluster development is considered one of the only realistic solutions to an ever-expanding metropolis. Most cities in India have the capability of growing from all four sides. But Mumbai can only grow toward the north. “You’re already easily looking at distances of 60 kilometers or more from one part of the city to the other,” says Ahuja.

Areas greenlighted for cluster development have inadequate infrastructure. There are few parking spaces and public amenities and little open space. “Unless we pick up a chunk of the land, which includes multiple buildings, and redevelop those areas with proper civic amenities and infrastructure, it won’t work," says Mitra.

"Even the roads are so narrow," he adds. "If you went for a normal-style development project where you demolish and rebuild, you’re adding more load to the existing [crumbling] infrastructure.”

Time will tell whether cluster development projects actually take off in Mumbai or whether the program becomes another ambitious plan that gets caught up in politics. “I think there is political will when it comes to such things,” says Ahuja. “These policies usually just take a lot of time to develop and implement because in a democracy like India, there are so many opinions and so many challenges on the ground.”