Speculation and use value in Mumbai

March 22, 2013

Photo: Rehabilitation project in Dharavi

Quite a few architects and urban designers have cracked their heads on the urban phenomenon that Mumbai represents. What kind of logic keeps this big, bad city running despite all odds? How exactly does its urban fabric reflect the extreme disparities that have become inexorably attached to the city’s image? What does the mutation of colonial Bombay into global Mumbai mean for architectural forms and public life?

Rahul Mehrotra’s static vs. kinetic city story is one of the most compelling attempts at providing a general understanding of the dynamics and tensions at work in the making and perpetuating of Mumbai’s urbanism. According to him, the static is the official city of built forms, framed by monumental structures, birthed and nourished by broadly premodernist and modernist impulses. Sharing space, often unacknowledged and even unseen, but nevertheless very much present and active is the kinetic city, energized by the impulse of everyday human presence and activity, spilling over streets and public spaces, composed of transactions and the bazaar ethos, especially by resource and capital deprived inhabitants.

He accurately points out that Mumbai’s history and future are unimaginable without the dense trading culture and human interactions that spill in and out of its bustling streets and worn out habitats. Likewise, his critique of rigid notions of architectural heritage and urban futures that defend built space over lived space, is spot on. Anybody who comes to Mumbai and connects with its incredible street life, wrapped around and between its mongrelized Gothic colonial or post-colonial structures can immediately connect to the ideal types of the static and the kinetic city.

Mehrotra goes on to elaborate why Mumbai is essentially a kinetic city which cannot be tamed or reigned in by the static city. He does not fully buy into the standard dichotomization of the city into formal and informal sectors, which can mistakenly be overlapped onto his static-kinetic concepts. Instead, his perspective transforms public architecture into a sophisticated set of practices that involve a layered understanding of architectural heritage. He attributes a more creative role to intangible moments of public life like festivals and street economies. The transformation of the Kala Ghoda art district in Mumbai is a successful tribute to his framework.  It is to his credit as an architect that he uses imagination and a sense of history to co-produce a public project of this nature without investing in another expensive monument to celebrate existing ones.

Sadly, the concept of the kinetic city is threatened by the malaise of over-interpretation. Sometimes instigated by Mehrotra’s own hurried words. For example, it is easy to misread his observations that all structures of the kinetic city are made of temporary and recycled materials or that their limited but productive lifespan is connected to makeshift building techniques. This encourages a tendency to misunderstand some neighbourhoods in Mumbai as being disposable because of a surface reading of their dynamics. They seem to resemble the structures that Mehrotra is describing. We argue that it would probably be wise not to let Mehrotra’s slippery concept slide over the blurry boundaries of South Mumbai, to become a guiding principle to understand habitats such as Mumbai’s so-called slums. We have come across quite a few students of architecture who build on his framework and delve into the issues of affordable housing and the question of slums and shanties.

In the wider context of Mumbai city, the limitation of the static/kinetic framework becomes more pronounced the closer you look. For decades Mumbai’s poorer neighbourhoods have been seen as a kind of soft mobile stock of temporary habitats – easily removable when the right time arrives for good profits to be made. Far from being the recycled landscape one could imagine when listening to Mehrotra, slum notified areas are often made of over-engineered pucca structures, built by professional masons and contractors using industrial construction materials. Their streets are full of registered shops selling mainstream products.  Many of them also double up into what could be called post-Fordist industrial sites, organized in flexible and anti-fragile (as Nassim Taleb would say) production networks.  If there is an appearance of shabbiness to many neighbourhoods it is not because of any intrinsic quality to them but due to the myopic policies of the civic bureaucracy. Unbelievable as it may seem, it is true that local contractors in those neighbourhoods have a stock of special effects to age a building so that it does not catch the eye of a corrupt official looking to make a quick buck from a new (unauthorized) construction.  In some extreme cases, brick and mortar structures are covered up by corrugated iron sheets, to give the impression of being temporary, just to evade demolition.

On the other hand, apart from a few protected heritage monuments, the static city of Mehrotra’s is nowhere to be seen. The logic that rules Mumbai is not that of the static city, but of the speculative city. It may forgo a beautiful heritage structure in its quest for new territories, or even sponsor a street festival, as long as it is eventually allowed to invest in expensive real estate somewhere on the horizon, and get a great view on top and a parking space below. For sure, the speculative city produces all kinds of empty spaces that may look static in appearance, but are actually highly volatile real estate assets traded on global markets. A building and the flats within it can well be bought and sold several times over before having been built, with profits made at each stage –till it bursts. This is the most vivid expression of a speculative value of space that is completely disconnected from its use value. These buildings embody what Zizek refers to as the “virtual, spectral domain of Capital.” (Zizek, 2001: 3/4).

The speculative economy is heated up by infusions of global capital in search for high and quick returns. Indian corporate houses, businessmen and politicians recycle grey or black money sent off shore into real estate projects built only to be sold to fellow investors. It is no coincidence that tiny Mauritius Island, a tax haven, is the first largest contributor of Foreign Direct Investment to India.[1]

In hot speculative markets, land development is not driven by the demand of users, as much as that of investors. This explains the total discrepancy between the demand for affordable housing in many cities and what is actually being produced, which is predominantly high-end residential or office buildings (rarely mixed-use) destined to be traded on a global real estate market. High-end housing continues to be produced in large quantities in Mumbai and other metros despite the fact that, according to the district level data from census 2011, 479,000 flats are lying empty in Mumbai, 10 to 20% of which are not finding buyers [2].

This doesn’t seem to worry the developers and the authorities. In June 2012, municipal authorities approved the construction of 78 new buildings above the height of 70 meters (Midday, 2012). Twelve skyscrapers above 200 meters high are currently being built in the city, out of which six will be 300 meters or higher. In addition, another 17 buildings of 400 meters height or higher are proposed waiting to be approved. Out of these three are above 500 meters and one, India Tower designed by Fosters and Partners, is planned to reach 720 meters high, which would make it the second highest building on earth after Burj Khalifa.[3] Far from being static and defensive, the present wave of urbanization is swift and predatory, storming into forgotten parcels of land and blowing them up vertically, flying over roads and winding around corners, wild firing to remote areas like there is no tomorrow.

The speculative dynamics dominating the political economy of the city threatens the existence of neighbourhoods, which at present in Mumbai, provide living and working space for half of its population on a very tiny proportion of land. These neighbourhoods are full of vitality. Thanks to their deep integration to the city’s economy they function as vehicles of class mobility. They reinvest in pucca structures and collectively improve their neighbourhoods to the extent they are permitted by the authorities. However most of the time they are fighting a tough battle. Residents of locally developed neighbourhoods have to deal with contested ownership and occupancy rights, which are being swallowed up by the city’s speculative impulses. As they consolidate, they have to break through a mangrove-like municipal bureaucracy that informally sucks up the proverbial fortune at the bottom of the pyramid through bribes and fines. Keeping them kutcha – at least in appearance – by forbidding obvious improvement and denying adequate infrastructure makes it easy to notify them as a slum – and makes homegrown neighbourhoods vulnerable to predatory speculative development.

The government’s attitude generates a great uncertainty as far as their established occupancy rights are concerned. While many bet on the wholesale redevelopment of Dharavi for example, one can barely speculate on the future value of a single plot within the neighbourhood, for precisely the reason that all of it could be taken over in the name of   redevelopment at anytime.

As a result, while at the metropolitan/global levels, the land value of slum notified areas can be speculated upon, at the local level the exchange value of space is determined mostly by its short-term use value. The question that use-value puts forward is not: “how much can I hope to get if I sell the land in 2 or 10 years time?” but “what kind of value would I generate or attach to the space if I use it for one or two years?” The fact that there is already a local real estate, use-based market within these neighbourhoods, is often ignored. The worth of these neighbourhoods is not based on speculative value since for the inhabitants, the space has little worth beyond its use. But that does not mean that there is no value at all –quite on the contrary. In fact in the existing regime, buying a house in Dharavi or any other neighbourhood built on public land, without putting it to productive activity, makes no economic sense whatsoever. It is productive drive that makes the place so dynamic.

Simply providing residents property titles through programs such as the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) or the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) scheme, would not make things better for the city –although it would provide temporary relief to many residents of the targeted neighbourhoods. Quickly the whole neighbourhood would drown in speculative exchanges and reduce value to purely that. Which is what the speculators strive on. Since it would simply be a means of organizing property deeds and putting everything up for sale to the highest bidder. Existing residents, tenants as well as landlords, would eventually leave the place and move elsewhere, where speculation allows for use-value to still express itself, since that would still make economic sense. Externally, this would mean more actual slums sprouting up on new peripheries and future potential for investment in real estate projects by speculators.

The kinetic dynamism that exists at present in those neighbourhoods is not connected to their form or structures as much as their political-economy. It is the same use-based economy that allows space to be filled in all over the city – in the interstices of bridges, buildings and on its streets. The kinetic effect of peoples overwhelming presence – all the way from South Mumbai to North – in every inch of the city’s public spaces and in its homegrown neighbourhoods is based on the preponderance of their use-value (this is what we have been referring to as the intensive city). Every street hawker, vendor, even homeless sleeper, pays for that moment of use. They pay local goons, police, municipal workers – almost anyone who claims a right of being temporary tax-keeper.

In the process, they do have the potential of organizing themselves, improving their incomes, transforming their status, and they do this all the time – till they reach narrowly defined limits (in the case of slums it is sometimes as arbitrary as a 14 feet height restriction). The limits imposed on them force them to exist in a no-mans territory in between different regimes of land and local political control. As a result the city does not have the requisite number of rental houses for poor people, organized hawking zones, good quality incrementally built neighbourhoods, systems of generating revenue on occupied land, or even decent public toilets.

What we do get are more mass-manufactured static habitats fuelled by speculation, constantly predating on spaces of high-use value. The latter are often called encroachments, violators of public space and worse – illegal. All this while the city keeps making more place for new real estate projects – even if they are badly used, unproductive and sometimes empty. At the same time, so-called slums and street economies continue generating wealth incrementally, at great difficulty and against all odds, which they then  share in outrageous proportions with the city’s official and unofficial extortionists.

These are the processes which produce the kinetic energy that the city – paradoxically – also thrives on.

This post is the first a of series of short essays written by participants of the Homegrown Neighbourhoods Workshop, which took place in January 2013 at the Institute of Urbanology.