Mumbai’s Boom and Bust

July 12, 2013

Rehab housing in Govandi, Mumbai.

Op-Ed published in the New York Times on Friday July 12, 2013.

A recent wave of building collapses has brought attention to this city’s large number of poorly built structures. It feels as if every week brings fresh reports of a new disaster. The death toll is expected to rise with the monsoons.

News media and political attention have mostly focused on the vast stock of old buildings from the pre-independence period and immediately after. Yet old age wasn’t the cause of the collapse of a building in Thane, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, that killed around 74 people in April. That building was still under construction. (And, like a majority of buildings in Thane, the construction was illegal — neither authorized nor overseen by any official agency.) Old age cannot explain the caving in of a 34-year-old building that killed at least 10 people near here last month either, nor the collapse of a building, about a decade old, that killed at least six people and injured more than two dozen last week.

Intangible factors, like faulty urban policies and unchecked real-estate speculation, bear the prime responsibility.

Most of the recent casualties have taken place in the far periphery of Mumbai, where one finds a sprawling landscape of hastily built residential blocks meant to absorb white-collar middle-class Mumbaikars who struggle to find anything even remotely affordable in the city. Many of them commute for hours daily in trains so packed that people routinely fall out — collateral damage of the speculative euphoria.

A bombastic real estate sector has simultaneously pushed up the price and heights of buildings, accelerated the speed of construction and lowered the quality of new structures in and around Mumbai. Many properties are conceived primarily as assets, to be bought and sold to investors. Owners often prefer empty flats because they can be traded more easily. This partly explains why, according to a government census in 2011, nearly half a million houses and flats are vacant in one of the most crowded metropolitan areas on earth.

Officially, the promotion of a vertical skyline has been justified on the grounds that high-rise structures are the only possible response to Mumbai’s huge population and land shortage. Dozens of skyscrapers, 300 feet high or higher, are under construction in Mumbai. Investors are planning to build, at around 2,300 feet, the world’s second tallest structure.

But the argument for verticalization has long been rejected by architects and city planners. Every vertical push also requires a horizontal spread — new high-rise inhabitants need access roads, open space and other services. Besides, the higher you build, the more expensive the construction and maintenance. High-rise structures are also outside the budget of India’s low-income groups, which explains why, in the last decade, south Mumbai has seen both more high-rise buildings and a declining population.

Following the same faulty logic, the authorities are promoting the transformation of slums, which can be found in all parts of the city and where over 60 percent of the population is said to be living. Since the 1990s, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority has offered to let investors raze slums and redevelop the land, so long as they devote part of the site to new housing for the displaced residents.

Inevitably, that housing is squeezed into high-rises, in order to leave as much land open for development as possible. These structures are often shoddily built disasters. Maintenance is expensive, and rust, leaking roofs and cracked walls are common after only a few years. In addition, the buildings are not amenable to the kind of home-based economic activities and street retailing that characterized the old neighborhoods. Eventually, many sell and move out to a slum.

What the government calls “slums” have infinitely more potential to become functional neighborhoods than the hurried development that replaces them. They are habitats where extreme population density is made bearable by pedestrian streets that come alive during bazaars and community festivals, and where children can play under the watchful eye of socializing neighbors.

The problems faced by these neighborhoods, like inadequate water and sewage systems, are serious, but they do not justify wholesale redevelopment. Updating the infrastructure of dense urban environments is not rocket science. It was done successfully in Tokyo and parts of Mumbai in the 1980s, and is being done in many South American cities today.

Moreover, we found that the quality of construction is often much better in these neighborhoods than in other parts of the city. In most cases, local masons build the houses. To get contracts, they rely on their good reputation among their neighbors. This is unlike large developers, who are usually nowhere to be found after a building is sold, let alone if it collapses.

As civic authorities try to stop these tragic building collapses, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the vernacular neighborhoods that they now see only as raw material for redevelopment. And big developers could learn from the work ethic and craftsmanship of local builders. The city will not solve its overcrowding problems by promoting buildings that could become lethal liabilities in the near future.

The Dweller and the Slum-dweller

April 27, 2012


Unstable Foundations of Ownership, Tenancy and Housing in Mumbai.

Position Paper by Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove for “the 21st Century Indian City Conference: Working Towards Being Slum Free?” at University of California, Berkeley – April 27th-28th, 2012.

I – Introduction: An Actor-Centric Approach to Slum Legislation



Few cities are as confusing as Mumbai when it comes to land titles and occupancy rights. An array of legislations, policy ordinance, acts and notifications, customary laws, special programmes and schemes collide with local practices, populist politics and public opinion to create a mangrove-like pattern of ownerships in the city. At once deeply rooted and floating on murky grounds, occupancy rights seem to be, at the end of the day, determined by politics rather than the rule of law.

This is epitomized in the relationship of the state with the so-called ‘slum-dweller’ in Mumbai. One characterized by uncertain emotions – alternatively full of abuse and patronising benevolence. This is most evident in the spate of legal moves made during the 1970s, when the category slum emerged as a genuine threat to the dominant dwellers in the city, entering their visual sphere on an unprecedented scale. The 80s and 90s continued to see nervous ups and downs in moods and responses, with evictions and concessions representing a tug-of-war that has never transcended the state’s ambiguous attitude. The triangularity that developed in the twenty first century, with the entry of the real estate developer, has only complicated the fragile equation.

This paper on “slum legislation” draws on four years of work in various parts of Mumbai and replaces what is essentially an experiential and participant account into a larger historical context. We relook at the equations between the ‘dweller’ (supposedly legitimate urban citizen), the ‘slum-dweller’ (its illegitimate counterpart), the players involved in construction and housing, including local contractors, NGOs, real estate developers and of course the state, in both, its abstract and most concrete, local, manifestations. In the process it explores the unsteady legal foundations on which the whole drama is played out between the concerned actors.

The exposé of different projects that we have been involved with provides an overview of some of the challenges faced by populations, which are settled on land denominated as a slum by the government, the media and the public. This paper discusses the ambiguous status of Goathans (villages) in Mumbai, often amalgamated with poorer, younger neighbouring habitats that have grown around them over the years; the struggle of certain Municipal Chawls to assert their autonomy vis-à-vis the institutions that gave them birth; the importance and unpredictability of social networks upon which local builders rely so much, especially in BMC controlled environments; and the confidence that strong populist political parties can give to a neighbourhood ‘in formation’.

II. Koliwada, Dharavi: The Slum-Village Amalgamation

Photos made by Subhash Mukerjee’s team during the Urban Typhoon workshop in Dharavi-Koliwada in March 2008.

Our work in Mumbai started in 2008 with a series of very particular encounters. Within Dharavi, we were invited by the secretary of the Koli Residents Association in a debate about government designs on the redevelopment of their neighbourhood. Activist groups in Dharavi informed us that the Koli community is a difficult one to work with, mainly because its members are fiercely independent. Moreover, they don’t represent the poorest of the poor in Dharavi.

For us, their active involvement and desire to be part of the discursive space on Dharavi was the main reason we wanted to work with them, even though we respectfully disagreed with some of the members’ approaches and perspectives to their urban future. Secondly, Dharavi is heterogeneous in terms of class and ethnicity, we did not see upward social mobility and aspiration for middle-class status as disqualifying factors, as long as the space for involvement did not exclude anyone on those grounds.

The association with the Koli community that started with the Urban Typhoon workshop continues till date. Koliwada has become a conceptual category that is difficult to dismiss when we talk about Mumbai’s urban issues. The main reason for this is the special place that the community has in the city’s history, contemporary politics and landscape.


The Urban Typhoon Workshop in Dharavi, Koliwada – March 2008. For more info about the workshop visit this page.


Samples of the output produced during the Urban Typhoon workshop. The full output is available as a pdf format here.

The Kolis are essentially the erstwhile fishing communities of Mumbai, living in gaothans or urban villages, that are a legal entity with distinct rules of land use and development rights. In the city’s political space they claim to be the original residents, even though their distinctive voice is diluted by the larger right-wing rhetoric, which often contradicts their affinities. In class terms they occupy a broad spectrum of identities, from the poor to the middle class to the rich, even though their habitats are often perceived to be on the edge of being a slum.

The Urban Typhoon workshop, which took place over a week in March 2008, brought together residents, students, architects, urbanists, artists and activists to brainstorm on the cultural identity and urban future of Dharavi Koliwada. The agenda of the Koli Jaamat which invited us to organize this event was very clear. They wanted to show the government that they had their own plans for redevelopment and didn’t want to be included in the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) initiated by Mumbai’s Slum Redevelopment Authority. Challenging the mainstream notion that Koliwada is part of “Asia’s largest slum” was thus of strategic importance to the Kolis. The visuals and narratives that emerged from the workshop presented Koliwada and Dharavi in a new light, and may have contributed in a small way in the Kolis successful bid to be excluded from the DRP.

It is our contention that such ambiguities and complexities have spilled over into other histories of marginality in the city. The overwhelming official number of slums – over 60% by recent accounts – in fact share the most diverse forms of socio-economic and ethnic labels possible, including the nature of built-forms as well. They have grown alongside the many different forms of citizenship that the city afforded its diverse citizens. Often designated ‘slum dwellers’ share these with the Koli community, mainly because of the location of Koliwadas. Almost all these neighbouroods are on the edge of slums or are mistaken to be slums. By focusing on the Koliwadas and their ambiguous location on the slum-village continuum, we would like to throw open the possibility of looking at officially designated ‘slums’ as sharing a similar ambiguity of identity and seeing where such an exploration takes us.

II. Vishal Cooperative Housing Society, Dharavi:
Human Right to Self-Develop?

Photo collage showing Vishal CHS, Dharavi with projection of Columbia/JJ students for its development.

The Vishal Cooperative Housing Society (CHS) is a municipal chawl located very close to the Hanuman Mandir on Dharavi Main Road. It was built prior to independence by the then Bombay Municipal Corporation. Its residents point out how they are legitimate citizens and not ‘slum-dwellers’ since the chawls were created by the municipality and continue to pay rent to the corporation. It is only because of their physical location in Dharavi that they face an identity crisis.

The representatives of the chawl invited us to help create new designs for their homes. This was a strategy to help them in their legal battle with the government in which they were arguing that the right to self-develop was a ‘human right’. The chawl residents were claiming a) their chawl was not a slum, since they paid a rent to the corporation. b) Therefore, it could not be included in the DRP that had been envisaged at that time as a major comprehensive juggernaut of a transformation strategy for the whole of Dharavi, in which every eligible resident would be given a small flat. c) The residents of the chawl had a right to develop the structures on their own terms since they were technically co-owners, given the tenancy laws of the city.

Unfortunately, the government was not granting them this right, usually given to all municipal chawls in the city, because the entire area was under a special programme, the DRP, which was de facto depriving all residents of Dharavi of the rights they would have enjoyed if they were living in any other part of the city.

The lawyer and resident, Mr. Trivedi (name changed) who was our main collaborator was fighting this in the form of a public interest litigation in a ‘Human rights’ court, asserting the right to self-develop as an inalienable ‘human right’. We organized a studio in which students from Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) worked with Sir J.J. College of Architecture students on development strategies for the housing society. Mr. Trivedi used them in court.

Students presenting their studies and plans to members of the society.

Unfortunately he lost the case. Though there is a legal provision for chawl residents to form a cooperative society and use the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme to propose their own redevelopment project, it didn’t apply in this case since Dharavi was under a special government programme at that time (and still is), i.e. the DRP. The Human Rights Court recognized the right to self-develop but declared that since that right had not been violated yet no case could be made. Thus the Omkar CHS was left to wait for a possible DRP that has not yet materialized and may never happen.

During our own conversations we had also understood the fragile foundations on which he was fighting the case, unfortunately in the wrong court and using a rhetoric that was more political than legal. His and the entire society’s tenancy was not under threat in the DRP – they would each get a 300 square feet flat, smaller than what they already owned.

Even though the corporation itself had built these structures, they would have to make way for the redevelopment plan as if they were a slum. Their own tenancy could not be compared with other tenants in the city which came under the old rent act for the simple reason that those tenants were not residing in an area that was considered as ‘slum’. Thus there was no distinction to specific histories, typologies and capacities.

This entire discussion provided us with an opportunity to understand how distinctions of any kind are useless when the word ‘slum’ enters the discourse, how strongly it is connected to very specific objectives of urban planning and that certain actors stand very little chance when they express an independent opinion.

Since then Mr Trivedi has rebuilt his house, doubling its size. This was not a legal move, but he used his political muscle as a prominent BJP member to obtain the necessary approval (or indifference) of the BMC.

III. Shivaji Nagar, Deonar:
Political-Social Networks –Status: ‘It’s Complicated’

Contractor Neeraj Agarwal (name changed) on the phone

Construction of Agarwal’s house in process over 45 days

Office destroyed by BMC a few weeks after completion of the work.

This neighbourhood occupies a peripheral part of Mumbai, between two marginal spaces – the abattoir and the largest dumping ground in the city. It is a resettlement colony set up in the 1980s to house evicted slum dwellers from other neighbourhoods in Mumbai.

A walk through Rafique Nagar and Shivaji Nagar gives a good overview of the process of incremental improvement that the entire settlement has been going through for decades. The further one goes from the dumping ground, the more consolidated (pucca) the neighbourhood looks. For its most part, its streets are lined with shops and services. There are many religious establishments and schools of various denominations in the neighbourhood. It has most of the facilities that many Mumbai localities have and almost all of it provided by residents themselves in conjunction with local elected members of the corporation and legislative assembly. Theoretically the residents have to pay a rent of Rs. 50 a month to the local municipal office to validate their status as tenants. In reality the municipality has not systematically collected this rent for years, as many original tenants have moved out and sold their houses to newcomers.

In Shivaji Nagar like in many other ‘homegrown’ neighbourhoods denominated as slums by the authorities, the BMC is successfully tapping into the proverbial ‘fortune at the base of the pyramid’ in other ways than collecting small rents from occupants. According to local contractors, a 40% informal tax is imposed on any new construction in the neighbourhood. Most of these are to do with the 14 feet height restriction that is imposed on the entire neighbourhood. As families grow, the residents want to build more rooms. However, since legal permissions to extend the height cannot be granted, the municipality has designed an elaborate way in which they can collect bribes. They informally encourage the construction to take place. They send in officials to ‘check’ and demolish whatever has been built. The contractor and the official agree to sign the documents showing that the procedure of construction and destruction has taken place and then the contractor is allowed to ‘complete’ his job, with the official turning a blind eye to the process. The last touch on a new house is to make it look old and shabby (superficially) so it doesn’t attract the attention of other BMC officials and independent whistleblowers.

Most of the neighbourhood is now more than 14 feet high – an open evidence of this complicity. Our main work in this neighbourhood is with one of the most successful young contractors Mr. Neeraj Agarwal (name changed) who explained the entire process to us in the course of our exchanges. He too is on the verge of filing a public-interest litigation and evoking the right to information act. His complaint: why do the officials allow legal violations in the first place, when eventually the resident and the contractor are humiliated even after all the payments and bribes are made? This frequently happens when an arbitrary move by a random official turns the equations completely around to destroy years of hard work. Elections are a particularly tense time for contractors and residents. An old enemy in a position of power can mean arbitrary destruction or bribe inflation.

Mr Agarwal, who substantially contributed to the Congress campaign in the last election, recently saw his brand new 10 lakh rupees destroyed shortly after the BJP-Shiv Sena Alliance won the elections. Politics is often the only protection that public figures such as him have against the arbitrariness of the bureaucracy. When these networks break down, the situation becomes even more complicated. Mr Agarwal is currently unable to continue building homes in Shivaji Nagar, in spite of the high number of residents that request his services.

Mr. Agarwal has a clear alternative proposal worked out in which he claims the government could officially collect more than Rs. 100 crore a month as rent from the residents and several times more as legal fees when allowing for valid permission to build up structures on a case by case basis. He cannot understand why the government is losing legal revenue and allowing petty officials to get away with huge amounts of bribes.

Mr. Agarwal started off as a labourer and today heads N.T. Traders, a company that is involved in supplying materials and constructing homes and offices in Shivaji nagar. We have facilitated a tie-up between him and a global cement and concrete producer and also provide architectural designs for his construction projects with a tie-up with an Italian firm.

This story is a classic illumination of the unstable foundations of occupancy and tenancy that most of the city’s citizens are trapped in. The instability is not sought to be addressed by those affected through demand for legal ownership – since everyone knows the speculatively fuelled prices involved – but through working on the provisions of rental schemes and occupancy rights already granted by the state.

IV.   Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup: The Politics of Homeownership

Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup

Construction process of a 2.5 lakhs house in Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup. Click here for more about this house

Utkarsh Nagar is a neighbourhood in formation in the north-eastern suburb of Mumbai. Like many of the so-called ‘slums’ of Mumbai, it was developed incrementally by local residents and contractors over the past 40 to 50 years, with no help whatsoever from the government or professional architects and engineers.

Yet the skills and hands-on experience of the local contractors we met there can easily outmatch the technical knowledge of the best-trained professionals. In peak construction periods of the year, Ajay (name changed) builds up to five houses a month and he has been doing this job for the past 20 years. With him, we studied the construction process of a typical house of about 200 sq ft. on two floors. This house, which costs the owner Rs 2.5 lakhs (about US $5,600) is the most affordable house that he was working on at that time. It was built in 25 days over the debris of the previous house.

The whole locality reveals a security of tenancy that has come about by local political support from MNS and Shiv Sena, two parties that have invested more than any other on developing deep local roots in as many localities as possible. Water supply, electricity and paved roads exist in many parts of the neighbourhood. The quality of homes in many cases reveals the large amounts of expenditure that individual homeowners have given to each structure. The skills of the local contractors, who often work in the same neighbourhood, have been honed and shaped over the years mainly because of the complicity with local political actors and members of the corporation. Interestingly, a large chunk of the neighbourhood comprises of people from the same coastal district of Maharashtra. In some ways they have bought in strong community ties that permeate the local political as well as bureaucratic structures. These provide them with local support that is almost the opposite of what we see in Shivaj Nagar.

Of course, the city around, lined by high-rises, offices and malls, has already reached the doorsteps of the neigbourhood. In this case, builders and developers, more than anyone else are expected to approach the residents of the locality and eventually transform the neighbourhood using the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme provided by the state. However, what is evident for the moment is a version of what legitimate support of the state can do to the quality of life of millions of residents of the city if it chooses to – by providing occupancy rights and streamlining the processes of urban development – without looking at settlements as ‘slums’ or the dwellers as ‘slum dwellers’.

V. The Slippery Road to Affordable Housing.

Our own engagements with these neighbourhoods have been caught in a mesh of arguments in which housing, slums and urban planning have been injected with the neutralizing rhetoric of ‘affordable housing’.

For the most, affordable housing has been seen as the result of state interventions responding to the needs of the urban poor. More recently, non-state actors (both profit driven and charitable) have entered the market for the provision of affordable housing.  The government is now actively encouraging market driven interventions that cross-subsidize the construction of affordable housing stock.

The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme in Mumbai is an example of this approach where land is released from erstwhile occupied lands in officially designated ‘slums’ through relocating residents in vertical structures, while providing valuable “transferable building rights” to developers. In other cities developers are directly purchasing cheap land wherever possible and targeting new buyers from the lower middle-class sector who were so far unable to afford housing at market rates. There housing is made affordable by lowering construction costs, minimizing the footprint of individual units and scaling up the size of housing projects.

Yet, expectations are still far from being met, both in terms of quantity and quality of affordable housing. According to some projections India still needs 27 million more units, while managing to produce hardly 1 million in the past 10 years. This need is likely to grow to 35 million units by 2025. Even more dramatic is the poor quality of stock being produced today.

The logic that consists in making housing affordable by reducing the cost of construction has lead to all kinds of malpractices. After a few years in existence, affordable housing blocks typically start crumbling down, leading to rising maintenance cost and lowering real estate value. Very soon they look and function worse than those they were meant to replace, and ready to be redeveloped themselves.

Between 1997 and 2002, the government and the builders built 500 000 houses in urban India, when in the same time, people built 8.5 million units in so-called “slums”.

The position we take with regard to affordable housing is this: allow, support, assist incrementally developing neighbourhoods to grow without trapping them in the stunted category of slums. Such a position is of course immediately confounded by arguments about ownership of land.

What we are in the process of doing is to reveal how many kinds of supposedly more stable habitats are also dependent on special grants by the state or through more complex legal provisions. These have been seen in terms of ‘ownership’ of mills, port areas, traditional rights – like that of the gaothans – or through straightforward, undetected land scams thanks to the complicity of bureaucracies and other state agencies.

Along with these we would like to argue that some arms of the state, have actually played a positive role by evoking complex legal arrangements that facilitated the occupancy by populations in need of space. By doing this they have, together – the state actors as well as the residents – contributed hugely to the development of the neighbourhood and the city. The residents often want to assert their right to occupy and continue to develop which is very different from what actually happens. When, through ‘slum redevelopment schemes’ official plans bestow ownership rights, these inevitably enter into the cycle of speculation with people buying and selling these rights since the economy of real estate pushes for it. At the end of the day, poorly serviced habitats emerge everywhere, another ‘slum’ pops up on another periphery.

We would like to use this opportunity to discuss the legal frameworks within which our arguments about the neighbourhoods are articulated. As those dialoguing for better and more inclusive urban planning practices, we see the diverse kinds of localities that are pushed under the category ‘slums’ as actually playing a valuable role in addressing issues of urban development. We continue are engagement with them in the fields of architecture, design and urban planning and see few viable alternatives to their immense potential for creating dynamic urban spaces. How can we complement our engagement with a strong argument that takes into account issues of legal arrangements is what we seek to learn from this discussion.

Homegrown Homes

March 14, 2012

Construction site in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi. Photos Prianka Chharia.

Every home tells a story – its making and its use, the way its dwellers have shaped it over time, the moments they lived inside, what it used to be, what it may become.

When inhabitants describe their homes, it is their own story they are telling. As if they are enmeshed in the spaces they inhabit. Over time, users fill their homes with memories and fantasies, which become invisible furniture harder to move than the heaviest of shelves.

A rented flat in the Raphaels’ house, where the URBZ office is located. Photo by Miriam Bonino.

In that sense, a house is more than a physical structure –it is an assemblage of people, affects, materials and activities. The ‘form’ that this assemblage assumes is dependent on the availability of material, physical constraints, social aspirations, rules and regulations, economic opportunities, aesthetic sensibilities and so on. The way these elements relate to each other produces the drama of neighbourhoods and the stuff of cities.

At the convergence of many elements, the house is a dynamic and possibly unstable construction; a mashup of disparate impulses and imperatives that pull it together, and sometimes apart.

In some of the neighbourhoods where we work, houses are so responsive to the life and activities that inhabit them that they seem to keep morphing before our eyes. They fluently take on new functions, get extended and consolidated. Sometimes they are destroyed and rebuilt on the same footprint in only a few weeks.

Take for instance, the house from where we write these lines. It was originally built in the early eighties by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation along with dozens of others. Each building began as a simple arrangement of corrugated metal sheets. They acted as transitory shelters for displaced slum dwellers. The first residents soon left, replaced by fresh migrants.

The Raphaels in front of their home in Dharavi’s New Transit Camp. Photo by Brooks Reynolds.

The Raphaels arrived 25 years ago from the southern state of Kerala. They used the house to run different types of businesses. In turn it became a tobacco stand, general store, gift shop, ice cream bar, Chinese takeaway and a mobile phone shop. About fifteen years since their arrival, the structure transformed into a brick and cement house with a little toilet attached. Three years on, it sprouted two more floors. The space now includes three businesses, four families, a few seasonal workers, an embroidery workshop and our office – a little rectangular room with whitewashed walls and windows that stares into a low-rise roof-leaden landscape of corrugated cement sheets, blue plastic sheets and tiles.

The surrounding brick and cement forest is made of tens of thousands of such stories. Together they form the untold urban history of Mumbai, a saga of neighbourhoods ‘in-formation’, building, working, selling, making, shopping, resting, sleeping all over the city.

Above: Roof of Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup, Mumbai Northern suburb. Below: A street of Utkarsh Nagar where Konkan lifestyle was reproduced. What may look like a slum from above is a village inside.

While the official mind still frames them as slums, in reality, most of these neighbourhoods aren’t slummy at all and none is ‘informal’ in any sense of the term. Many of them have historically developed from villages, nearly 200 of which are officially recognized by the city today. These villages are part of an earlier moment, when fishing and paddy cultivation were part of the landscape of Mumbai’s northern regions.

Since they pre-dated colonial notions of urban planning and functional zoning, these habitats easily absorbed newcomers and activities. Plots of land were converted into settlements like it continues to happen in many rapidly expanding cities around the world. The blurry edges of the metropolis seamlessly merged from rural to urban, making these categories irrelevant and inadequate.

Tokyo, where strict definitions of villages and cities were not imposed onto land use, is another city that managed to retain its ability of combining high-density dwellings with agricultural plots in metropolitan areas. The same tendency to accept diverse uses has produced its remarkable urban fabric, shaped by low-rise, high-density neighbourhoods in which local businesses rub shoulders with small homes.

In Mumbai likewise, the malleability of the village seems to have survived in many of the city’s neighbourhoods. They stand outside the ideological spaces of urban planning and design. Yet, they cannot be termed informal. They are socially very organized and deeply enmeshed in the city’s economy in spite of being under tremendous political and legal scrutiny. Local culture and religion play an important role in shaping them. Sacred sites often determine their spatial organization, a pattern recurrent in habitats ranging from Indian villages to Japanese neighbourhoods. The stability conferred by such strong cultural anchors allows habitats to be constantly reinvented, without losing their local imprint.

The creative upgrading and reconstruction of houses has sometimes been compared to the transmission of myths. Myths are retellings colored by new personalities and with added features making them perpetually relevant to changing contexts. This plasticity of form and its impermanence is what allows for creative architectural practices as well as powerful myths to live on.

If houses resemble myths, one of the most potent storytellers of contemporary urban India is the contractor. A dynamic figure, he is the embodiment of the rags to riches tale that permeates his world. He has lived and worked on small construction sites – his technical training ground – often from a very young age.

Construction worker on a roof in Dharavi. Photo by Francesco Galli.

Working where he grew up, he knows every street and corner, the travails of every inhabitant and the flexibility and restrictions of each rule and regulation that entrap him. He works closely with upwardly mobile households telling them of the latest techniques and how these can be factored into their small but determined savings. His business model relies on good reputation and strong local networks. He is friends and enemies with local municipal officers with whom the emerging landscape has to constantly play games of legality with.

The contractor represents a rich possibility of transformation, using existing vocabularies of construction. To start a dialogue with him with regard to technology, design and aesthetics is a sure way to enrich the language of the city’s architecture.

Mumbai’s built forms are distinctive. Its colonial structures originated as weird mashups of European and Mughal fantasies, its villages were enmeshed in urban growth and its neighbourhoods were physical reproductions of small towns, with quaint vernacular flourishes.

All through the process, the figure of the contractor played a vital role. In non-government, community lead construction projects, it was the contractor who dominated. The difference between then and now is that earlier the question of design involved in building processes was infused by cultural confidence.

It is difficult to recreate that spontaneity in today’s unplanned neighbourhoods when they are trapped in an official rhetoric of ‘slums’ or are only seen as wasted real estate. Yet, it is well worth stimulating creativity there. It is only when a new story is told, which understands the particular language, respects its main players and engages with its political economy, that neighbourhoods ‘in-formation’ can grow into their full potential.

A street in Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup.

Sharing our own fantasies with contractors is one way we build trust and open up collaborations. Strange stories are exchanged, sometimes bordering on sci-fi; of the great megalopolises of Tokyo and Mumbai, mysteriously merging into one another, tales of cyborgic structures, where the house becomes a technological extension of the artisanal tools of trade. We also get mutually stimulated by exotic notions of design and aesthetics and feel the potential for new mashups to emerge with complete disregard of any purist architectural style.

The more such stories are shared, the quicker will perspectives change and more effective the transformation of such neighbourhoods. The coming together of worlds that have been for too long separated by their own economic and social Berlin Wall is long overdue. Vulnerable First World economies and Third World resiliency are increasingly discovering each other, offering new opportunities for urban practitioners on both sides.

As urbanologists, we get inspired by the places we live and work in and find ways of engaging with them. Our practice involves entering into the life of the neighborhood, becoming one of the characters, getting involved in the ongoing drama, moulding and being moulded by the unfolding events, mixing, merging and mashing up the different strands that emerge with every moment.

Editorial Published in DOMUS 955 (Italian Edition), Feb 2012

Mumbai Contra-CT

November 28, 2011

Presentation at the Municipality of Milano, on November 28th, 2011

1.    URBZ: user-generated cities

URBZ is a global network of urban practitioners interested in user-generated cities around the world. These are urban spaces produced or controlled by residents and inhabitants. The URBZ studio is in Dharavi, Mumbai and acts as a space for urban practitioners to work and learn from the context. It also provides services to the residents of Dharavi and other neighbourhoods in Mumbai and India. These services include consultation, research, design and architectural inputs.

2.    City Makers

The City-makers, or the users, inhabitants of these urban spaces are a critical presence in all that URBZ does. They are people who energize the local economies and built-environments of these neighbourhoods – as producers and providers of goods and services, retailers and vendors, innovators and designers.

3.    The Contractor

Among this vast and dense networks of city-makers, the contractor has become a very special partner to us. The contractor is a person who takes on construction assignments for local residents – usually of his own neighbourhood. He connects with material providers, labour, local financers and other actors in the production of a structure that works closely with the needs of each client. Here is a video clip of Amar, whom we met in Bhandup.

This is a video rendering of the process of building a typical structure, usually on a 10 by 10 feet foot-print.

4. Neighbourhoods…

These new, improved structures are unfolding all over the neighbourhood and play a crucial role in the incremental improvement and transformation of the neighbourhood. The neighbourhoods have evolved over a period of time and continue to evolve. Their typology and ability to absorb a range of different economic backgrounds, along with providing community and local support to people at different stages of economic status has contributed tremendously in creating a practical, financially sound affordable housing template for cities such as Mumbai.

5. … in-formation

The contractor is constantly looking for ways to introduce new material and technologies so as to make competitive structures and get more clients. In this process we came across Pankaj Gupta, a dynamic contractor from Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, who was keen on using high-quality ready mix concrete. URBZ facilitated a connection with a high-end provider from the city and helped forge a strong partnership between two very unlikely collaborators.

6. Affordable Housing

This equation is slowly becoming part of a larger conversation between high-end material providers, architects and urban planners and contractors and clients from Mumbai’s user-generated cities. Our practice focus on the exchange between architects and other professionals and city-makers in various neighbourhood. Francesco, our intern from Milan, is presently working directly on physically constructing houses with a contractor from Dharavi. Such collaborations have become the basis of our new learning programs in architecture schools as well.

This poster announces a four month long pedagogic program to be done in partnership with the JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai in partnership with Lafarge and URBZ. Students will work closely with contractors, clients from local neighbourhoods in Mumbai as well as technical consultants from around the world and evolve ways of working together.

7. Tool-House

In this initiative, the question of urban typology becomes a very crucial factor in discussions with policy makers and other actors in the city. This is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome because it becomes a point of contention with developers and builders who work on a more high-end scale of the building market. We focus on the tool-house – the basic structure that shapes the landscape of the user-generated city and show how it is an economic, social and housing asset. In all consultations and conversations described above we look at the tool-house as the basic architectural concept that is integral to local initiatives.

The tool-house is at one and the same time integral to the production of the urban typology and the unit of production of goods and commodities. It helps in making the landscape dense and productive at the same time, by economising the spatial arrangements of the city. In Mumbai, more than half of the population of the city lives in such neighbourhoods but occupies less than 20% of the land and contributes hugely to the economy of the city. This is not a fixed statistic. As the economy improves and grows, this typology changes and absorbs newer forms and shapes. The Tool-house is at the heart of the user-generated city and brings in people, actors and resources together.

The Illustrated Street

May 2, 2011

The practice of photojournalism and image making has changed everywhere. Whether it is on websites of mainstream newspapers or on amateur blogs all around the world, images are increasingly taken by sources close to the scene of action. It is about being right here, right now, and having a sharp enough reflex to snap the image at the right time.

The story is more complicated than simply the amateur journalist taking over the job of the professional. What is happening is that the amateur becomes an expert when she talks about what’s near her, what she is familiar with.  This abundance of information from an infinite number of sources doesn’t mean the end of professional journalism at all. Instead it implies a reinvention of the journalist as a selector/editor of the texts and images that she receives. The journalist still has to be at the right time and the right place but this doesn’t necessarily mean the time and place where the action is unfolding. The place to be is at the receiving and transmitting end of deep networks of actors and readers.

Journalism was already global before the advent of decentralized media. It had become an industry that successfully mobilized people in different parts of the world, and through communication technology such as the telegram, the phone or the fax, connected them to control rooms where the information was being processed and then broadcast. The field of journalism was already broad. What new technologies have brought is a new depth. This depth is not an analytical depth (which may well have been reduced by the speed of diffusion of information), but a depth in the story, since the object of the story can also become a storyteller. We can get the insider story. The end-receiver of information is increasingly intimate with the reality reported in the news. The reader can now interact with the actors from the stories she is reading and even become part of the story, by asking a specific question or offer unique insights.

It follows that there is no simple opposition between the so-called “democratization” of the media and the role of the specialist. The amateur is a specialist of her own reality. We recently started a workshop series on the theme of ‘water’ at the Dharavi Shelter. The kids have quickly become familiar with the use of the digital camera. For this project, we are asking them to look at water in their neighbourhood. They shoot pictures and describe what they have photographed in their own words. Then they document the way water is being used at home, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward. This material is then shared with water system specialists who ask questions back to the kids. We are only facilitating this communication. In a way we are acting as journalists, getting information from here and transmitting it there, and then the other way around. Our role is not simply that of a mediator however – we are also actors. And a lot of this involves connecting people to each other. The art of connecting is just as creative as any other, be it writing or photography. This connection, going both ways, empowers the children  significantly.  They will be able to speak with authority about something near them and will get to know it better than anyone else.

It seems to us that good photojournalists have always looked at photojournalism as much more than a profession. It is a form of engagement with the context, with the subject. The most moving and insightful work in that field, has always been one which constructs its own story and doesn’t try to elude the presence and subjectivity of the photographer. Carrying a camera automatically changes the response of the people around you. Playing with that effect is what makes great photography. What we love the most about previous the photos taken by the kids at the Shelter is that they could never have been taken by anyone else. People on the photos would simply have responded differently if they had been snapped by unknown adults. Maybe some would have smiled or felt intimidated in front of a photographer. In front of their friends or family people are more spontaneous and natural. Some of the best shots taken by the kids are the ones that let us sense the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person being photographed.

The images that emerge have a distinctive aesthetic and politics. They emerge from the knowledge embedded in familiarity, the taken for granted, the mundane but eventually emerge to have a sacredness of their own. What facilitates this process is the collective energy that is unleashed by the use of digital technology. The plasticity of which is an individual nightmare for the professional photographer surrounded by amateur images and image-makers, but which becomes a powerful tool when it allows for users to come together and enter into an exercise that becomes a shared and collective practice. The process of making images together, of exploring familiar contexts as a collective, of sharing with an immediacy that this technology facilitates like none other, makes the entire exercise in photojournalism enter into a different realm – one that needs to be appreciated for its aesthetics as well.

Historian, philosopher, writer, Umberto Eco points out how new knowledge technologies that use the digital image are connected to a world at least as old as European medievalism in which the word and the image have always been integral to the political imagination. He looks at contemporary society and all its technological paraphernalia as one more episode in this epic story. He insists that digital technology is potentially liberating and – more importantly – irreversible. We need to find the right handles so that our relationship with knowledge continues to be genuinely challenging and satisfying.

Anthropologist Appadurai points out that the contemporary practitioner is part of a shifting, moving and fluid landscape. New technologies help us express these further and connect to the ‘scapes’ that make up our social imagination in more ways than one. This ‘social imagination’ continues to be rooted in a complex, ever-changing context, one that is inevitably local, because locality is always being produced. However, at the same time, it is acutely aware that national boundaries, like many others are being challenged by new constantly mutating technologies. For him, the globalized world is not the same as Marshall Mcluhan’s mediated global village. It is rather about the migration and movements of people from one part of the globe to another. It is about becoming aware that our lives and worlds are deeply interconnected. Most importantly, it is about the way in which media and new technologies help us come to terms with these connections, shifts and movements.

One story that encapsulates the entire experience of the photography workshops that we do at the Shelter, where images keep being produced and then tell their own stories, where the location is supreme, where time is tamed by sheer presence and immediacy, is told by Ray Bradbury in ‘The Illustrated Man’, first published in 1951. This is a collection of narratives about a dystopic future in which the media literally comes alive. The stories are embodied on a man and are alive with moving images, tattooed by some enchanted artist from a local fair. The man himself could be from any point from the past or future. The stories his body ‘reveals’ ultimately end with one that starts to reflect the life of the person presently ‘watching’ them. They are futuristic stories about a world where a giant screen absorbs human beings into its digital folds, and about human impulses emerging through the ruins of a nuclear devastated world and the intricacies of faith.

But what is striking is that that it places the storyteller at its centre, weaving images and worlds about the past, present and the future. It is ultimately about the triumph of her imagination that cuts through the varied contexts in which one finds her telling her story – always part of a collective universe of story tellers – performing around a fire, thundering in an auditorium, whispering through cyber-space, crackling through television or hitting back at the player in a video game. When the kids at the Dharavi Shelter take pictures of their own streets and homes, they also tattoo them with their imaginations, report it, narrate it and emboss it with their own lives.  The story that emerges has a life of its own.

The photos have been by children living near MG Road, New Transit Camp, Dharavi, during a workshop conducted at the Dharavi Shelter by photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang from Denmark and Himanshu S. Jan 23, 2011. The workshop participants are: Simon, Anand, Vishal, Neha, Reshma, Karishma, Muskan, Umesh, Gautam, Punam, Amar.

More photos here.

Click here to read an article on photojournalism by Neha Thirani that inspired this post (pdf document).

Mumbai’s overgrown habitats

February 2, 2010

The Portuguese left a few long lasting legacies in Mumbai. Forts are one of them. Along Mumbai’s Eastern and Western waterfronts one can rediscover them hidden in the surrounding habitat, whether it is mangroves, fishermen’s huts or Dharaviesque microworkshops.

Airoots follows Anuradha Mathur (co-author with Dilip Da Cunha of the much acclaimed book and exhibition SOAK) down the adventurous path in Sewri, Mahim and Worli.

Down the adventurous path: Anuradha Mathur in front of Rahul Srivastava

Abyssinian Mangroves. Unlike Red Mangroves their branches go straight up in the air and don’t become roots. Both photos are taken in the vicinity of the Sewri Fort.

What if the city acknowledged the incompressible dimensions of its existence and redefined itself around its fault-lines : rivers and tides, vegetation and wildlife, migration flows and vernacular habitats… These are the living forces shaping Mumbai day after day, yet they are all, in one way or the other, misunderstood and endangered.

Supereal Mahim Beach and its hidden villages.

Following a methodology based on sectional analysis of a territorial segment, Anuradha’s students observe the integration or the disappearance of one habitat into another. For instance, a river flowing into a creek and sustaining a mangrove forest, which is slowly reclaimed by garbage and turns into a solid ground upon which a settlement grows. This grounded approach serves to produce design interventions that acknowledge and potentially influence the forces in presence.

The Worli-Bandra Sealink viewed from Worli’s Koliwada (Fisher folks village)

When Enmeshed Worlds Remain Parallel

January 25, 2010


Right from Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra’s evocative title (Bombay; The Cities Within) , to the trite images of slums juxtaposed against high-rise buildings – Mumbai’s many personalities have been alternatively celebrated and chastised. The diversity of built-forms, the many different urban sensibilities (small town enclaves in South Mumbai, coastal villages in  the suburbs) and the contrasting economic and cultural lifestyles are still very pronounced experiences in Mumbai – making any first time visitor feel disconcerted beyond the normal lag of time, space and culture. It does take a special level of composure to walk from a street, crowded with makeshift homes with children playing around dizzily speeding cars or being accosted by a demanding beggar for your sandwich and then walking into a mega-mall lined by the latest branded items even if you do see the shocked face of the girl behind the counter marveling at your ability to buy goods worth her entire years salary. You don’t have to be a card-carrying socialist to know that these are- at the very minimum – moments demanding some element of erasure, forgetfulness and glossing over if you want to continue living with a semblance of normalcy. Visitors still wonder at how easy it is for such worlds to co-exist without erupting into easy violence. That’s when you realise that there are many ways in which people live around and through contradictions. Its not that you need Johannesburg style gated communities with electric walls to keep people apart. There are all kinds of gates – many a times invisible and even more effective. Older feudal structures in the mind are pretty strong, easily making a rebellious soul stop short of pushing the envelope. Combined by good old brute police force – this helps in creating a perfectly gate-less secure society. At least for the moment.

When we came across the theme of China Mievelle’s  wonderfully wierd fiction story ‘The City and The City’ (introduced to us by Carol Breckenridge) it lent itself easily to a comprehension of Mumbai’s extreme contrasts. In his novel two cities are enmeshed in each other, but citizens of one are conditioned to ignore the evidences (sometimes staring at them in their face) of the other. The office of the ‘Breach’ ensures that the urban worlds remain parallel (even though enmeshed intricately) and disconnected. When a body from one city is found in the other – the narrative starts to flow and the reader discovers the rules through which people can co-exist and remain disconnected.

For anyone in Mumbai who has rolled up a window in an air-conditioned car – in the face of a highly professionalized beggar economy, or walked over a sleeping homeless body, or appreciated the new arty graffiti on a wall once housing streams of homeless families, the novel touches a raw nerve. Reminds you, with the same moral force of your conscientious school teacher – that there is a world out there, which you see and need to respond to in a manner beyond glazed eyes. And yet that would be a ridiculously simple allegorical connection to make with the book. Thankfully our comparison is not moralistic nor intended to create victim – based hysteria. There always are deeper reasons behind the resignation to accept contrasts, particularly when they are so obvious.

But what Mievelle’s world conjures is the ability to see how deeply etched are the invisible worlds that exist around us in many scenarios. It is an ideologically divided Europe that is the inspiring context of his novel. It can work in several ways. Reminding us that there are schisms in several cities – energetically cosmopolitan New York, aggressively regenerating Moscow, ethnically complexed Paris, or migrant enriched London. Its possible for the office of the Breach to operate in all kinds of ways. Its possible for us to be oblivious of the obvious in more ways than simply not seeing the faultlines that are all too evident. Its about finding out where the faultlines actually are. And they may not at all be where you look for them.

Mumbai: A Port City?

January 15, 2010

Ferry Wharf, Or the Brother’s Push (Bhau-Cha-Dhakka), Mumbai

Some years ago, the idea of the Eastern Waterfront was thrown into the public realm by several planning and design centres to show that much more can be done to explore the city’s island status and its vast shoreline on both its sides. Right now, the Marine Drive, Priyadarshini Park, small stretches up to Bandra, Andheri and beyond legitimately demonstrate what the western waterfront has offer to the public of Mumbai.

On the east you have Colaba, Mazagaon, parts of Sewri and then the vast saltpans that are relatively open. Most of the eastern waterfront is controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust – an entity that officially handles a huge amount of cargo – most of which is consumed by the city itself. It offers employment to several thousand people with many more being dependent on it directly and indirectly.

According to the port authority representatives it is difficult to evaluate the eastern and western waterfronts’ contribution to the city only in terms of open spaces. The fact that it is an economic engine cannot be discounted. It points out that many spaces which are restricted to the public are done so by the defence authorities. In many cases it has opened up public gardens and provided access to people to visit historical structures even though large parts of the front is in poor condition in terms of infrastructural facilities.

However many of them feel that in the name of opening the waterfront to the city at large – the real estate lobby can simply take over pockets of the land and still keep the place inaccessible to the not so privileged public. Citing the case of the mill lands and the way the state government ultimately gave in to the building lobby they feel there is no guarantee the same may not happen here.

The opponents are not fully convinced. They feel a lot more can be done in terms of rationalizing the use of surplus land that the port authorities have control over, now that many lease terms are coming to an end. Many feel that there is no place for a port in a modern cities and give examples from all around the world. This is countered by the fact that the Mumbai port trust is actually in a state of expansion and a phase of economic growth. There are also newer streams of thinking in which city ports have adapted to their urban status and turn their location to an advantage.

All in all we have a situation in which the city seems to be very divided and in which debates tend to get heated and passionate. Personally we have witnessed several situations in which good intentions have been overridden by commercial interests and so one has to be doubly cautious of tall claims. At the same time to have an economically dynamic functioning port is vital for the economy of a city – especially if it can also develop a powerful relationship with the city by helping through transport issues and opening up parts of its waterfront for the public at large.

These issues are currently being explored by a joint Eastern Waterfront studio by the Urban Design Program and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, together with the JJ School of Architecture and the School of Habitat Studies at TISS. Mumbai’s historical relationship with the sea and its trading networks, the question of land availability, as well as environmental concerns about rising sea levels and mangrove preservation are likely to spark much more passionate debate and ideas in the years to come.

Prawn Nagar – Dharavi, Mumbai

December 30, 2009

Softer landing for District 9’s Prawns in Dharavi

If the aliens hadn’t found their way to District 9 in Johannesburg but turned a few latitudes east, across the Indian ocean, over a tiny sliver of land jutting out obscenely and defiantly off the v-shaped south-Asian sub-continent, their fate in cinematic history would have been something else.

Imagine the spaceship hanging over the hot and humid city of Mumbai, specifically over its most mythified neighbourhood – Dharavi.

Its enterprising residents would have absorbed the presence of the craft and its seafood resembling occupants with relative ease. The metallic tentacles of Dharavi’s legendary recycling industry, would have eventually penetrated the most sophisticated barriers and shields to slowly and steadily dismantle the alien structure for absorption into a million-dollar industry that does not allow even the most ordinary piece of scrap to go unsold. How could tons of exotic metal be left to hang in mid-air? Notwithstanding any degree of technological superiority…Bits and pieces of the metal would have found their way into spare body-parts of second-hand cars, ships, toys and assorted machinery. The unusable celestial leftovers may be left to hang in space with no one caring much for aesthetics. Instead somebody would start a little sight-seeing tour by making an improvised crane-bridge to take curious onlookers and tourists for a closer look.

And what of the aliens themselves?

They would have managed to build a tiny little habitat between the crevices of the impossibly dense habitat. Maybe on the toxic watery edge of the mangroves. Not having access to tinned cat-food in Dharavi, could well have found the fish in the sewage water a worthy substitute, considering that a few older residents still fish there even now. And they would have found something worthwhile to do for sure. Their presence would have inevitably fired several wild allegations.

Prawns are said to be hiding in the Mahim Creek near Dharavi

Economically they could make leather goods in Dharavi even more globally competitive with a dash of their own technology. Of course, this could mean a legal crackdown – since scientific tests about the safety quotient of alien substance aren’t possible. But Dharavi’s grey zone economy would take care of that and eventually the aliens would become integral to the neighbourhood’s oldest and most prosperous economic activity, getting swallowed into its several residential, community based enclaves, taking the disputed figure of eighty –eight nagars to eighty nine.

It would have been difficult for any curious journalist to actually discover Prawn-nagar as the boundaries between enclaves are not easy to discern. The only way she would know she’s arrived would be on seeing a bunch of young prawns playing cricket with local Dharavi boys. They would point her out to a set of structures around a small clearing where a few adults would be having a heated argument with neighbours over the right to build a shrine in memory of their lost home – in the form of a replica of their ship.
The shrine would be the only way to connect to their past. No chance of returning home now – given the remains of their emaciated, skeletal, once proud extra-terrestrial space vessel. The other reason nobody would want to return is because the cost of homes in Dharavi would have increased four-fold by now.

Typically, the temptation of making more money eternally overrides any possibility of return.

The journalist would most likely be reporting the possibility of a riot because a prawn-girl and a local – earthling boy had fallen in love and were nearly lynched by both communities, only to be contained by an elderly local activist trying to broker peace.

The prawns would soon be part of political demonstrations trying to save Dharavi and a politician would eventually have got them voting rights. Against the will of a local right-wing party which tried hard to fight their presence tooth and nail – equating the aliens with worse – those from the states of UP and Bihar.

Sooner or later though, a clever prawn leader would have won over the local right wing forces by declaring Marathi as their earth-tongue. He would then have proceeded to pledge support to their drive against the real aliens – the hapless migrants of U.P. and Bihar.

That would pretty much have been the story.

Look out for regular updates from Prawn-nagar, Dharavi, Mumbai on airoots…

Violence as Spectacle in 26/11 Attacks

December 5, 2009


Any spectacularly violent event lays down the rules for both, a collective response, as well as any attempt at analysis. The meta-structure for these rules typically includes polarization, taking sides, and extreme reactions. Violent acts (glorious, perverted, desperate, passionate, defensive or aggressive), separate, crystallize, draw lines and reinforce boundaries in the most effective way, and in the shortest time.

When a worldview or ideology starts to become fuzzy, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, nothing like an aggressive attack to harden boundaries once again, reinstate the centrifugal forces around which the group, mindset, perspective or belief coagulates, block leakages and enforce strict immigration rules at the gateways.

Drawing boundaries works both ways. At one level it creates divides and reinforces antagonism, and it also encourages loyalty, faith, or firm commitment to ideology. Eventually it has to contend with the level of Puritanism – or purity of intent – through which we negotiate the extremes or ideals dictating those choices. Even Gandhi’s brand of ahimsa – non-violence – complex as it was, worked as a mirror image, with clear boundaries and little scope for fuzziness. Consequently, its logic could not escape the all-pervasive totalitarianism that characterized his age and made it work in violent ways as well – through self-inflicted fasts, denial of physical needs and other bodily experiments (with “truth” or desire).

The function of political violence seems to be to make the immediate moment omnipotent, postpone reflection, and harden any threat of ideological or intellectual ambiguity. This inevitably results in recurrent, cyclical episodes (violence typically ‘spirals’) that use the most recent memory or event to justify the immediate act of retaliatory (its always retaliatory in the mind of the perpetuator) aggression and strict adherence to the official line. As George Bush put it in his address to the Congress right after the 9/11 attacks: “You are either with us or against us”[1].


Not surprisingly, analysis in recent times have taken unambiguous sides, becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the official line as they get closer to the source of aggression (Osama Bin Laden or George Bush) or are so sharp and critical from within that they generate simultaneous suspicions on both sides of the fence (the modernist location of radical Islam as brilliantly argued by Faisal Devji[2] for example). This is not a sign of weakness in the analyses as much as an indication about the nature of the subject in question – acts of extreme violence leave little breathing space in their aftermath. As a result, discussions revolve around simplistic assumptions. Which type and level of violence is most appropriate as a response? A conventional war or “surgical strikes”? Or the ethics of facial profiling v. the risk of being attacked from inside are all carefully weighed.

Statesmen ponder on how to respond to ambiguous political agents and potential “terrorists”, or evaluate how much security is enough or too much. It is often about channeling the thirst for revenge into as acceptable a route as possible, claiming that it is all about preventing the spread of violence. In reality it ultimately becomes about pushing the envelope, bending freedoms inwards till it reaches breaking point.

This essay analyzes our own disturbing fascination with the kind of violence displayed in the Mumbai attacks and the audacity displayed by the militants. In order to do so, we first locate the Mumbai attacks in the broader context of violence in youth culture (in television, movies, games, and music), and then explore how such concepts as audacity, magic and charisma can help us understand not only where our fascination comes from, but also open venues for radically different kinds of responses.

Our account of the event is based on our experience of the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. As many Mumbaikars we followed the events through television, while being just minutes away from the scenes of action.

The Attack – Facts and Fictions

We believe in the truism that the ability to respond to the political crisis rests as much at the level of analyses as anything else – and that the analyses itself depends on an understanding of the complex way we construct the event and the sorts of thinking it embodies. The biggest analytical challenge we faced as the event unfolded was a blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality. It was challenging since we wanted to resist driving a wedge between these two spaces to separate them.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks, like the 9/11 attacks seemed unreal, in fact impossible. The number of conspiracy theories that emerged after 9/11 testify to the fact that the official version is hard to believe. Similarly, how could a small group of militants, as well trained as they may have been, bring to a standstill a city that always kept functioning amidst all kinds of man-made and natural disasters? In fact, it seemed and still does seem implausible. We were forced to believe a story, which would otherwise have summarily been dismissed as being as unrealistic as a movie. This moment when something seemingly impossible actually happens -when reason is bluffed- has a magical quality to it. It is this magical quality that we are trying to get at.

As the attacks unfolded we were touched and confused by the emotional waves that overwhelmed the city –

‘ranging from incredulity, rage, cynicism, disbelief, shock and nervousness, to fear, sadness, numbness, hate, and the most disturbing of all, fascination. A morbid fascination for the ability of a handful of young guys to create mayhem in the city, shake Indian politics, and hypnotise the global media.

Surely, these were no ordinary kids. They were well trained, fully equipped and driven by vengeance. Thanks to GPS technology they could navigate an ancient sea route that connected two colonial cities partitioned by history. Thanks to their urbane appearance, they could sit down at Leopold café and enter the city’s best hotels without raising any suspicion.

They checked in at the Taj next to the general manager and transformed their quarters into a five-star control room. After brutally killing scores of tourists they cool-headedly recharged their AK-47 and rampaged the city. They killed Mumbai’s top cops and hijacked police cars, twice. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them…[3]


At that time we were shocked and fascinated by the audacity of the shooters. That sense of fascination, accompanied by horror, was disconcerting. The event perhaps brought to the surface a well-entrenched fascination for extreme violence, which we were not fully conscious of. As good children of television, we had been fed early on with the very same type of images that we were now seeing on our screens again. But this time it was disturbingly close and real. Periodically, the events would send shockwaves through the Girgaum lane where we were staying at the time. Some attackers were shot at in Chowpatty, barely five minutes away. There were rumors that others had escaped and were at large in the neighbourhood making concerned neighbors feverishly plead to down shutters and double lock all doors.

This back and forth between the screen and the street created some kind of feedback loop, which was relayed and magnified by phone calls and text messages. False rumors, often sparked and subsequently denounced by TV hosts at the edge of nervous breakdowns, were spreading alternative waves of panic and relief. Mumbai felt like an old steamship, which had hit an iceberg and was now sinking in an ocean of confusion.

That reality exceeds fiction is well known, but this latest attack on Mumbai, just as 9/11, was so spectacularly orchestrated and enacted, so dramatically successful that not even the most inspired scriptwriter could have conceived it. The cinematic references went beyond the literal televised image transmission that dramatized the event. The doomsday theme is classic Hollywood. The attacks on New York had been anticipated in dozens of movies, such as “Armageddon” where the Chrysler Building is flattened by meteorites, ”Deep Impact” where the Statue of Liberty is toppled, and ”Godzilla” who destroys the Brooklyn Bridge, to mention only the blockbusters. But no one came as close to reality as the Hip Hop band “The Coup” who’s album cover, released shortly before the 9/11 attacks, showed the Twin Towers being blown up. The album was of course immediately taken out of the stores after the attacks.

The sheer dramatic exaggeration of the Mumbai attacks, with episodes such as the hijacking of the commissioner’s jeep, or when the crowd gathered around the Taj to cheer up the troops hours before the fighting was over, arguably gave them a Bollywoodesque dimension. This was evident in the alternatively grinning, nervous, laughing and scared faces of the onlookers who walked a thin line between being an aggressive unruly mob and hapless victims. Their schizophrenic response stemmed from the typical uncertainty of finding oneself living a moment that has only been lived before in cinematic, mediated reality.

Extreme violence also has the unique ability to hit not just its most direct target but also bystanders, forcing them to take side. Thanks to the ubiquity of modern information technologies, virtually everyone was witness to the extreme violence of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Quite clearly, the real target of the attacks was the global audience.


The attacks were aimed at an audience hundreds of kilometers away; American families whose thanksgiving dinners were interrupted by the breaking news of the attack. Mumbai was at once a worthwhile target and a cheaper, less threatening option – an outsourced terror attack site – that became a studio relaying messages to the whole world – particularly America and Israel.

However, an equally important audience for the planners of the attack were the hundreds of thousands of youth, who could well get inspired to join in their ranks to become tragic “heroes” themselves.

The looping image of Ajmal Kasab, the 22 year old militant who was captured, was reminiscent of other sets of images. We could not help but morph that ubiquitous picture of him holding an AK-47 rifle at CST Station, with similar images of countless rampage scenes from movies like Scarface. How many t-shirts and posters have glorified the image of Al Pacino playing Tony Montana in Scarface, fearlessly meeting his death? And it is always the same image of him standing with his gun, killing enemies by the dozens, just like Kasab did at CST Station. Similarly, countless hip hop songs have created a mythology around Tony Montana, a fictional Cuban immigrant coming with nothing to Miami and becoming the king of the city one coke deal at a time. Again, reality beats fiction. How much more credible is this middle-aged tough-skinned Al Pacino posing as a ruthless killer compared to young Kasab, fresh from his village and disguised as a typical middle-class Mumbai teenager with his Versa t-shirt? Doesn’t it look like Kasab is merely imitating Tony Montana, when in fact he is the real killer?

Kasab and his comrades, wearing jeans and t-shirt, looking modern and brutal are prime material for teenage hero-worship. The horror that they unleashed transformed them into pure monstrosity and brought to life the most fantastic imagery otherwise only relegated to the world of the imagination, pushing the whole narrative into another realm. Their audacity was responsible for one of the most fantastic leap from fiction (the plot to rampage the city) to reality (it’s actualization), or inversely from reality (a peaceful and cosmopolitan city) to fiction (a city polarized on its political extremes and increasingly Islamophobic).


How confusing it was to see the villain terrorist playing the role of the sacrificial hero, who fights the system to death. Kasab’s image is a dark version of young Che Guevara, rebellious, strong and audacious beyond belief. More than anything what will have turned these boys into charismatic heroes for some, is the epic transgressions surrounding the events – national, religious and class based – which seemed to be designed to attract attention in the manner of an astounding story, wonderfully told. If only because it will be used over and again by extremist militants to penetrate the minds of global audiences and enroll new recruits, we need to understand this story from the point of view of Kasab, or any of the young men who will follow his steps. In their eyes’ Kasab symbolizes courage, fearlessness and strength. Heroic qualities that all of us have grown to value so much that they can even blur the dividing line between villains and heroes.

The fact is that fantasies of radical transgression, including bombing and killing have always been part of a certain subversive imagination, which is particularly appealing to the youth. Youth across cultures respond passionately to a certain fictionalized understanding of reality, whether it is constructed by Hollywood movies or by charismatic political or religious leaders. The possibility of breaking through and becoming the actual hero of the story becomes an once-in-a-lifetime do-or-die (do-and-die) choice that overwhelms the perpetrator of the violence.

One of the most popular video games of late is Grand Theft Auto (Vice City). The player can steal cars and drive them around Miami at full speed, bumping into other cars and running over pedestrians. He can and even get off the car, shoot at the police and steal their cars and tanks to cause total mayhem in the city. When that happens the army comes and tests you to withstand the fight as long as possible.

This is pretty much what Kasab and his gang did in real life, and also what at a lesser degree dozens of American kids have done in so many tragic school-shootings. Our concern is not whether the fictions mentioned above have influenced the killers. But rather how many people will be inspired by the perceived heroism of Kasab and his colleagues. And further how such acts of extreme violence resonate to become icons of youth culture. It is surely painful and difficult for anyone who has been directly affected by such violence to conceive it. But from a distance (geographical or historic) the events can easily be turned upon themselves and used as symbols of something else altogether.


Urban youth in Brazil casually use Bin Laden as a counter-cultural symbol, painting him on walls and invoking him in songs and slang. Shortly after the attacks even a computer virus named Bin Laden came out of Brazil. Closer home, the Nazi swastika (not the Hindu one) is regularly seen on t-shirts, and Hitler is revered as a great leader by some Hindu youth who do not actually consider themselves fanatics. This is of course shocking to Westerners who would not otherwise be disturbed by a teenager wearing a Mao Zetong pins.

Audacity, Magic and Charisma

charisma of violence

No matter what the ideological and religious quality of his indoctrination, the actual drama unleashed by Kasab and his gang, is, at one level, similar to the senseless school shootings in the US (and recently in Europe). It is after all, a certain kind of youthful energy that marks these horrific events. In our mind however, while the Mumbai attacks and school shooting are comparable in the form of violence they exult, they differ in important ways. The perpetrators of school-shootings never achieve “cult” status. There is hardly any heroism in their attacks since they only attack defenseless victims and generally kill themselves rather than die fighting. Moreover, the Mumbai attackers achieved a level of destruction that seems unimaginable and lasted for longer than anyone would have predicted. School-shootings are horrible but not implausible.

Psychological profiles of perpetrators of school shootings portray them as being often isolated, rejected by their peers and often victims of bullying. While there may be a subconscious political dimension in school-shootings (they always happen in a seemingly alienating middle-class suburban context), it is too vague to mobilize any kind of support. The Mumbai attackers however, will undoubtedly live on in the memory of many as revolutionary martyrs who died defending their political cause and/or religious mission.

However, the self-perception and drive of attackers in both cases may actually find its source in the same youthful passion, which can become the darkest expression of Horace’s Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – “seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow” – a complete abandonment in the moment that intoxicates, gives a high like nothing else and alters states of consciousness so much that the most unbelievable acts can emerge from there. As is becoming evident, it is our suggestion that youthful passion, actualizing the most audacious of ideas, can transform Kasabs into monsters or heroes.

The audacity of daring, coupled with the ability of achieving what seems impossible confers a charismatic aura to the author of the act. Here we mean charismatic in a Weberian sense: “…a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” [4] Kasab and his comrades, most of whom were barely out of teenagehood, accomplished something that no one could have imagined.


In the first hours of the attacks the feeling that prevailed was one of incredulity. We thought that the media were blowing up a story which was most probably a tragic fait divers of the sort that happens every week in a city of 14 million. We were even mocking our friends who went on automatic panic mode. However, as the event unfolded, the news turned more and more extraordinary and the doubt settled in. We started to simply believe what we were seeing on TV, hearing on the phone and on the street, in spite of the fact that it was inconceivable.

This moment, when one’s rationality is challenged and the mind flips into the realm of “belief”, has been described by Arjun Appadurai analyzing the reaction to Barack Obama’s election: “magic is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control.” [5] It was indeed an incredibly audacious move for a relatively unknown young senator to make his bid to the presidency to start with. This audacity carried him all the way to the breaking point at which his rise started to seriously threaten, and ultimately defeat the most formidable political organizations in the world: The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Republicans.

It is when grounded cynicism looses ground that “magic” happens. Everything shifted the moment it became clear that, contrary to the predictions of all serious political analysts, it could indeed be done. It is this magic moment that carried the Obama campaign all the way to a victory that ‘exceeded all expectations’.

The Mumbai attacks and 9/11 fit Arjun Appadurai’s definition of magic just as much as Barack Obama’s irresistible rise. The black magic of 9/11 hypnotized the world and instantaneously transformed Osama Bin Laden into a god-like figure and a horrendous monster. Even more perhaps than Barack Obama’s victorious campaign, the destruction of the Twin Towers by two hijacked planes defied understanding to the point that a large portion of the American population still refuses to believe the official version. The charisma gained by Bin Laden after allegedly master-planning the 9/11 will ensure a continuous influx of new recruits in the years to come.



Audacity works at various levels. One is that of imagination. Allowing oneself to think about the unthinkable, dream about the impossible, or fantasize about the forbidden is a first kind of audacity that so many people deny themselves. We have all experienced the charisma of people who allow themselves to breach these boundaries. We call them anarchists, “free thinkers”, artists, poets, gurus or mystics. They have a special status in our societies, being placed at the same time on the margins and on a pedestal. The other level is the audacity of action, which Kasab personifies. This appeals particularly to the youth, who as we attempted to show, identify with the passion and bravery of such daring.

Audacity of imagination – that leads to transformative moments – must urgently be reclaimed with the same passion and determination, but after injecting it with a totally different set of values. Suppressing ideas because they are too audacious and falling back into a cynical form of realism will only give more leverage to polarizing forces. A middle-ground politics repressing the expression of youthful passion and imagination leads to more of the kind of destructive responses that we have become accustomed to everywhere, from America to India. The only way to respond to the audacity of unimaginable violence that divides and polarizes, is not by controlling freedoms within, nor by building firewalls between groups but by imagining and acting upon even more audacious attempts at uniting, blurring and bridging divides.


[1] President George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.

[2] Landscapes of the Jihad: militancy, morality, modernity; Devji Faisal

Cornell University Press, 2005

[3] Rahul Srivastava & Matias Echanove, “Reclaiming Audacity”, The Hindu, December 7, 2008

[4] * Dr David Boje, Charisma lecture notes, Leadership & Society course at New Mexico State University College of Business Administration & Economics, Retrieved 28 July 2005. Via

[5] Arjun Appadurai, “The Magic Ballot”, in The Immanent Frame (blog), November 7th, 2008.

This paper was presented at the Global City seminar, organized by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, August 2009. All pictures were taken at the Peace Wall, Marine Line, Mumbai, December 2009.

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