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).

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