One would have thought that with the flak that the corporate think tank, Bombay First, received for commissioning the international consultancy group McKinsey to undertake the study 'Vision Mumbai' in 2003, others would go slow. Only recently, a self-styled Remaking of Mumbai Federation (ROMF) – doubtless the promoters were fascinated by the near-acronym ROME – has spun out a Rs.60,000 crore plan for redeveloping the city. They ought to remember, though, that Rome could not be built in a day, or even several days, if they stick to their plan of building skywards.

Lalit Gandhi, who chairs the body, is a big builder who claims that he has the backing of 50 city agencies, including the key ones – the municipal corporation, the Mumbai Housing and Area Development Agency (MHADA) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). This has been firmly denied by a top state government official, Sanjay Ubale, who has pointed out that there were serious legal and administrative issues involved. Mantralaya had not given any permission to any body to raise funds for the city.

There are two main objections to this scheme. First, it only pertains to the island city, which is 100 sq kms, less than a quarter of Greater Mumbai. It is common knowledge that it is the distant suburbs where the most explosive growth is taking place, with two-thirds of the population, an exact reversal of the proportion half a century ago. However, since the central business district, the 'Fort' along with the reclaimed Backbay area, is located here, the island still commands the highest real estate values, which explains ROMF's interest.

Secondly, the 20,000 old and dilapidated buildings, which are 'cessed' or given concessions for their redevelopment, are also located here. For builders, this is a gold mine. ROMF makes no secret of its intention to demolish these crowded buildings, which are typically six to seven storeys high, with some of the highest densities in the world. At a presentation of the Urban Age project in Mumbai recently, which is an initiative of the Deutsche Bank and the London School of Economics, the municipal commissioner, Dr Jairaj Phatak, cited how the Bhuleshwar area of C Ward had a density of 114,000 people per sq km. Earlier this was one of the densest precincts in the entire world, but with the break up of joint families, young couples are moving to their own tiny apartments in the northern suburbs.

For all the hype, ROMF's proposal for Mumbai is a more elitist variant of the slum development scheme which was brought in by the previous Shiv Sena-BJP state government in Maharashtra.

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ROMF says they intend to rehouse the tenants and sell the remaining apartments in the redeveloped building on the market. These dilapidated buildings are already entitled to higher floor-space index (FSI, or floor-area ratio, the proportion of built-up area in relation to size of plot). In a give-away move, the federation has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), a US-based international not-for-profit organisation, which describes its work as undertaking studies and preparing reports on all aspects of high-rises and their impact on the urban environment.

The council's website reveals that the organisation is planning a world conference titled 'Tall& Green: Typology for a Sustainable Urban Future' at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai in March 2008. Its membership: "uniquely interdisciplinary -- includes some of the world's top authorities in their specific profession". But the CTBUH's linkage with big-time global builders is worthy of scrutiny. On its website, the council has congratulated the Burj Dubai, on its construction height passing the 1671ft (509m) mark, which is the height of the current tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101. According to the council, "The Burj Dubai is on its way to setting a remarkable new record for the tallest building in the world... The tower is now leading the way to a new realm of high rise construction."

Such paeans of praise to what must surely be one of the most unsustainable urban projects in the world – the construction of high-rise hotels and office/residential blocks along the palm tree-shaped reclaimed strips in the ocean off Dubai – indicate where the Mumbai builders are deriving their inspiration from. Mumbai's, and India's most commercially successful architect, Hafeez Contractor, is involved in Al Burj and has been responsible for building some of the most execrable buildings in this country. He has repeatedly made out a case for rehousing Mumbai slum dwellers in high-rise construction, which is what ROMF wants to do with cessed buildings. At the Urban Age presentation in Mumbai, Contractor stressed that the only way to accommodate an additional 20 million Mumbaikars in 20 years was to go upwards.

However, Ricky Burdett, the Director of Urban Age, who also teaches at the London School of Economics, made no secret of his antipathy to Al Burj. "It is Disneyland of the worst sort," he said. "The best designs are being used for the worst purpose." Indeed, the UAE has the world's worst ecological footprint – an index of global area per head from which a person consumes natural resources; even the US figures second.

The UAE comparison apart, the debate on how to house the homeless in Mumbai and other cities is bound to escalate, now that the state government has given the green signal to half a dozen international construction firms to bid for sectors of Dharavi, often described as 'Asia's largest slum', with some 300,000 residents. Architecture colleges like the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai have together drawn up alternative blueprints for Dharavi, using a low-rise, high density typology.

Actually, for all the hype, ROMF's proposal for Mumbai is a more elitist variant of the slum development scheme which was brought in by the previous Shiv Sena-BJP state government in Maharashtra. In keeping with Bal Thackeray's election promise to provide free homes for some four million slum dwellers, the state introduced its scheme, whereby a builder had to obtain the consent of 70 per cent of the inhabitants of a slum to initiate a rehabilitation scheme. He had to provide each family tenement with a minimum area of 225 sq ft and was free to sell the rest at market rates to subsidise the free component.

The scheme, which is still functioning, is riddled with corruption, with builders exaggerating the lists of dwellers in order to inflate the free component, using strong arm tactics to bully the residents into agreeing to redevelopment, and so on. Besides, as the history of countless such builder-led schemes even in cities like Chennai shows, once a slum dweller is allotted a pukka apartment, he finds it difficult to maintain and thus sells it and moves back to a slum. The community spaces available in a slum for informal occupations also no longer exist in high-rise slum redevelopment. In effect, therefore, such high-rise construction actually means the appropriation of land that squatters have settled on by the middle class and rich. Often two or more such tenements are purchased and combined to form a decent-sized flat.

This is not to criticise all redevelopment, which is necessary in every metropolis. But there is a penchant for resorting to high-rise growth as the solution for all urban housing shortages. It may work in certain circumstances – possibly at the southernmost tip of the island city in Mumbai. However, the world-wide experience shows that this is not the way to accommodate the poor and those who cannot afford expensive real estate. There are a myriad other, less capital-and resource-intensive solutions.

There is also no reason, when it comes to the poorest of the poor, not to allow people to rehouse themselves, since the bulk of dwellings in the world are constructed by people, not architects. This is a pragmatic solution. If Dharavi dwellers, for example, were given lease rights on their land, this would enable them to build as and when they needed accommodation, provided there were easy loans and possibly building material banks.

Coming back to ROMF, judging by the response of the state government, it appears that the proposal will be treated with derision. But the very fact that big builders have the temerity to announce such schemes only shows that they believe that they can get away with it, as they have been getting away with countless other schemes like the purchase of transfer of development rights (TDR) to obtain additional FSI which accrues in the island city and is usable in the suburbs.