The Worli Village Link

July 15, 2009

Out of sight, out of mind’ has been a credo much loved by city officials. If you can’t solve a problem – just hide it. Cities like Delhi have taken this to a fine art. You can’t imagine that India’s capital has a huge population living in shanties and temporary tenements, simply because you don’t see them. They have been shunted out to the peripheries, behind the river and tucked away in the crevices of posh colonies.

Design and architectural projects often have a dual use in this hide-and-don’tseek game. They fulfil their stated functions – transporting people, providing homes in high-rise structures – and also provide new visual vistas for the city.

The very same metropolis appears vastly different from a great height or from across a bridge. Once the visual signature becomes part of the public imagination, it shapes the way we think.

That is why the IMAX-scale Bandra-Worli Sea Link experience needs to be handled with care. On one side of the bridge lies glamorous Bandra, while on the other lies a 400-year-old fishing village that has been directly affected by the construction of the bridge. Now that the lives of the fishing community have been substantially impacted, having reached the point of no return, they are worried about another danger – that of coming under the entire city’s spotlight.

Already, one hears of complaints against the supposedly unpleasant sight of what is being described as a slum. The fact that some members of the village do not have access to private or public toilets is being used as an argument about the entire settlement.

The fact is that the village of Worli Koliwada has a full-fledged functioning local political body with a highly educated and informed leadership. They deal with the issues of religious diversity (many of the Kolis are Christians) and migrants (several tenants living in the village from all over the country) with sophistication and maturity. They have a systematic and inclusive approach in decision-making through regular community meetings. In these meetings they have regular discussions and debates about what is the best way ahead for them. The leadership has access to good and skilled people who have been associated with the village’s development for decades.

The villagers know fully well that entering the visual map of the city through the Bandra-Worli Sea Link can move both ways. It can make it even more difficult for them to survive if the media projects them as a slum, which needs to be dealt with through real estate development projects. Or it can do something else altogether – convince Mumbai’s authorities that the best way ahead is to recognise the fact that the villages of Mumbai, while needing special inputs in sewage, drainage and toilet facilities, are actually well-equipped with skills to evolve and modernise on their own.

The Worli Koliwada leaders are way ahead of many others in this regard. The authorities simply need to respond to them supportively and recognise their habitat as such. This will help the residents of the village – the Kolis as well as the tenants – to improve and transform their habitat according to their own aspirations and choices.

If this indeed happens, what Mumbai will be rewarded with at the end of the road, is a beautiful, modern habitat that preserves the city’s unusual urban legacy – one that includes villages, full of chapels and shrines, where the original Marathi manoos wove the city’s cosmopolitan fabric we are so proud of today.