November 26, 2008
Mumbai’s history reflects two distinct phases. One is the south-oriented story that starts with the development of the docks by the British in the early eighteenth century. The other is an older, northern-bound story that starts with the Portuguese conquest and domination of the regions around Vasai village in the sixteenth century. The essay argues that the point of intersection of these histories is one that can potentially explain the overwhelming presence of poor, infrastructure deprived habitats – often referred to as slums – that dominate the landscape of the city.
Mumbai’s slums occupy an unusually large scale – even when compared to other Indian metropolises, with similar economic and political constraints. The essay proposes that the scale and depth of the phenomenon requires a special inquiry into its history. The essay does this by focusing on the story of a small habitat – called Khotachiwadi – that encapsulates many of the issues being debated. Khotachiwadi eventually however, becomes a springboard to discuss other issues to do with the political economy of built-forms in the city – especially with regard to the dialectic of the slum and the village.
It also asserts that a critical examination of the category ‘slum’ – and its relationship with the ‘village’ – can challenge take-for-granted notions of urbanism and urban futures for labour-surplus countries like India that have old agrarian histories.
These notions usually render village-like habitats as being inappropriate for modern urban spaces. These spaces are viewed as having a certain kind of density that can only be absorbed by the high-rise form, which, in turn, is presented as antithetical to the village. While critiques of these notions have the potential of moving into radical ideas of the urban – especially in the realm beyond built-forms – this paper restricts its discussions to the physical dimension of urbanism.
When the Portuguese empire handed over islands in the southern end of the region to the East India Company they did not see this cluster of islands as valuable. They were more interested in the rich fertile lands of the north that supported their trading activities connecting Daman, Vasai, Goa and Calicut. These lands were dotted with villages that went all the way to Mahim and Bandra, perceived to be the southern borders of the Portuguese sphere of influence. The social structure of this space was dominated by a combination of feudal and mercantile practices subsidized by low-caste labour. Large parts of the population were converted to Christianity, a process that preserved the caste divisions by allowing for the emergence of upper caste land-lords and low-caste labour and artisanal groups.
When the East India Company took charge of the southern islands, they forcefully integrated Bandra and Mahim, which they saw as the northern borders of their territory. As the influence of the company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Parsee, Hindu and Muslim Gujarathi merchants, shop-keepers and businessmen moved in and around the Fort areas and brought in their urban traditions of built-forms from their city of origin – Surat – an architectural legacy that is still evident in some neighbourhoods of south Mumbai – especially Kalbadevi. On the other hand, the low-caste predominantly labour communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. The lands were mostly owned by Christian landlords or occasionally by a member of the Pathare Prabhu community – an old courtly caste that linked its existence to a thirteenth century kingdom nearby.
All through the nineteenth century, poorer migrant groups would pay rents to landlords to set up hamlets that became their homes. Interestingly, richer rural communities, mostly upper caste Catholics, who happened to be educated and got skilled jobs in the docks also reproduced similar hamlets – referred to as wadis. These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. They looked like the older upper-caste landed villages of Bandra, Mahim, Gorai and Vasai but had actually been built afresh in the nineteenth century.
On the other hand, swampy land around Mahim, particularly in a village called Dharavi (that was occupied primarily by Koli fisherfolk) became the site for the settling down of untouchable communities from different parts of the country. Those regions were seen to be unlivable and peripheral, from the vantage points of both – the fisher community that lived by the sea, as well as the city civic-authorities in the south.
As it turned out, as more low-caste groups arrived from the countryside, attracted by the mills and the docks, the southern city could provide only limited accommodation. Most of the surplus labour lived in the villages, outside the perceived city limits.
As the southern city kept expanding and as dependence on agriculture declined in importance, it became easier for landlords to make more money by renting or selling out land than through agriculture. However, when their lands got integrated into the city they had to give up their control either to the civic authorities or to slumlords. This process got even more complicated in the post-independence period with the development of a local electoral process and the growth of new neighbourhood leaders.
The landscape that thus formed by the middle of the twentieth century in the northern parts of Mumbai was really a cluster of villages that had become outsize settlements. Even today, the largest slums of Mumbai in that region - Dharavi and Jari-Mari – reflect this village like legacy with their land ownership patterns revealing this quite clearly.
However – villages do not simply become slums because of an awkward growth in population. It helps a certain political economy to view them as slums and this is the main argument being made in the essay. The attempt is to understand the deeper historical basis of slum formation in Mumbai and see it as much as a story of habitats and perceptions about habitats, as about the political economy of scarcity of infrastructure.
To explicate this point – we focus on a small village – called Khotachiwadi in Girgaum.
Khotachiwadi is a cluster of about twenty-eight small cottages and bungalows built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the heart of the city. Today it is referred to as an urban heritage precinct mainly because of its distinct architectural flourishes linked to an Indo-Portuguese past.
Right from the start, the homes represented a diverse set of architectural influences – Portuguese villas, Maharastrian coastal cottages, Goan homes and regular cottages and bungalows found in the region. In its hey-day – the early twentieth century – the village boasted of about eighty-eight such individually owned or leased homes.
During the course of interactions with the villagers, we came across frequent statements by elderly residents mentioning that the wadi used to be referred to as a slum in the early twentieth century. It was called as such by British surveyors who were developing a larger urban plan for the city. Intrigued by the fact that a village now celebrated for its architectural legacy was once referred to as a slum, we continued to explore this observation. In spite of frequent attempts though, we were unable to actually verify this through archival material. The records only mentioned the real name of the village, never the underlying assumed category. However, on inquiring with contemporary architects, urban planners and government officials, we found most of them agreeing with the residents. Their certainty was based on the awareness that many habitats even today tend to be loosely referred to as slums, though they are historically distinct villages. Some historical accounts of the city even referred to its native towns (immediately outside the Fort precinct), as slums. Referring to Khotachiwadi as such was, thus, quite understandable.
After all, even today, there exist village lands – called ‘gaothans’ – that are specifically recognized as distinct non-urban habitats, with separate development laws. They are treated by developers – and commonly perceived by neighbouring settlements – as slums.
According to urban historian Rahul Mehrotra, it was in the fifties that one saw the emergence of the simplistic binary – the slum and the multi-storied building dominating rhetoric of built-form in the city. It came to represent a discourse that over-wrote the diversity that existed in the earlier experience of Mumbai’s built-forms and transformed the perceptions of the future of the city through the aspiration of being a high-rise oriented city. This aspiration eventually started a process that aimed at erasing all ambiguous habitats, especially those that embodied the ethnic elements of built-forms found in the erstwhile “native city” – but more so those structures that seemed rural and therefore inappropriate . Thus till the heritage movement in the city really firmed itself up as some kind of a force to reckon with in the 1980’s – much of the old city (that was not protected by the old Rent Act) was destroyed on the grounds that it was part of a back-ward looking colonial experience .
Places like Khotachiwadi were seen to be anachronistic, since they were villages. While most “native” spaces were distinctly urban buildings, this particular habitat’s resonances of being “rural” created further trouble for it. The colonial “native” city had quite comfortably absorbed the rural memories that its migrants had brought in. These memories had provided the quaint architectural flourishes of habitats like Khotachiwadi. However, in the long run these very flourishes and characteristics made these hamlets seem inconsistent with the ideals of a modern “urban” present – one, that wanted to distance it self as much as possible from any rural memory.