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.

The Sao Paulo Urban Revolution

March 20, 2012

One City, Many Forms

For a city as high on modern architecture as Sao Paulo, its newly found generosity of spirit towards its contrasting favela-studded landscape is a precious thing. The administration seems to be more accepting of the city’s diverse urban texture than ever before. It is now loosening policies to allow existing favelas to upgrade themselves and become well-integrated parts of the city. 

Sao Paulo has experimented with years of diverse approaches to ‘tackle’ these neighbourhoods. These have included encouraging migrants to go ‘back home’ or relocating them in social housing projects.

Today, of its officially estimated three million favela residents, the administration focuses on relocating only those who live in high risk zones. Local actors continue building and improving their houses, while the prefecture retrofits water systems and other civic infrastructure. 

Such a shift may be strategic, shrewd or contingent on electoral cycles. However, in a world with little patience for alternative forms of urban settlement – where everyone is in a hurry to redevelop according to the global standards of the day – such a reprieve is itself revolutionary. Especially when it is combined with the strengthening of local governance and emergent economic practices such as local currencies.

These moves signal a new found faith in the capability of the favelas to reinvent themselves into confident middle-class neighbourhoods. From once signifying a ‘slum’ the word seems to represent a new and assertive urban order that today dominates the globe, showing its civic potential in cities like Sao Paulo and Mumbai. One which – if allowed to – can absorb new infrastructure in a flexible manner, help open up rigid planning rules, energize architectural imagination, encourage healthy economic practices and eventually transform the neighboourhoods into prosperous areas with a high quality of life and a strong sense of identity.

The biggest hurdle Sao Paulo’s nascent ‘urban revolution’ could eventually face may be from an unexpected quarter. We may well discover that mainstream urban practitioners, builders and theorists provide the strongest resistance! After all, what can one make out of the unexpected landscapes? The emergent, messy aesthetic takes some time to enter into our realm of the normative. However, instead of opening up design and architectural theory, and adapting to the change, planners and architects may realize that their traditional moneymaking models of development are threatened by local construction practices. Their response could be about pure, competitive survival. They may insist on broadening the notion of ‘risky’ neighbourhoods to eventually become so wide that the favelas may eventually transform into morose, straight-jacketed social housing projects anyway!

However, this does not have to be so. Favelas have the means and need to engage many kinds of urban practitioners. Working together with local builders and residents on a multitude of smaller projects is likely to be more fulfilling to young architects than helping developers maximize their returns on large real estate projects. And it may well be more remunerative as well in the long run. Architects are most exposed to the booms and burst of a real estate industry, which is more than ever riding on roller coasting financial markets. On the face of it, the construction market in the favela, with its relative autonomy from the debt economy, its thrust for improvement and its openness to new ideas seems like an increasingly sensible field of practice for a new generation of urban practitioners.

Construction professionals living and working in favelas earn much more than one would assume. They are willing to share their resources with practitioners and suppliers able to add value to their work. The fact that most of them value quality over low cost is not as counter-intuitive as it seems, given their extreme reliance on good reputation and recommendation from previous clients. The close-knitted social fabric of the favela acts as an efficient insurance against malpractice. Bad masons quickly run out of business. Personal relationships and trust, lower transaction costs in the construction industry are alive in the favelas.

Because trust is won over the years, the best way for an architect coming from outside to start working in the favelas is to offer her services to local builders who already have a good client base. For this to happen, architects have to accept a reversal of their traditional hierarchical status, which places them above contractors. Instead of being a maestro in charge of the project and commanding a team of executioners, the architect has to learn how to be a contributor working alongside the masons and the client.  The reward may well be worth it. And the day the real estate bubble bursts in BRICS markets, this paradigm shift may well become a necessity for most practitioners. 

Whether we want it or not, the urban order of tomorrow will consists of many contrasting landscapes. Uniform high-rise cities are dangerous and unrealistic fantasies. Instead of trying to stretch and tear our imaginations to force urban landscapes to fit into such visions is it not better to use that same ability to visualize new kinds of cities?

It would be truly revolutionary to see technologically advanced, high-quality, Tokyo-style low-rise high-density urbanscapes merge with Sao Paolo’s modernist skyline. Why can’t it be as natural to walk into colorful streets throbbing with music, small retail shops and stores as it would be to drive through broad avenues and shopping malls? Instead of seeing this encounter as necessarily antagonistic or schizophrenic, it would work better to see it as the sign of the times. Ours may not become a planet of slums after all, as much as a repository of the most diverse habitats possible!

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

Urbane Villages, Wild City

March 13, 2012

1. Gaothans of Mumbai

Location of East-Indian villages in Mumbai: source:

There are 189 East Indian Villages in Mumbai with a total population of 1 million people. In a sense as many if not more people in Mumbai live in villages than in the state of Goa. In a strange twist of narratives, there are some official documents which presents Goa as a highly urbanized state, with as many people living in urbanized areas (large modern villages and towns) as there who live in its official 350 villages. We evoke both these stories simultaneously because they have the potential of supporting each other. In Mumbai, the East Indian Villages, like their Goan counterparts are very well organized at the community level and are battling with local politicians, builders and the vast urban jungle that has grown around them in what they perceive as a wild and uncontrolled way. However as anybody can see, Mumbai seems to be a hopeless case. And many would say that in Goa too it is a difficult battle.

2. Villages and diversity of habitats

The village story of Mumbai is the tip of a long standing argument we make about incremental growth of cities that takes along with it a great diversity of habitats that the city has produced including villages, chawls and low-cost affordable housing structures often called slums. Our engagement with these habitats, ranging from the heritage story of Khotachiwadi to the Koliwadas of Dharavi have made apparent the deep connections between the form of villages and the so-called informal settlements for which the former acts as a template. Mumbai never was a city of slums and skyscrapers but one in which a great variety of built forms accommodated people working at different layers of the its powerful economy. Old villages provided land for affordable housing on a large scale and their templates were reproduced in the thousands of habitats that emerged all over the city.

3. Slums, villages and urbanization

The overwhelming presence of these habitats, often referred to as ‘slums’ is connected to a confusion about urban forms and can be seen from the example when British authorities in the late 19th century referred to Khotachiwadi as a slum and today, this village is enshrined as a heritage hamlet. This example reveals the deep wedge in Mumbai’s history between its two distinct phases. One is the south-oriented story that starts with the development of the docks by the British in the seventeenth century. The other is an older, northern-bound story that starts with the Portuguese conquest and domination of the regions around Vasai village in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the influence of the British East India company company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Working class communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. These lands were mostly owned mostly by Catholic landlords. All through the early twentieth century, poorer migrant groups would pay rents to landlords to set up hamlets that became their homes. Interestingly, richer rural communities, mostly upper caste Catholics, who happened to be educated and got skilled jobs in the docks also reproduced similar hamlets – referred to as wadis.

4. Mumbai in Goa

These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. Today these habitats are living and dying simultaneously. Khotachiwadi is a cluster of about twenty-eight small cottages and bungalows built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the heart of the city. Today it is referred to as an urban heritage precinct mainly because of its distinct architectural flourishes linked to an Indo-Portuguese past. Right from the start, the homes represented a diverse set of architectural influences – Portuguese villas, Maharastrian coastal cottages, Goan homes and regular cottages and bungalows found in the region. In its hey-day – the early twentieth century – the village boasted of about eighty-eight such individually owned or leased homes. Today, it is surrounded by urban forms that literally look down upon the hamlet and see it no better than one more ‘slum’ in the neighbourhood.

The Khotachiwadi story is essentially a starting point for us to examine a whole range of locally built neighbourhoods all over Mumbai. An overwhelming 60 % of the population of the city lives in these spaces and has continued to mutate from the village like form, which was often from where they grew. These neighbourhoods keep the city’s economy going, subsidise costs of living for most of its workers, and once invested with civic amenities are perfectly desirable places. They have enhanced the value of urban land through intensive use and need to be protected from the predatory speculative impulse which has transformed the city at large into a real-estate roulette game. They combine, in true village fashion, spaces of working and living, and have made the tool-house a very contemporary, post-industrial component of urban living. By focusing on this form as a valid one, working closely with contractors who build them, by attempting to invest in the technology of building such spaces, we hope to develop an alternative discourse of urban living, especially for the so-called ‘sluym-dwellers’.

To do this we look towards Goa because this is one place in the world which has produced a unique template for habitats thanks mostly to its ability of validating the village as a modern form. It is because the village in Goa continues to be dynamic that the villages of Mumbai don’t appear to be anachronistic. By bringing together the stories of villages in Mumbai and Goa we feel that it is possible to focus once again on the ability of modern habitats to escape from a limited notion of what urban living has to be. We evoke Anthony Leeds understanding of the urban system, with villages and towns networked with each other to best epitomise Goa’s unique land use patterns – under threat of course. Goa’s urban system, as long as it continues to validate its villages, can be a viable alternative urban form to the large metropolitan thrust that otherwise we are moving towards and which only produce self-made problems around housing as we in Mumbai today.

All this brings us back to the not-so-accidental fact of the Portuguese connections between Mumbai and Goa. The observation that different colonial moments worked differently at different points and today can become resourceful tools  for the future is a thematic that returns to haunt us again and again. What was it about the Portuguese past that allowed village forms to live, become sick, die and regenerate themselves over different points of history? Is it a coincidence that the villages of Mumbai provide a strong counterpoint to the narratives of slums and are connected to its Portuguese past? Is it a coincidence that the favelas of Sao Paolo are also reinventing themselves today and demanding a more nuanced reading of their urban form? Or that the villages of Goa are fighting tooth and nail for their future in a more intense way than many other parts of the country? Can we learn something from the incremental growth of cities the way we understand them and also extrapolate on the use of history and the past in the same way? Not by blanket totalizing narratives of oppression and overthrow but of a more resourceful utilizing of those experiences in a way that builds from wherever someone left something behind?

The Future of the Unplanned City

December 1, 2011

Presentation at the Politecnico de Torino, December 1st, 2011

1.    Vulnerable Urban Age

Building in construction, Khar West, Mumbai. Photo by Priyanka @ urbz

We live in a vulnerable urban age – where many ambitions of the twentieth century seem to be coming apart. According to David Harvey, the connections between the financial crisis and urban “development” are very real. He connects it to the financial mismanagement of the real estate market, and also projects it on a larger story of urban politics. Today – bursting of real estate bubbles in Dubai, decaying infrastructure in the US, social unrest in London, are all part of the same story. We take as our starting point this vulnerability of the urban world that we accept as the normative.

2.    Post-Planning World

Add-on to Micro-Rayon Housing Projects, Moscow. Photo by Francisca Insulza, Merve Yucel and Evgeniya Nedosekina (Strelka).

One very important political goal that was expressed in urban civic terms in the twentieth century imagination was reducing inequality and providing a decent standard of living for as many sections of society as possible. Social housing projects in Europe and America were one manifestation of this social concern – but its highest point of achievement was in the Soviet Union. Today 70% of the population in the capital city of Moscow live in mass housing projects. However, In contemporary Moscow too we see how such projects have been overgrown by the post-planned city where structures and homes have been extended and personalized.

3.    The Natural City

House in Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo by anonymous KRVIA student.

The emerging economies of today – especially Brazil, India and Africa – are responding to the same impulses and imperatives as the post-planned city in Russia, US or Europe. The form that dominates much of the new urbanscape is what is often misrepresented as slums or the informal city. We refer to this as the natural city. The natural city is a urban cyborg, in a constant process of simultaneous decay and regeneration. It is neither pure nor perfect. Often polluted, corrupted and toxic itself, it is simply a manifestation of certain irrepressible processes of urban growth. It flourishes anywhere planning fails. This failure is itself an expression of the fact that the natural city was denied a legitimate expression. This dominant urban form that Mike Davis evokes as engulfing the planet in the 21st century is our point of inspiration and departure.

4.    Local Expression

Artamis. Former campus of the industrial services of the city of Geneva, it was squatted for many years and had become a nodal point of the city’s cultural life until occupants were evacuated. Photo by airoots.

We see it as energized by what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai refers to as the production of locality – a process that is determined by collective agency and will and which makes people participate wholly in the production of their environments. It is a process which is often negated or even actively repressed by the state, which in the twentieth century even in non-socialist countries, was epitomised by the desire for total urban planning and control. The frustrated impulse to produce locality manifests itself in all kinds of ways: urban counter-cultures in developed societies, underground markets, parallel economies and of course habitats that emerge in the shadow of the planned environments.

5.    Vernacular Absorption

The natural city absorbs all materials and ideologies, becoming a vernacular expression in every locality – feeding off the negentrophic tendency of systems that internally mitigate their imbalances and dysfunctionalities. Much like the hunter-gatherer societies that live outside the boundaries of controlled civilizations and create wealth and culture on their own terms, the natural city creates its own systems of transactions. It is at once deeply connected to the powerful state-level and global forces that try to control it, but also, to some extent, able to mitigate their local reach. Where they are forced to express themselves in large numbers as so-called informal settlements they are constantly threatened by the state-crafted ideology of planning which itself has actually lost steam in many parts of the world. An ideology that does not pay adequate attention to the special form of the natural city based on creative spatial arrangement of space, time, functions and relationships.

6.    City Users – City Makers

Construction site in Shivaji Nagar, Deonar, Mumbai. Photo by urbz team.

Out of the agents that energise and produce the natural city, the post industrial artisan, the local contractor and the hardware dealer, are key characters. The local contractor is at once businessman, community player and a possible political figure. He knows the nuts and bolts of his constantly forming environment like no one else. We see him as part of the larger story of urban based class struggle that David Harvey talks about. According to Harvey, the city is no more the site where the factory exists but is – in lieu of the factory – itself the agency of production and also the product itself. It consists of the alienated worker in the planned discourse and the relatively less alienated figure – a bit like a post-industrial artisan – the contractor, his team of workers and network of collaborators. (We are aware this is a huge departure of the narrative presented but feel that this trajectory of thought is worth following as well.)

7.    Freedom of Expression, Imagination and Action

March against the redevelopment of Shimokitazawa, an unplanned locality in the centre of Tokyo. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

Eventually the Natural City – as a universal expression with its vernacular- local ammunition is a creative moment. It is sad that in the world of urban futures the practice of making cities has not allowed – in fact has actively suppressed – the ability and desire of people to allow themselves a form that is economically and culturally liberating even though at present tends to be civically deprived in many manifestations.

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 Persistent Shadow of Faded Grandeur

October 2, 2011

Old Goa

Any engagement with Goa and Mumbai inevitably stumbles across its Portuguese history. In Goa its in your face and omniscient, in Mumbai its hidden and unexpected. Either way this past reinvents itself and sustains its influence in the places it once touched, embraced and dominated. In its persistence lies a tale that is worth hearing.

One of the most striking aspects of post-colonial societies that have had relations with Portugal, is that their habitats and architecture have continued to be an inspiring part of contemporary building practices. Not as monumental backdrops, but as practical models and templates of distinctive and desirable ways of living. A lot of this is reflected in the human scale of old villages and urban precincts, walking friendly neighbourhoods and the enmeshing of cultural and economic histories with building practices.


The family House of the Sardesai, a upper caste Hindu family, in the village of Savoi Verem, North Goa.

Historically, all of the following factors contributed to the dynamic presence of the colonial imprint in these spaces; the older time-period at which Portugal touched lives, mostly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the way in which traditional, European style building and architectural practices fused with local traditions and carried on being practiced and the contrasting templates of their habitats when compared to non-Portuguese neighbouring regions, which made them distinctive.

For example, in predominantly British colonial Mumbai, where Victorian architecture dominates imperial memory, the older Portuguese inflected neighbourhoods stand proud as counter-points, becoming the most treasured and desirable neighbourhoods in this hyper dense megalopolis. The trendiness of Bandra is directly connected to the East-Indian (old Portuguese converted local Christians) villages that miraculously survive modern day aggressive urban practices. Under threat, but bravely putting up a fight is Khotachiwadi, that Portuguese – Coastal – Konkan architectural fusion, comprising of several homes and bungalows belonging to the East-Indian community.

The East Indian village of Gorai, North Mumbai

These Portuguese inflected neighbourhoods open up a new vocabulary of evaluating contemporary urban practices, that built upon traditional European and local artisanal practices and allowed for a very innovative way of dealing with contemporary challenges. At best, when Mumbai’s villages evolved through a conscious understanding of this legacy, they produced beautiful, livable and modern neighbourhoods. When these practices were not recognized or validated, they became perceived as slums.

The dynamism of the favelas of Brazilian cities, the streets of Macau, the villages of Mumbai, the diffused urbanism of Goa, the cosmopolitan legacy of Maputo in Mozambique and parts of Angola, all of these together make for a story that has much to teach the world about architectural and urban practice today. A practice that is facing many challenges – from the pressure of dealing with rising populations, questions of sustainability, and financial manipulation and mismanagement of architectural practices.

Khotachiwadi, South Mumbai

The Institute of Urbanology, located in Aldona, Goa is engaged in exploring the relationship of this history to contemporary urban practice. If this story stimulates  your imagination, do get in touch…

Mandu, Mahua and Magic

August 29, 2011


At most times the urbanologist and the anthropologist are one and the same. For us walking the streets of old neighbourhoods in ancient or futuristic cities and the forgotten paths of history in far away places happen together. An assignment to Indore in central India, for the Aranya project saw us make a detour to mythic Mandu (Madhya Pradesh). Basically ruins of an old kingdom, the splendour of the place was accentuated by the lush monsoon greenery which gives the region that fantastic hue of green. It is deceptive, since it does not indicate the dryness it is also capable of declining into, just a few months later.

Mandu of course, on a weekend was overrun by tourists. This pushed us to look beyond and we had our customary airoots adventure that took us on a journey into the primeveal past of most cities. A journey through time that connects forests, collective memory and cities into one holistic moment. In four hours of driving time we could span habitats that nestled next to each other but lived in different centuries.

The Mahua Tree
The Mahua Tree

Mahua, that magical tree which epitomizes the core of the colonial-tribal encounter yielded the most delicious intoxicant we had ever tasted. A nutritious drink made from the flower of the Mahua tree – also known by that name – came to us in a leaf cup. The making of the drink was banned by the colonial authorities in the late 19th century because it made the independent minded Bhil communities  that lived in the region even less dependent on a monetary labour economy that the authorities were intent on pulling them into. They licensed the making of distilled liquor only so that the communities could be addicted to it and had to pay and thus work for cash. Devious.

The colonial legacy lives on. Mahua making is not banned, but it is trapped in a moralistic, anti-drinking rhetoric that is the very opposite of the spirit of the tribal communities that love it. So it goes a bit underground.

We are sometimes blamed for being idealists. We spoke to the Bhil girls and boys, shepharding goats on the hills, and told them that our belief that there is something valuable here is often called delusional. They laughed. They told us they are really quite happy to be here on the hills, as long as their connections to the forests are not tampered with. No one likes going to the city and being pulled into doing physical work for the construction industry, something they have to do for survival, especially during the summers.Their presence in the forests around is discouraged by the authorities on the grounds that they will denude them.

The forest policies in India remain anti-people and to our minds are at the heart of a faulty policy that creates forest-less cities and people-less forests.

Generous Hosts
Generous Hosts

Bhil Pride
Bhil Pride

This experience will definitely inform our next paper that we are working – on to be presented at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, in November 2011 about the connections between the jungle that is Dharavi and the jungle that is the Borivili forest sanctuary in the metropolitan limits of Mumbai.

Our collective ancestral homeOur collective ancestral home

Short-changing slums

July 6, 2011

This is a repartee to a post published by Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar in the Harvard Business Review blog who initiated the $300 house idea. Their post responded to our Op-Ed in the New York Times on May 31, 2011.

Dear Prof Govindarajan and Prof Sarkar,

We are deeply sympathetic to the efforts of designers, businessmen and academicians throughout the  world who feel concerned by the living conditions of the millions of people who live in substandard housing in India and elsewhere. We too believe that there is a lot creative thinking and co-creation can do to improve living conditions in many parts of the world, including richer countries.

As the ongoing financial crisis reminds us, we are all connected in hitherto inconceivable ways. When the real estate market plunges in New York and Dubai, it surges to the point of becoming surreal in Mumbai and Shanghai. When the demand for high-end housing gets saturated in upscale Mumbai, investment shifts to affordable housing and the pressure for redevelopment increases in neighbourhoods denominated as slums.

In other ways too, parts of the world that we thought belonged to radically different realities, seem astonishingly connected. Many neighbourhoods of Tokyo and Mumbai share a common history of incremental development. The homeless of Los Angeles may not be much better off than the shack dwellers of Kolkata. Notions of poverty have become more layered and intricate. It is necessary to challenge our preconceptions and look at the world we live in a fresh way –one that our earlier neat ‘development’ categories never allowed us. It is equally pressing to understand and engage with contexts that are often diverse, even within the same city, before attempting templates for common solutions.

Creative thinking is never as powerful and constructive as when it is based on first hand experience and interaction with the parties that it seeks to help. Knowledge of the context seems to be a weak spot of the $300 house project. India is not Haiti, Mumbai is not Raipur. The urge to solve the problem of 1 billion slum dwellers is just as misplaced as a proposition that would pretend to address the problems of 1 billion suburbanites.

We do not intend in any way to belittle your work and the great network of people who are advising the $300 house project. We are just trying to understand how it relates with the reality that we know. The so-called slums of Mumbai are a very diverse lot. Dharavi in Sion is different from Utkarsh Nagar in Bhandup, which is a far cry from Shivaji Nagar in Govandi. They all have different histories, economies and levels of development. One thing that they all do share, however, is that none of them have any house that costs less than $3000 to build.

While there are homeless people and people living in cardboard shacks in Mumbai, this is far from being the norm. It is probably just as marginal and widespread as it is in New York or Los Angeles. Most people who live in what the Indian government calls slums live in houses made of brick, stone, concrete and steel. What makes some of these neighbourhoods difficult to live in is the lack of civic amenities such as sewage or toilets, sometimes even water. What they do not lack is an ability to build or invest in their homes. Our question is whether this is the market you are targeting. If this isn’t, then what is the market you are really looking at? Even in small towns and villages people have better living standards.

Even if no poor needs the $300 house in India, a market may certainly be found in other parts of the world. Maybe that the $300 house makes sense in devastated parts of Haiti or Japan. Maybe there is even a market in the urban fringes of North American cities, where people have lost everything, including sometimes – and this is the most debilitating thing – the ability of helping themselves. In India, the market for housing is nowhere as dynamic and competitive as in so-called slums. There are networks of contractors, masons, artisans, carpenters and plumbers who are busy everyday making and improving homes. We all have much to learn from this market. This is why one must study it carefully before attempting to enter it.

We are no experts in business strategy, but it seems to us that market research should come before the conceptualization and design of a new product. This is not how you have built your model. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we can only assume that this is because you have taken slums for granted.

We are not averse to market solutions. If you had taken the time to browse through our websites or read some of our publications,  it would be evident we have faith in local markets engaged in construction. We believe that these should be recognized and infused with government support and better quality materials. The problem with most conventional market interventions is that they treat the poor exactly the way the socialist state often does – as passive consumers. A real market-based solution will understand the dynamism within the economy of poorer neighbourhoods and work with the actors there. We believe that the local construction industry in Dharavi or Shivaji Nagar and neighbourhoods throughout the country has proven to be the most efficient and quality-conscious provider of affordable housing.

Residents don’t need cheaper, lesser quality houses. The best thing to do would be to bring in new technologies, construction materials and design ideas to improve the houses people are already building for themselves. And in order to do this, the benchmark should be existing building practices and materials. Not some fantasy dollar figure.

That being said, we believe in the sincerity of your effort and find value in it. The fact that you have mobilized so many people and brought so much media attention to one of the most pressing issues of our times is commendable. We are also convinced that among the scores of design proposals generated in response to the $300 house challenge, some will break out of the box and have real impact. We only wish that you had made end-users and their contexts your starting point. This is the paradigm shift we are all yearning for.


For more on this theme see our study of a 2.5 lakh rupee house in Bhandup.

Neighbourhoods in Bubbledom

June 30, 2011

Chez Nous bungalow in Bandra West (Mumbai): A freshly repainted 1950 art-deco building. Three of the builder’s children live in the building with their children.

The biggest casualty of the new wave of urbanization in India is not architecture or design, even though these have suffered a lot from the rapid and mindless pace of construction in and around cities. The biggest casualty is quality. So many new residential and corporate high-rises in Mumbai have been built so poorly that they would not qualify as high-end in any other context but the hyper speculative bubble in which we find ourselves today. In Mumbai, we can’t speak of real estate anymore. What we are witnessing is “surreal estate.”

Mumbai has a good stock 100 to 60 years old art deco buildings. It is known as the second art-deco city in the world after Miami. Marine Drive is famous for its elegant raw of mid-rise buildings facing the sea. Bandra has many 2 to 4 story-high building from that period as well. Many of which where built by East Indian owners for their children. The art-deco period in Mumbai was part of a new wave of urban development in the first part of the nineteen century.

Many observers then lamented the fact that these new constructions had a terrible aesthetic compared to the buildings they came to replace. Today find these art-deco buildings attractive. But this is not only nostalgia for an older golden age. These buildings were well built and this is why they are still standing today. They have endured Mumbai extremely hot and humid weather and its salty air. Many of these buildings have thick walls and high ceilings. They can last another 200 years without any problem if they are well maintained. It is quality construction.

In parts of the city one can still see the original Portuguese-style bungalows, which art decos buildings often came to replace. They can be found in Bandra, Khotachiwadi and other East Indian enclaves. Those that have not been destroyed by their owners or predatory developers still look beautiful 150, sometimes 200 years, after being built. Quality and care.

A street in Khotachiwadi (Mumbai) with a Portuguese-style bungalow

Roseville Bungalow, St Sebastian Rd, Bandra West, Mumbai: Original style East-Indian bungalow. Probably up to 150 years old.

In contrast, some of the new upper-class high-rises you see in Lower Parel and the Northern suburbs will look like nothing in 10-20 years time. This is because their first function is not actually to provide a long lasting quality experience to their residents. Architecture, design and durability seem to be the last concerns of this generation of developers. These new buildings are first and foremost financial products. They need to be sold quickly to fellow speculators who will not live in them, but instead resell them in a couple of months or a couple of years to another speculator. All this speculation is done with borrowed money, which must quickly return to the lender. This lasts until the bubble bursts.

One sign of surreal-estate bubbledom is the tens of thousands of flats lying vacant in Mumbai, waiting to be bought and sold. Their most important quality is to be easy to sell and for this they must remain empty. What developers want to maximize is the exchange value of their properties. This is done by standardizing construction as much as possible. Everyone wants easy products. That’s why most new buildings in the city and suburbs are monofunctional and offer more or less same layout on every floor. Any variation makes their market value harder to assess. Standardization means that the value of the building can easily be calculated on the basis of square foot price in any given part of the city. Each flat can also be sold individually to smaller investors who often bet with their savings. This speculative pattern trickles down all the way to affordable housing, with blessings of the government, which even incentivizes it through the SRA scheme and other similar market happy initiatives. This has disastrous consequences for the city of an order of magnitude that is still hard to grasp. Heritage is getting lost, a great potential for the city is wasted and people who end up staying in these buildings see them degrading very quickly.

New constructions in Lower Parel, Mumbai

India is home to some of the oldest, deepest and most sophisticated forms of urbanity anywhere in the world. Old cities such as those of Kochin, Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi, Haridwar, Varanasi and a hundred more encapsulate a sense of urbanity and cosmopolitanism that we have everything to learn from. They are still the liveliest parts of towns after hundreds of years of existence. These are not valorized at all. They are either being redeveloped or decaying. While a few old families actually want to stay in their historical neighbourhoods, most middle-class people left the city for the suburb. And the suburb sprawls into nothingness. One could argue for instance that in Delhi, the Old Town is actually the city and that “New” Delhi is everything else -for the most part being an endlessly suburban sprawl, with enclaves of urbanity here and there.

New India seems to be about urbanization without a city. Did we loose the city somewhere in Old India? The beauty of places like Khotachiwadi in Mumbai and Khirkee Village in Delhi is that they know how to be urbane. They have deep roots, they are connected to the larger context, yet also appear to be slightly detached; not fully buying into the development craze they see around them, as if they had seen it all before.

A 200 years old house in Ahmedabad that has been restored with the help of the Alliance Française. The current owner, who is the third generation in his family to live in the house, welcomes overnight guests.

These neighbourhoods are their own universes. Like the Pols in Ahmedabad, they are self-contained and preserve a very strong sense of identity, without being exclusive or closed to the rest of the city. They stand in sharp contrast to the gated colonies that are the norm in middle-class suburbs. A closed gate marks the end of the city. It is the beginning of another logic, which is not that of the urbane trader or artisan. The gate belongs to the culture of the settler who wants to work the land exploiting it to the maximum. The settler seeks to profit directly from the land rather than from the social and commercial networks that crisscross it.

New Delhi is full of gates, which it seems to have inherited from its farming past. It is not as much a city of villages as a city of fields. As soon as people can put a gate somewhere they do it. In Mumbai the most gated spaces are five star hotels, which by the way all try to look like airline lounges. When you enter their compounds you are really made to feel that you are leaving the city (if not the country).

View of Khirkee (Delhi) from the Masjid

There are no closed gates in Old Delhi, no gates in Khotachiwadi, no gates in Dharavi. The city is a place that anyone can enter freely. Khirkee Village has gates. But it must be by mimetism. Or maybe that these gates are better understood the other way around. They are encircling this enclave of urbanity, leaving it outside New Delhi’s totalizing suburban spread.

When you enter Khotachiwadi you feel safe even though there are no gates. In fact you feel safer because there are no gates. People are walking in the street. Neighbours are talking to each other, sometimes shouting at each other. But when something goes wrong they know how to come together. Our friend James who is a life-long resident of Khotachiwadi leaves the doors of his 150+ years old bungalow open all day. People come in and out all the time. He has sparrow nests in each corners of his house.

Waking up in Dharavi somewhere in a house on a small street –and almost every street is narrow and pedestrian- it is not unusual to hear a birdsong or a rooster cocking. It is only when one looks outside the window that one realizes this is not the countryside, but the heart of the city.

dharaviA back street in Dharavi

The best neighbourhoods we can think of have all in one way or the other preserved village-like qualities. A beautiful neighbourhood is a neighbourhood that has roots and people to keep them alive. Khotachiwadi was once a plantation and the shore used to come to its doorsteps. Somehow this past is still alive there. Sometimes the link with the origins is not as old, direct or as spatial. In Dharavi people have often brought the village along with them, preserving old community ties, along with an ability to use spaces to fulfill many different functions, and a high degree of local autonomy. Most people in Dharavi go back to their village at least once a year. Khirkee Village proudly preserves its identity and a sense of its origins. The beauty of these neighbourhoods is not architectural –although some places like Khotachiwadi have outstanding self-standing houses– it is rather the way people are invested and involved in their habitats. The way they have shaped them over time, and the way the neighbourhood is experienced as a moment, which continues the historical journey of the people who inhabit it.

This is why Guy Debord says that when we destroy such neighbourhoods, we don’t only destroy people’s social networks and livelihood, but also their collective history and sense of identity. The point is not at all that places like Khotachiwadi, Dharavi or Khirkee village should be turned into Archeological Survey of India sites and barricaded, with a ticket booth at the entrance. It is in fact, exactly the contrary. In order to exist and survive, neighbouhoods must continue their journey through time and keep on evolving continuously. It is the dynamic interaction between people and the space they inhabit that must be preserved at all cost.

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