The Slum Explosion Anxiety

June 28, 2015

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

Global anxieties about population growth have been around at least since Malthus, with a peak in the 1960s when American academics started talking about a “population bomb” that would throw the rich world right back into poverty -and annihilate India once and for all. The particular shape of that anxiety in the form of a housing crisis set to swamp the world is relatively more recent. We seem to now firmly believe that population growth will overtake the capacity of governments to house people at decent standards. Subsequently, the world will get slummed up beyond redemption. There is a prophet of doom – à la Mike Davis – for every urban crisis that we face in different parts of the world.

However the apocalyptic vision itself has a narrative thrust. In it, greed and fear dominate over humanity and creativity. It calls for drastic and swift responses. Our fear is that, unfortunately, these responses may actually be more catastrophic than the reality they wish to contain.

We believe that the most urgent thing we must do is step away from such anxieties as a starting point, while looking precisely at the factors that cause them. While we definitely must analyze why more and more people are getting constituted as the surplus humanity which modern urban administrations seem to have given up on, we need to look at the pressure points afresh. We simply don’t see the weak joints where others seem to– basically the dark horizons of megalopolises being invaded by multitudinous migrants – moving in hordes across national or rural-urban borders.

We believe that the preponderance of slums in a global landscape that continues to urbanize rapidly, is a legacy of faulty policy and worse – a lack of imagination about what makes for good cities. It is also a lack of memory about how slums have always been part and parcel of urbanization and the many ways in which they have been integrated in cities throughout history.  Architectural and planning professions and other urban commentators have an amazing capacity to forget how so many of the neighbourhoods that we love have gone through many stages of development before becoming what they are. Many of the quarters of New York, Paris, London or Tokyo were once slums, by any contemporary standards.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

It is our contention that the inability of incremental housing in cities like Mumbai, Rio or Nairobi to translate into a successful tool of urban transformation is due to factors other than its intrinsic merit or fault. The issue of affordable housing is a problem not because there are simply too many people lacking resources or means to find or make decent homes and neighbourhoods, but that there are a handful of people who refuse to see cities and habitats in any other way but as a place of fixed and limited choices.

Around eight years ago, we set up a small office in the famed and notorious so-called ‘slum’ of Dharavi. In the global map of slums, we placed ourselves at the epicentre of what was mistakenly referred to as the largest such settlement in Asia. We were the latest entrants in a field that was populated by activists, NGO’s, political parties and other do-gooders and got absorbed in heated waves of discussion, debate and dissent. The government’s redevelopment plan, originally master-minded by a New Jersey consultant of Indian origin, was slated to become a single point clearance agenda for redeveloping this neighbourhood.

We interacted with Mumbai’s diverse set of activists and citizens with more diverse viewpoints and ideological moorings. And even where there was an overlap, we often found ourselves saying things that were counter-intuitive.  Those conversations helped us sharpen our conviction more than ever, and over the next few years, we found ourselves being immersed in the practice of incremental development strategies in Mumbai. We have since then resettled our office in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi – a settlement which is not as much in the limelight as Dharavi, but which is struggling just as much to reinvent itself.

We worked with local community leaders, with local house builders, residents and children and began to understand what community and neighbourhood life in a ‘slum’ was all about. All through the years, what we saw seemed to be some kind of real-time unfolding of incremental development strategies – the way we had read about them, or quickly glimpsed in Latin American contexts. Our practice sharpened, convictions became firmer and communication became smoother as we started conversing more confidently.

We had started our journeys in diverse, overlapping and occasionally parallel worlds. Our practice became a mashup of urban planning, anthropology, economics, architecture and design. Our ideological make up reflected all the unacknowledged intellectual confusion and fierce ethical commitment that our generation had grappled with thanks to the tectonic shifts of national and political maps since the 90s.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo by Ishan Thanka for urbz)

We attempted to connect our practice in Mumbai to a larger set of conversations that happened as we found ourselves travelling to Tokyo, Barcelona, Geneva, Sao Paulo, Rio, New York, Istanbul, Perugia, Milan, Shenzen, Belgrade, Johahhnesburg – wherever we went we found ourselves making linkages to the city and coming back to familiar practices – which somehow or the other involved watching people make their homes and lives over a generation, creating bonds with each other, sculpting communities from basic human needs of co-dependency and good-naturedness. We found a bit of Mumbai everywhere in the world.
And the people who we encountered through these journeys – our colleagues, our supporters, our collaborators, our critics and intellectual comrades – were the real touchstones of transformative learning. They all helped shape our central argument that connects our work:

Human beings as productive agents have the collective capacity to create their own built environments. If their environments are degraded in any way – that is to say if they happen to be slums – this state of affairs is connected to a set of factors that has little to do with their capacity or ability to create quality built environments. These factors include land arrangements that do not recognize occupancy rights as a valid mode of living in a city. They also include legislation that prohibits them to improve their environment because that would mean developing a sense of ownership towards the land on which they exist.

This is not allowed simply because cities today are shaped by speculation on land and space which is so tied down to its exchange value that it becomes out of reach for most of its residents. Especially those who find it more economical to use it for productive means. And it has to be deliberately kept out of reach as only then would the exchange value become genuinely lucrative. Due to this, civic authorities refuse to acknowledge that the city’s workers and the poor who contribute to its economy, need a different regime of occupying urban space, one which is based on use-value.

It is in this state of affairs – more than anything else that the urban crisis of today is predicated and this is what needs to be unpacked and understood – in the greatest of detail possible.

Shvaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo Ishan Thanka for urbz)


People are Places – Mobile Mumbai and the Konkan Coast

June 24, 2015


For the last four years, Urbanology, through its research institute based in Goa and Mumbai, has been working on a project that connects these two seemingly disparate places on India’s west coast. At one level, ‘Tracking the Indian Rail Trail’ looks at the significance of the Konkan railway in the urban force field of Mumbai, spreading all the way down to Mangalore along this route. At another level it looks at mobility as the lens through which India’s fast transforming urban reality can be better understood.

Factoring in mobility remains a favoured approach of social scientists from the late 90s onwards and today has become a specialized field in its own right. One that looks to integrate the gaze of mobility into very fundamental thematics within the social sciences.

As urban practitioners, we have always been trying to make sense of built-forms, habitats, aspirations, and modes of sharing resources in our primary location of action – Mumbai, India’s poster-city of extreme spatial challenges.

In this light, the idea that our chosen site of operations stops at the formal frontiers of what constitutes the city’s municipal limit never made sense to us. Right from day one we saw how the varied landscapes of the city’s several habitats – homegrown or mass-produced -were part of a larger reality that was constantly pushing onto the horizon. We saw how the settlements that were the homes of millions of workers and service providers – mostly dismissed as slums or informal tenements – were part of a living breathing system of connections that ferried people to and fro, in different temporal rhythms using the country’s cheapest mode of long distance travel, the Indian railways.

It became apparent to us that Mumbai was not just a place, a city or physical location fixed in time and space but a moment in the life of millions of its residents that was meaningful to them on a much larger chain of interdependencies.


It was with this hunch that we started to develop a set of inquiries that would provide details and insights to raise more illuminating questions about what constitutes urban reality in India. Is it just about the teeming crowded cities that are refuges for hordes of rural migrants? When we talk of increasing urbanization should we only point towards the standard geographies that show depleting rural areas and rapidly densifying cities and stop at that ? What do migration patterns actually demonstrate when they reveal multi-directional movements ?

We started out with the idea that Mumbai as a city could not be force-fitted into the narrow definition of a ‘city’ and pushed for the notion that it is an urban system in which a wide variety of habitats are enclosed. The railway system within the urban frontiers of Mumbai are the basis of a much larger reality which possibly connects a whole set of urban systems,  inter-linked by different transport and communication networks. Trains appeared clearly as a very integral part of the story at various levels – within the city and outside it.

India’s traditional urban forms – like those elsewhere – were once part of river based mobility systems. The colonial infrastructure of the railways dovetailed into this process to create its own channels of flows, forming large pools of urban accumulation in the colonial port cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

Since independence, the Indian government continued to expand the system and ensured that it remained within the reach of the common person  – allowing for the poorest to travel the lengthiest of distances. If this important network has been ignored by social scientists, urbanists and analysts in India, its mostly because the related disciplines have not been able to factor in movement and mobility within the conceptual framework of understanding habitats and urban economies as deeply as they should. We have tons of studies on migration, seasonal employment, rural-urban movement, rural infrastructure and economy, urbanism – but almost hardly anything on the apparently invisible connector- the railways that seem to provide special twists to all these topics. How do people actually move to a city so far away? How do they return so frequently? How do they manage to keep two homes going ? Clearly cheap railway travel has something to do with it …

It is certainly true of India (though not rare in China and Latin America as well) that the biggest cities are not only magnets of migration but also points from which people return and fortify their home villages and towns – especially as they keep parts of themselves at both places through simultaneously divided and shared use of land, homes and families.


Try buying a train ticket in a second class compartment from any of the big cities through most of the year and you will see a teeming movement of people to and fro making your purchase a challenge. The Indian census too throws up all kinds of complications with regard to the nature of rural areas as well – constantly confusing and confounding categories. For example, the latest census points out that non agricultural related activities are increasing in rural areas – under-cutting almost at once of what defines a rural area in a traditional administrative sense.

The field of mobility studies questions the idea that a place, city or village can be isolated as units of analysis at any given point of time.

In the words of Mimi Sheller and John Urry –

‘Places are thus not so much fixed as implicated within complex networks by which hosts, guests, buildings, objects, and machines are contingently brought together to produce certain performances in certain places at certain times. Places are indeed dynamic places of movement…In the new mobilities paradigm, places themselves are seen as travelling, slow or fast, greater or shorter distances, within networks of human and nonhuman agents. (The New Mobilities Paradigm, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, pages 207 226)

India’s complexities have been documented ad nauseam – and it has been straight jacketed into various grids – the most overwhelming been urban and rural. The pendulum of defining the nation’s essence has moved from one end to the other over several decades and today has been set on a fixed trajectory – entering into a seemingly irreversible urban tunnel – with its teeming millions in tow.

Within this story Mumbai appears as one gigantic node set to face many challenges in the process – forcing people like us to take on this expectation.

This is the point at which our research comes into play.


We decided to work on the Konkan railway for several reasons. Firstly because Mumbai was its starting point, Goa an important intermediate node and Mangalore its final destination and both Goa and Mangalore have a very special place in the social and physical history of the city. Secondly, the Konkan rail was a relatively new one, coming into full functioning only around twenty years ago. It would allow us to understand the process of movement with two layers of memory – before and after the railways actually started. Thirdly, the city itself had a powerful political connect to this region in terms of the residents with whom we engaged – mostly in working class neighbourhoods all over the city. Either because of the erstwhile textile mill-workers of early twentieth century Mumbai or political importance of the dominant nativist  electoral parties like the Shiva Sena – the Konkan coast remains a crucial presence in the metropolis.

We began exploring the various urban systems that constitute the region and which had got connected recently by the railways. We focused on six urban nodes – Roha, Chiplun, Ratnagiri, Thivim, Udupi and Mangalore which were major train stations on this route. We followed the movements of 100 plus travellers starting from each of the nodes and tracked them to the places they would eventually go to, forming intricate networks along the trail of the urban systems that each node spawned. One of the most thrilling aspects of our study was the gradual realization that the coast was not simply an interconnected network of urban systems which was serviced by the railways, substituting older modes of travel – but that the movements in the system were part of circulating rhythms revolving around specific functions – religious, familial and economic.

We began to refer to our study as one of Circulating Urbanism in which the Mumbai story became more integral than we initially started out with. Mumbai was not just one urban system connected to several but was the most overwhelmingly powerful forcefield in which the whole region was embedded. Of course, the Konkan had its own emerging centers as well – but Mumbai continued to play an important role due to its history.

Mumbai had played a very significant part in the life of the Konkan for more than a hundred years, using sea-routes prior to the railways to forge bonds across its hilly terrain. Those bonds, were more than just about physical movement between localities and were shaped by relationships mediated by families. In fact the family as a vehicle of mobility, through which individuals managed to traverse large distances by maintaining points of connection between both places became an important focus. The ability of an individual to use relationships and the related metaphors of familial connections and bonds also became integral aspects of our study. We were also aware that the family in India is deeply connected to community history. This can clearly be seen in a tangible way through the built-forms of urban settlements. If they belong to poor communities and families their habitats in Mumbai correspond to a similar spatial configuration in the city as well.


And as mobility is a variable as much of communication as it is of transport, we also saw the importance of new technologies such as mobile phones and web based systems such as facebook and whatsapp becoming part and parcel of the circulating urban rhythms we were describing.

In the first part of the study we managed to provide a detailed profile of the circulatory urban system that shapes the Konkan region’s connections with Mumbai, even as it pulsates with its specific movements around its own circularities. We created several maps that demonstrated this.

In the ongoing second part of the study we enter more deeply into the field of mobility as a phenomenon that Sheller and Urry describe :

Places are about relationships, about the placing of peoples, materials, images, and the systems of difference that they perform on the enormous complexity of traversing an apparently single place…  And at the same time as places are dynamic, they are also about proximities, about the bodily co-presence of people who happen to be in that place at that time, doing activities together…

The social and the physical are conjoined dimensions and if we depart from the static imagery that traditional social science explanations evoke while talking of individuals, families and communities (or homes, settlements and cities),  we will appreciate at once how a detailed ethnography of these dimensions enhances our understanding of mobilities and urban life more than mapping physical movements along static points.

What we are doing in the second phase is looking at the lives of four families – keeping in mind their individual mind spaces and community affiliations. They hail from the historically significant district of Ratnagiri down the coast, and are simultaneously embedded in the urban fabric of Mumbai. They occupy dynamic social and economic positions through their communities – even though all of them would broadly qualify as belonging to the lower bandwidth of India’s social spectrum. This status would reflect on both, their locales back in the village as well as their homes in Mumbai.

What we hope to do is to demonstrate the mechanisms through which circular movements happen between two locations in the lives of individuals and families. We focus on travel (trains and others) as well as communication systems that have become very advanced in recent times.

What is emerging are stories of places and people, of belonging and leaving behind, of morphing landscapes and new horizons. We hope that this small study will open the way for a larger set of observations on urban reality in India as a whole. One in which the static imaginaries of rural and urban, of fixed identities gives way to mobile concepts that reflect the complexity of life that its residents actually embody.


All photo credits – Ishan Tankha. The study is part of an on-going project with the Mobile Lives Forum, Paris

Beyond the Boundary

June 16, 2015

Inside Bhandup, Mumbai, in a settlement dominated by residents from the Konkan

Inside Bhandup, Mumbai, in a settlement dominated by residents from the Konkan

Classifying habitats as distinctly rural and urban is not as straightforward as it seems. What a city has come to mean today – a discrete unit cut off from rural ways of living – has not always been understood in the same way all through history.

An urban conglomeration that acted as a political center for a kingdom, or as a market place for trading goods, did not necessarily see its population as markedly different from the rural hinterland it was embedded in. In fact there was a greater sense of fluidity and movement that was accepted as part of the existence of those units.

In the age of the British empire on the Indian subcontinent – the great presidency port-cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, merged with the hinterlands they ruled with a similar sense of continuity. And people moved from habitat to habitat across the presidency sprawl – sometimes rural to urban and sometimes the other way round without marking the movement as a shift in terms of identity.

Thus a resident of Ratnagiri, a district, 400 kilometers south of the old Bombay city, left his village to come to the city to work – but still managed to keep a sense of connection to his or her erstwhile home. He could even work in the fields during the rainy season and return to his textile factory after that.

Maybe it is for this reason that a city like Bombay, during the years it was also emerging as the economic powerhouse of western India, absorbed a wide variety of migrant – itinerant communities, allowing them to flow through its streets and by-lanes. Some of them were officially marked out as nomads who were practicing their trades and occupations moving in and out of the city –  just as they moved from village to village practicing their trade. The earliest ethnographic account of Mumbai – written by Govind Narayan in the mid-19th century, dedicates a significant portion to the city’s itinerant communities.

Of course, as the decades passed by, the city’s attitude changed.  As urban identities became stronger – the authorities tended to become suspicious of such communities in particular.

Colonial acts in the Bombay presidency, targeted nomadic groups, classifying them as criminal tribes – after having destroyed their pathways, or installing strong road-blocks on their traditional routes. They often tried to integrate them into the political  system by settling them down, sometimes in the metropolis, sometimes in smaller towns or on the peripheries of villages. A clash of cultures produced narratives of criminality, much in the way the Romas (or gypsies) of Europe) became victims of the political re-configuration and hardening of boundaries on that sub-continent in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These attitudes spilled over into the political discourse of civic administration. The city’s workforce – most of them disorganized – were seen much in the same way as the nomadic tribes. Their criminality was associated with their habitats – which reflected their fluid status – not quite rural or urban – existing on the fault-lines of various newly constituted legalities. The seasonal nature of the workforce – with workers leaving during the monsoon season, became entangled in notions of indiscipline. Yet – the city carried on and even today, much of its work-force is constantly part of movements and mobility patterns that connects them to points of origin that are far away – often in villages. Today the footprint goes all the way to Bihar and Orissa.

Families and communities also reproduced their traditional habitats within the folds of the city’s boundaries to create a very diverse weave of urban forms – some of which were markedly ‘rural’. This happened at different moments in the city’s history. When the port area was the dominant economic activity, educated middle classes from the East Indian community arrived from the peripheries and set up homes outside the port precinct. At that time, the village template worked well. Today the same habitats, like Mahtar Pakhadi and Khotachiwadi, have become anachronistic spaces, only making sense as the city’s heritage narrative.

The same process also happened with working class groups from the mill areas – but along a different timeline. Initially, they were all part of the urban working class neighbourhoods, typified by the chawls (barrack like single room homes with common toilets). Then with the decline of mills – especially from the 1980s onwards, the same families moved up north, to places like Bhandup and reverted to homes that evoked their villages in Ratnagiri, even calling the neighbourhoods Konkan Nagar, after the coastal region that connects Mumbai to Ratnagiri.

Inside a village in Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan

Inside a village in Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan

Going deeper in this process – we find thinkers like Anthony Leeds and James Scott – clearly pointing out the moments in which the hardening of the categories rural and urban emerged.

Leeds suggests that it appeared during the industrial revolution while Scott believes that it accompanies statecraft procedures that tried to settle down movements of communities over large terrains from much prior to that.

Either way, it revealed a process that became increasingly rigid as communities were labelled and classified as being rural, urban or nomadic as per the interests of state control.

In the context of India, colonial impulses moved in many contrary directions. Force settling of societies, the development of the railways, new agrarian and revenue systems, disciplining subaltern urban populations, criminalising nomadic groups due to their persistent propensity to be mobile created a messy template – the after effects of which can still be seen in their impact on the physical landscape of the city.

Mumbai continues to have urban villages within its fold and its many so-called slums share characteristics with villages from miles away. Moreover, many of its citizens cannot  be clearly marked out as having ‘urban’ characteristics. At the same time, the hinterland around Mumbai, even at considerable distance from the nucleus of the city itself, carries traces of a much larger political imagination. Goa is still legally controlled by the High Court of Bombay, and the University of Mumbai imposes its jurisdiction three hundred kilometers down the coast in Chiplun town.

Of course, today these processes are seen to be vestiges of a faded past. Most contemporary urban experiences have moved down a completely different path today, especially after the second world war. This moment, in many ways, became the starting point of urban practices that started to universalize and harden urban boundaries and definitions even more – collapsing it with new economic policies that saw the city as sites of consumption and financial management.

In fact cities like Bombay and Calcutta which still see imprints of an earlier era, especially in their uneven textures – Bombay more than Calcutta – have resigned themselves to being part of narrative that classifies them as backward in the context of a pure urban moment. The image of the slum fits neatly into such readings – becoming a short hand way of expressing impatience about what they are – neither really rural or urban in clear-cut ways….

Streetscape of a village, deep inside the Konkan region

Streetscape of a village, deep inside the Konkan region

(These notes are part of a series starting this week that explores the nature of circulating urban systems that characterize much of India – with a focus on Mumbai and the Konkan, as part of our study with the Forum for Mobile Lives, Paris. All photo credits: URBZ).