Nandini Mehta and her husband raised their family in an apartment in the Campa Cola compound in South Mumbai’s Worli neighborhood. He bought the place in 1988, and she moved in with him in 1992 after their marriage. Two daughters, now in their late teens, were born and grew up there. But in 2005 the Mehtas realized their home was in jeopardy.

That year, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation ordered the demolition of roughly 100 apartments in the compound where the Mehtas lived. Turns out there were legal inconsistencies in the way the seven buildings that made up the compound had been constructed. The builders had made more floors than were sanctioned by the BMC, and although the corporation had pointed out these problems, it hadn’t stopped the construction.

The news came as a surprise to the residents, says Mehta. They hadn’t been stopped from purchasing the homes, from moving in, or from paying property taxes. For a decade now, some of these residents have been bargaining and pleading to keep their homes, fighting a roller-coaster legal battle. In 2014 it seemed they had lost: the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of eviction. Then in June of the same year, at the height of the Indian summer, local authorities cut off water, power, and gas for all the floors deemed illegal. Mehta and some of her neighbors went without these essentials for 10 months.

“It was a question of survival for us, and [it was about] saving our homes,” Mehta tells CityLab. “We did what we could do.”

Sadly, the Campa Cola case isn’t a unique one. The exact numbers are hard to pin down, but according to a 2013 Right To Information request (the Indian version of a FOIA request), more than half of the highrise buildings in the city lacked occupancy certificates—documents permitting residence in the structure. Many others were built based on unsanctioned plans or don’t comply with building codes. The Hindu recently reported that 56,266 illegal buildings were counted in the city between 2008 and 2013; of these, 45,000 were ordered to be demolished, while the others are embroiled in legal battles. On the peripheries of Mumbai, the situation is even worse, say activists. In suburbs like Thane, the share of illegal buildings is as high as 90 percent, the former Chief Minister of the state announced in 2013.

Illegal construction showcases one of the negative aspects of Mumbai’s often-exalted urban growth, the sheer pace of which has been astounding. Here’s how Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, described the city in a 2007 post for LSE Cities:

Mumbai is the biggest, fastest, richest city in India, a city simultaneously experiencing a boom and a civic emergency; an island-state of hope in a very old country. Because of the reach of Bollywood movies, Mumbai is also a mass dream for the peoples of India. If you take a walk around Mumbai you’ll see that everything – sex, death, trade, religion – are lived out on the pavement. It is a maximum city, maximum in its exigencies, maximum in its heart.

Today, Mumbai houses upwards of 21 million residents. It’s one of the densest megacities in the world. Over the last decade, to compensate for a lack of space for the city’s rapidly growing population, and to meet the rising demands of the global real estate market, developers have built more, faster, and taller. But in this scramble to grow, builders have cut corners with respect to ethics, safety, legality, and transparency—harming residents and the future of the city.

Nandini Mehta is just one of millions affected. Even though there’s still hope for her and her neighbors, she see a bleak future for Mumbai.

“There is no checkpoint,” she says. “The transparency isn’t there, even today. What is a common man supposed to do? It’s just going to get worse. There are more and more loopholes that the builders are finding to be able to commit these crimes. At the end of the day, it’s the buyer who suffers because the builders have so much political clout with the authorities that they get away with everything.”

Mumbai’s Housing Paradox

In 2014, Deborah Cowen, a professor in the department of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, arrived in Mumbai to research its urban growth as part of a collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada on the HIGHRISE documentary series, an exploration of vertical living in the global suburbs. As her flight descended, Cowen saw the aerial view of the city many visitors are familiar with: clusters of tall buildings standing on a sea of slums.

Mumbai’s multiplying highrises (see the timeline below) reflect the staggering income gap of its residents. On the one hand, you have billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor luxury home worth $1 billion; on the other, you have small, cheaply constructed shacks in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world.

A timeline of highrises built in Mumbai shows the construction boom of recent years. (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat)

Mumbai’s real estate market has heated up since the recent global recession, and the cost of apartments in the city proper has skyrocketed. Despite a weak rupee, average rent for a spot in one of the city’s coveted neighborhoods still averages well above $3,000 a month, according to NDTV . To make room for relatively luxurious condos, informal slums (which make up 41 percent of the city’s housing stock) and their residents (which make up 62 percent of the city’s population) are displaced or bought off.

The situation signals a paradox in Mumbai’s urban growth: there’s a scarcity of affordable housing, which is why so many low-income families live in slums in the first place, but there’s also an excess of ridiculously expensive apartments (which may or may not be legal) that even Mumbai residents with relative means can’t afford.

“It shows the devastating imbalance in Mumbai’s growth,” says Cowen.

This imbalance is reshaping the city, she says. Central Mumbai, where a lot of these expensive buildings are coming up, is hollowing out; many city apartments are currently vacant. Lower-middle- or low-income families and displaced slum dwellers are moving to the periphery, where housing is more affordable but lawlessness abounds.

“The inner city is becoming what we sometimes call a ‘citadel space’—very very expensive, very securitized, and very elite space,” says Cowen. “Then on the periphery, we're seeing this kind of free-for-all for development with residents scrambling to find places to live."

Hasty Construction

While in Mumbai, Cowen looked into the case of Chandresh Terrace, a building on Mira Road in the Northern fringes of the city, which is slotted for redevelopment. Kashaf Siddique, a 21-year-old resident, lives in a one-bedroom there with five family members. Siddique tells a familiar story: she and her neighbors had no idea about the fate of their home (a claim that the building’s secretary denies, according to the Times of India).

Displacement and ineffective slum rehabilitation are the most obvious consequences of Mumbai’s recent housing trends. But another consequence is compromised safety. In 2013, for example, a shoddily constructed building in the Thane suburb collapsed, killing 74 people. Twenty-six were children.

New construction in Mumbai often abuts existing historic slum communities. (Mrinal Desai / Courtesy NFB)

The government’s push to regularize illegal highrises, coupled with recent changes to regulations that now permit higher buildings, has led to a predatory “redevelopment economy,” Cowen says.

“We're seeing that this was happening all over the place—sometimes not so violently or without the surprise of residents—but there was this economy emerging where developers could profit off of building higher buildings ... and making a whole bunch of money off the additional floors,” she says.

Poor Planning Fueled the Problem

When it comes to placing blame for Mumbai’s housing troubles, unethical builders and corrupt bureaucrats are obvious targets. But a lot of the responsibility for Mumbai’s awkward growth falls on the shoulders of the city’s flimsy urban development policies, says Hussain Indorewala, an assistant professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture. He says the city government has taken a backseat when it comes to planning, letting the real estate industry drive local development.

“There’s a confusion about what planning is supposed to be for,” says Indorewala. “It’s a land-owner and developer-centric approach, which puts private property before use.”

The city’s new urban development plan, for example, is “not even a plan, it’s like a loose regulatory framework for the real estate industry,” he says. The looser the rules, the easier it is for developers to manipulate them. The situation aggravates existing urban inequalities, activists and academics argue.

Mumbai’s story is extreme and alarming. But it’s actually not that abnormal. “We generalize from the New Yorks and the Londons rather than other places,” says Cowen. “Some of the most important processes in learning … what is happening and what could be happening elsewhere, comes from a city like [Mumbai]." If left unchecked, cities like Mumbai can expand and grow haphazardly, sidelining, excluding, and ultimately harming residents.

This story is part of the Highrise Report, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. CityLab is proud to host the U.S. premiere of “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise,” the final interactive documentary to come out of the HIGHRISE project, produced by the NFB.