Urbane Villages, Wild City

March 13, 2012

1. Gaothans of Mumbai

Location of East-Indian villages in Mumbai: source: http://www.east-indians.com

There are 189 East Indian Villages in Mumbai with a total population of 1 million people. In a sense as many if not more people in Mumbai live in villages than in the state of Goa. In a strange twist of narratives, there are some official documents which presents Goa as a highly urbanized state, with as many people living in urbanized areas (large modern villages and towns) as there who live in its official 350 villages. We evoke both these stories simultaneously because they have the potential of supporting each other. In Mumbai, the East Indian Villages, like their Goan counterparts are very well organized at the community level and are battling with local politicians, builders and the vast urban jungle that has grown around them in what they perceive as a wild and uncontrolled way. However as anybody can see, Mumbai seems to be a hopeless case. And many would say that in Goa too it is a difficult battle.

2. Villages and diversity of habitats

The village story of Mumbai is the tip of a long standing argument we make about incremental growth of cities that takes along with it a great diversity of habitats that the city has produced including villages, chawls and low-cost affordable housing structures often called slums. Our engagement with these habitats, ranging from the heritage story of Khotachiwadi to the Koliwadas of Dharavi have made apparent the deep connections between the form of villages and the so-called informal settlements for which the former acts as a template. Mumbai never was a city of slums and skyscrapers but one in which a great variety of built forms accommodated people working at different layers of the its powerful economy. Old villages provided land for affordable housing on a large scale and their templates were reproduced in the thousands of habitats that emerged all over the city.

3. Slums, villages and urbanization

The overwhelming presence of these habitats, often referred to as ‘slums’ is connected to a confusion about urban forms and can be seen from the example when British authorities in the late 19th century referred to Khotachiwadi as a slum and today, this village is enshrined as a heritage hamlet. This example reveals the deep wedge in Mumbai’s history between its two distinct phases. One is the south-oriented story that starts with the development of the docks by the British in the seventeenth 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 fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the influence of the British East India company company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Working class communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. These lands were mostly owned mostly by Catholic landlords. All through the early twentieth 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.

4. Mumbai in Goa

These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. Today these habitats are living and dying simultaneously. 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. Today, it is surrounded by urban forms that literally look down upon the hamlet and see it no better than one more ‘slum’ in the neighbourhood.

The Khotachiwadi story is essentially a starting point for us to examine a whole range of locally built neighbourhoods all over Mumbai. An overwhelming 60 % of the population of the city lives in these spaces and has continued to mutate from the village like form, which was often from where they grew. These neighbourhoods keep the city’s economy going, subsidise costs of living for most of its workers, and once invested with civic amenities are perfectly desirable places. They have enhanced the value of urban land through intensive use and need to be protected from the predatory speculative impulse which has transformed the city at large into a real-estate roulette game. They combine, in true village fashion, spaces of working and living, and have made the tool-house a very contemporary, post-industrial component of urban living. By focusing on this form as a valid one, working closely with contractors who build them, by attempting to invest in the technology of building such spaces, we hope to develop an alternative discourse of urban living, especially for the so-called ‘sluym-dwellers’.

To do this we look towards Goa because this is one place in the world which has produced a unique template for habitats thanks mostly to its ability of validating the village as a modern form. It is because the village in Goa continues to be dynamic that the villages of Mumbai don’t appear to be anachronistic. By bringing together the stories of villages in Mumbai and Goa we feel that it is possible to focus once again on the ability of modern habitats to escape from a limited notion of what urban living has to be. We evoke Anthony Leeds understanding of the urban system, with villages and towns networked with each other to best epitomise Goa’s unique land use patterns – under threat of course. Goa’s urban system, as long as it continues to validate its villages, can be a viable alternative urban form to the large metropolitan thrust that otherwise we are moving towards and which only produce self-made problems around housing as we in Mumbai today.

All this brings us back to the not-so-accidental fact of the Portuguese connections between Mumbai and Goa. The observation that different colonial moments worked differently at different points and today can become resourceful tools  for the future is a thematic that returns to haunt us again and again. What was it about the Portuguese past that allowed village forms to live, become sick, die and regenerate themselves over different points of history? Is it a coincidence that the villages of Mumbai provide a strong counterpoint to the narratives of slums and are connected to its Portuguese past? Is it a coincidence that the favelas of Sao Paolo are also reinventing themselves today and demanding a more nuanced reading of their urban form? Or that the villages of Goa are fighting tooth and nail for their future in a more intense way than many other parts of the country? Can we learn something from the incremental growth of cities the way we understand them and also extrapolate on the use of history and the past in the same way? Not by blanket totalizing narratives of oppression and overthrow but of a more resourceful utilizing of those experiences in a way that builds from wherever someone left something behind?

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