People are Places – Mobile Mumbai and the Konkan Coast

June 24, 2015

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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