Is India Already Urbanized?

December 13, 2012

A playful provocation; some serious questions

All indicators of urbanization in India point to a future that looks pretty stagnant, if you use conventional barometers. According to the latest census data, we see a  low proportion of officially urban to rural areas – still under 30 %. The growth of metropolitan centers is also slowing down.

Interestingly, all this is countered by a significant increase in non-farm economic activities in traditionally agrarian regions. These include manufacture, processing of agrarian products, construction and other services. There is also an increasing investment being made by rural-urban migrants from cities, back to their villages of origin. Significant rural-rural migration also hints at dynamism in erstwhile agrarian regions which are providing income through both farm and non-farm activities.

A family may have members spread out across the country fanning out into a range of different economic activities with roots in the ancestral village still active, and one leg firmly entrenched in the city. Different economic sectors can thus contribute to the income, or at the least, provide some social security to one family.

The presence of a pan Indian railway network that is cheap and relatively efficient allows for seasonal commutes, long distance migration as well the ability to keep  ties with rural areas intact, all of which contribute to a sense of belonging that is not classically rural or urban.

The slowing down of growth of metropolitan centers in the country, the most populous of which had emerged mainly during colonial times, is accompanied by a boom in small towns. These growing urban centers are more intricately connected to their rural hinterlands than the great presidency cities were. Which by the way, also owed much of their economic growth to agrarian fuel, either poppy, cotton or jute. For longer than one imagines, large parts of rural India were agro-industrial ventures, linked to urban markets, and not sites for home-based, sustainable agricultural activities.

To divide the country sharply into rural and urban sectors has been critiqued as vehemently by social scientists, many of whom tried to capture this fuzziness with awkward concepts such as rurban, or by presenting rural urban experiences on a continuum. However these observations were rarely used by policy makers, who preferred at first, to subscribe to a Gandhian fantasy of a rural idyll as the site of real India and then, with equal, one-sided alacrity, became anxious about urbanizing the country through seeing more people live in cities as soon as possible. The fact that a people depleted rural India is unthinkable anytime in the near future, thanks to a 800 million strong presence does not seem to daunt such eager urbanists.  A fallacious comparison with totally different historical experiences from North America, a selective reading of European history and a pointless competitiveness with China allows this fantasy to have currency in spite of all indicators pointing elsewhere.

Historically, to classify agrarian practices as purely rural – as if this sector was not tied down to taxation policies or revenue needs of urban centers – is a fallacy. The growing of grains was directly connected to accumulation of centralized, storable wealth.  At the same time, to ignore that much of pre-industrial manufacture actually happened in villages is also subscribing to simplistic and rigid notions of what is rural or urban.

Even in contemporary times, social scientists are trying to sensitize census data collectors to interpret peoples self proclaimed professions in more nuanced ways. A farmer is not always just a farmer (if she ever was one) – but also someone who could be a taxi driver, a construction worker or an artisan and maybe even all of these. In fact the evolutionary framework that cast social growth into tribal, rural and urban-industrial has been one of the weakest theoretical constructs in terms of empirical substantiation, even though a hugely influential one. It tended to fix people into singular roles ignoring the intricate and complex economic systems that existed in the smallest of societies.  Even a hunter-gatherer did some horticulture, construction, fishing and artisanal work.

The development of a modern industrial, job oriented ethic reduced individuals to cash oriented capitalist wage earners even though urban environments provided as much variety and possibility to absorb multiple skills from a single worker or a group of workers. Modern urban work ideals were connected to certain promises linked to a special arrangement of labour, technology, resources and skills. This was based on imagining an endless supply of resources and continuous economic growth. In reality growth hardly happened in this way.  Workers were always relying on multiple sources of income, dealing with economic cycles, depression and uncertainty.

Progressive politics put all hopes into the promise of a stable job oriented economy and rarely looked at other forms of state-sponsored economic systems for individuals and families. Rural worlds were firmly seen as static and incapable of being integrated into a modern worldview. Insurance systems, social security, pensions were all tied down to the negotiations that workers had to make with private job providers or the state, in the city. Creative solutions that gave them more agency and control over resources, both traditional and new, was rarely the path chosen by pro-worker political actors.

Yet in countries like India, urban industrial workers always managed to create support systems that were wired to their villages of origin, no matter how economically and socially marginal their location there. Sometimes this may have been acts of desperation, but often it was also linked to a real desire to remain connected. For most of the country, the railway network acted as the biggest factor making this dual affiliation a reality. However, historian Raj Chandavarkar points out that  in the case of Mumbais famed textile industrial workers, (at one point of time, half of whom came from just one coastal district in Maharashtra, Ratnagiri,) the lack of railways was substituted by sea travel.  Workers commuted seasonally,  across 400 kilometers of coastal waters. The citys iconic mill workers relied a lot on agricultural income from back home to supplement their earnings in expensive Mumbai. Almost as much as they used their ethnic connections to their villages to assert their own urban identities in a cosmopolitan city. Industrial strikes became real bargains only because the workers could prolong their defiance, thanks to support from their village.

Indias supposedly most modern city,  Mumbai, grew around several fishing villages, which themselves spawned large settlements in which rural urban migrants settled into homes and started commercial activities which allowed for a complementary set of work that supplemented the dominant job-providing sector. The state, at one time shaped by welfare ideals, was forced to protect land use by poor migrants. Even if it did not do much else but grant temporary, negotiable rights of occupancy, this act allowed for migrant groups to develop systems of sustainability with very little resources. They too could not rely on stable job generating  abilities of the city beyond a point.

Today, instead of finding ways to improve these neighbourhoods, provide them with better infrastructure, support their emerging economic activities, the state agencies and the private sector have entered into battles over land and proprietorship in the most reductive of ways.

The expansion of a neo-liberal economic mindset encourages the specter of speculation to hang over every urban space in the country. It eventually develops into an ideology of the city that never gives any space to economically dynamic neighbourhoods which need little else but special protection from market forces as far as land occupation goes.. People are willing to pay rents to the government for occupying and using land for socio-economic development, but this is rarely acceptable to authorities. Instead urban policy itself  speculates over every square inch of land and is eager to generate more urban space to emerge in the city (and elsewhere) and make even more money out of speculation. Subsequently, a city like Mumbai ends up having 500,000 vacant flats in the city where prices remain sky-high, for very mediocre properties.

Contrast this with the generations of residents in the so-called informal city – commonly referred to as slums and whom we refer to as homegrown neighbourhoods. They increase and enhance the quality of life of their neighbourhoods through incremental investment in its built form, by raising capital from using space as intensively as possible. Many of these residents also invest back in their villages – in improving ancestral homes, or by starting new businesses there.

The latest census report points out to increased rural expenditure in the country thanks to urban migrants sending money home on a regular basis. These are often from the same homegrown neighbourhoods of cities like Mumbai, who are now being increasingly attacked  as speculative value of urban space becomes more unbearable and the city more unlivable for those with modest resources.

Thankfully the rate of population and economic growth of cities like Mumbai is declining. Instead, small towns are developing more dynamic growth patterns all over the country. What is important to note is that these small towns are more smoothly entrenched into their rural hinterland than large metros. People often commute from villages to cities on an everyday basis for jobs and education. Sometimes rich farmers buy second homes in towns. Families expand their affiliations across rural and urban areas with more ease thanks to better transport facilities. Well-connected and networked areas make it easier for people not to migrate, but instead, navigate distances more strategically for commercial and personal reasons.

In India, the administrative unit of the district in many parts operates like an urban system. With a network of towns and villages criss-crossing, using transport facilities that are private and public. To classify such spaces as exclusively urban or rural does not make sense.  Economic interactions are enmeshed and educational needs are cross-wired across massive distances, as well as in closer proximity.

If there is any need to persist in defining these areas as exclusively rural or urban – it is only because we are still stuck with a very limited notion of a city. One which remains informed by speculative practices and  visualizes cities as dense and consolidated spaces.

In reality the experience of urbanization is extremely unpredictable. Officially the state of Goa is India’s most urbanized state, even though a large proportion of its residents live in villages, (just under 50 %) . The remaining 50 odd % of urban Goa includes large villages and networks of  habitats of a great variety.  Thanks to a slightly different historical trajectory, Goa manages to have a landscape that is mixed use in terms of agrarian, mining, tourist and manufacture, has a large forested land cover and is also urbanized in a social sense.  Conversely – if you follow an ethnic history of Mumbai – the metropolis has more than 150 official urban villages that are part of the city s East Indian history (Maharashtrian Catholics connected to the city’s Portuguese past) in which more than half a million people still live. Thus more people live in villages in Mumbai than in Goa.

This play of statistics is only being evoked to open up our way of looking at Indias urban future in a more realistic way. On one hand we have the depressed figure of an under 30% urbanized economy. On the other hand you have the vision of a highly dynamic agrarian sector that is emerging as a manufacturing hub, and a service economy, with a relatively skilled and multi-talented workforce.

As a cautionary note we must acknowledge that rural India is also being exploited commercially by global agricultural practices and an aggressive mining sector. However it is they who will benefit from an evacuated rural landscape more than anyone else. This is what happened in many so called developed countries that looked at urbanization purely as dense consolidated urban centers and ignored the possibilities that rural lives could provide to a modern economy. Evacuated and empty rural areas made it easier to create hyper commercialized agro-industrial territories, depleted of human presence.

In India thankfully we are far from that picture. India still is heavily populated in its rural and tribal areas. However the nature of these  areas is changing.

Can this change be harnessed more creatively? If urbanization is such an important part of a modernizing economy can we not define urbanization a bit differently?

Can we say that India’s teeming populations are organized in urban systems that connect agricultural and other activities and spaces? That the future of this kind of an economy is as much connected to a peopled farm sector as it is of non-farm activities in both rural and urban areas? Just as formal and informal settlements and economies hide a more complex reality does Indias rural area also hide such a complexity? One that we are burying under a very simplistic dichotomy?

As Anthony Leeds suggests very provocatively, pre-industrial kingdoms were not urban centers ruling vast territories of rural villages. The villages were producing for a tax regime, for centralized urban centers and food was revenue and wealth in the form of taxes. Villages were part of urban systems. There is no such thing as the distinctively rural – as opposed to the urban -  in his world view. Kingdoms were urban systems. Just because people lived in villages did not mean their lives were not being governed by  urban power centers. For him it is urban systems all the way. But this argument cannot be used to justify a narrow world view of urbanization or a dense urban future for all. It actually calls for a more integrated understanding of economies and habitats.

Maybe if India – in an ironic twist of statistical reality calls itself 100 % urban – and defines itself as a network of urban systems, it will dignify its vast rural populations in a more creative way – it will be able to harness its natural resources more inclusively and also look at the future of urban India in a less anxious way – where the image of rural hordes attacking its urban frontiers will give way to a more generous relationship to space. Instead of visualizing the future of rural India either as gorged out mines, battlefields, or dystopic cash crop landscapes, it can be still seen as peopled with habitats, organized around healthy public transport systems, a combination of agrarian and other kinds of economic activities and greater local control over natural resources.  For those concerned that a peopled rural landscape cannot be environmentally friendly, one only has to look at states like Kerala, which for all  local cynicism, is a living example of rural-urban density and a mixed use, tree lined inhabited landscape – like Goa, another kind of an urban system. In contrast, all the commercially exploited landscapes of colonial rural British India (thanks to cotton, jute or opium and aggressive mining in tribal belts)  remain tied down to exaggerated rural-urban categories.

To look at India as a network of urban systems, having a wide variety of landscapes and uses of land, of deeper connections between natural resources and people who use them – would need an over haul of conceptual frameworks. It would mean a fresh look at administration, at infrastructure, at revenue generation and use of natural resources. It would mean a more creative way at looking at the countrys human capital and potential – and a firm break from an outdated way of looking at work and livelihoods. But it may still be economically and ecologically less expensive than going down an imagined one way route of hyper-urbanization on one hand and empty, depleted hinterlands on the other.

An Economic Zone Against All Odds

August 20, 2012

Agata Jaworska interviewed us for a special issue of the magazine Volume (Volume #32: Centers Adrift). Photos taken by Ishan Khosla. Here is the complete interview:


AJ: Dharavi is one of the rare situations in which a slum presents an opportunity. How did this unique situation come to be?

ME&RS: Actually, what is or is not a slum is not so clear-cut. The reality this word is supposed to describe shifts from context to context. In Mumbai, people living in areas identified as slums by the government or referred as such by the media, city builders, and politicians, often take great pains to point out that their neighborhoods are not slums at all. Sometimes they are old urban villages that had sublet pieces of land to poor migrants; their low-rise high-density form made urban authorities refer to them as slums. In other cases migrant communities were patronized by politicians who allowed them to settle on government land. The settlers were promised a place in the city in exchange for votes. They did not see themselves as encroachers or squatters since their move was sanctioned by official authorities. The history of these neighborhoods is often forgotten. Many of them have grown into busy zones of economic activity and livelihood. Their residents contribute to the city’s life in major ways. Their presence has turned Mumbai into the best-serviced city in India, perhaps in the world. They are an affordable workforce and need affordable housing.

Dharavi emerged along with other such settlements. It is not a city within a city, nor is it the exception that it is often portrayed as being. It grew around mangrove creeks on the outer edges of the colonial city. Its historical epicenter is Dharavee Koliwada, a four century-old tribal fishing village. Dharavi is particularly well-known since the city grew around it. Once at the periphery of the colonial city, it attracted leather workers and others who had no other place to go. It is now at the center of Greater Mumbai, strategically located along two major railway tracks, minutes away from one of India’s major corporate hubs, the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Dharavi has become famous for its activities that are plugged into the city’s trading, manufacturing, and service sectors.

We see this situation as one it actually shares with many other settlements. It is connected to its spatial organization that happens to combine work and living conditions characterized by the form we refer to as the ‘tool-house’. This allows for a whole lot of manufacturing, retailing, and trading activities to function from this mixed-use condition.

A combination of greed, prejudice, and ideological bias prevents the authorities from supporting the incremental, locally-driven development of Dharavi. The labeling of it as a ‘slum’ has the perverse effect of delegitimizing a neighborhood altogether and thus justifying the lack of provision of public services. This is because slum dwellers are perceived as squatters who have no rights to the city.  Thus, the label of ‘slum’ is itself the biggest obstacle in the improvement of the quality of life in Dharavi and other such settlements. This is why through actual and conceptual intervention we aim at normalizing a neighborhood that doesn’t have much to gain from being described as an exception. What we should recognize is that Dharavi is a natural urban formation, unique and banal at once. It is the tip of the iceberg. Dharavi is urban India at its best, because it is a testimony to the capacity of people to lift themselves up against all odds; and at its worst because it also has the messed up aspect of a creature that was beaten up, marginalized and oppressed by powerful forces over too many years.

The category ‘slum’ is considered to be the antonym of what is supposed to be the formal city. The formal city itself is a notion suspended somewhere in our collective imaginary. A fantasy that only the most developed East Asian and North European nations succeed in upholding in the urbanism of their cities. In Mumbai the formal city evokes high-rise blocks in segregated zones, connected by motorways, flyovers, sea links and (perhaps someday) monorails, and a neat division of functions between residential, recreational (i.e. shopping), and working quarters. This image is so twentieth century! Especially when we know that at the heart of what we consider to be the formal world’s economy is the web – that incredibly free and user-driven system – and global finance, which rides on deregulation, borderlessness, risk-taking, and cocaine.

In fact binary categories like the formal and the informal become rigid formulations that don’t do justice to the urban dynamics that exist in a city as diverse as Mumbai.

Dharavi and many other settlements like it are fully plugged into the economic dynamics of the city. Their mixed use spatial logic and cheap labor supply support the activity of large-scale corporate groups through manufacturing and retail or by providing services at cheap rates.

Seventy percent of the total workforce is said to belong to the ‘informal’ sector. And matching this figure is the overwhelming population that is supposedly living in ‘slums’ as well. If this is the dominant condition how can the economy and the settlements be referred to as informal, marginal, or peripheral?

AJ: Dharavi came to exist because of the lack of infrastructure ­– any area that was serviced would have been unsuitable, as affordability was the key determining factor. If Dharavi gets serviced, will it still exist? How would retrofitting infrastructure change its dynamics?

ME&RS: Actually a close observation of Dharavi’s history reveals an incremental growth of infrastructure over a long period of time. Schools, roads, and community toilets have been built over decades. Sometimes with state support, sometimes entirely by the state, sometimes privately and sometimes through community initiatives. Compared to other neighborhoods identified as slums, many parts of Dharavi are decently serviced, though the scope for improvement is tremendous. Municipal authorities often have to be bribed to fix a pipe. Electricity is legally provided by private companies, metered and paid for. The proportion of toilets per capita is low. Only those few who can afford to have them built, have them at home. Some just don’t have enough space or resources and have to use community toilets or the streets themselves. This state of affairs is something that is connected to civic clout and varies street by street, or neighborhood by neighborhood. If Dharavi gets improved services, it will still exist, and better than ever before, but only if such improvements are not clubbed with wholesale changes in the built-form of the neighborhood.

AJ: While governments are busy setting up special economic zones, Dharavi has self-established itself as one. Could this economic hub have come to exist with government involvement? How do you think the government can now plug in?

ME&RS: If the government had appreciated how the artisanal energy found in the communities here provided highly-skilled but cheap labor to the city, they would have connected these efficiently to the emerging industrial and service sector. Then the story of Mumbai would have been different. Right now the efficiency of Dharavi is connected to its spatial logic, the autonomy and independence that its small-scale economic units enjoy and the presence of community histories embedded in the neighborhood.

Dharavi residents refer to the area as a special economic zone in an ironic manner, often with sarcasm. After all, most special economic zones are pampered with facilities. The opposite is true of Dharavi.

For this one can attribute prejudice and ignorance, or a combination of the two as the main reasons. Privileged classes in India are used to a high level of subsidized labor and a cheap service economy, shaped by older modes of social stratification. To have entire neighborhoods living in poorly serviced conditions, where the service providers are badly paid is completely acceptable to them. Such neighborhoods can exist cheek by jowl with privileged ones. Since they often emerge on government land, or by paying cheap rent to small-time landlords, their presence is seen to be the result of charity or disrepute. When market forces start eyeing that land, for real-estate development, the ‘slum-dwellers’ are seen as encroachers and squatters, with their continued presence there being constantly under threat of demolition.

The state or municipal authorities, which had been complicit in the development of such neighborhoods in the first place, then start to work hand-in-glove with developers and try to clear them out. Neighborhoods with stronger political clout manage to survive these maneuvers to a certain degree. Dharavi, through its density, demographics, and political clout has managed to push forth its own agenda fairly successfully, but is under threat now by the weight of its inaccurate reputation as a ‘slum’.

AJ: Almost all companies in Mumbai have some sort of contact with Dharavi – whether through products or with waste. Can you tell us more about some of these connections with Mumbai, India, and the rest of the world? How does informal Dharavi interact with the formal world?

ME&RS: It would be best not to look at Mumbai as framed by formal and informal channels. But as a web of activities located in different neighbourhoods, each with their own advantages and strengths. There are people working for multi-national companies as secretaries, drivers, security guards in so-called formal spaces, but they themselves live in neighborhoods qualified as ‘informal’. In their homes, other family members are making small components that are then sent off to assembling units that produce taxed goods. Many shopping malls may have products, in their restaurants or in shops, made in settlements like Dharavi. Export of goods, especially leather and clothes, from Dharavi to countries around the world is fairly well-known. Within Dharavi, residents are provided with goods and services by local agents all the time. The neighborhood is a hub for exchange of goods and services from throughout the city. Its central location, connected to all three railway lines – western, central and harbor – as well as by bus-networks, makes it a very convenient transaction point. Recycling of waste is a major chunk of its economic activity and is networked all through the city through agents, collectors and suppliers. Material comes by hand carts, taxis, trucks, and trains. Local construction activities are another substantial economic activity. Dharavi is a market for cement, bricks, pipes, and other construction material, and is constantly building and rebuilding structures all over the neighborhood.   Dharavi interacts with the city, country, and world pretty much using all existing resources – mainly through agents, business networks, the city’s transport systems, and mobile and communication devices.

It would be interesting to turn this question on its head and ask how ‘formal’ middle-class residential buildings in Mumbai are connected to the city around them. A typical high-rise apartment block is serviced by dozens of unregistered workers on every floor: guards, cleaners, maids, cooks, nannies, drivers, and an army of deliverymen. Its residents often work from home (without commercial license), download all kinds of files from the net, hide gold from the surveyor, transfer cash to foreign accounts, pay bribes to officials, buy real estate in cash and so on.

What we need is a new way to think about production and services in the city. In a study we are currently conducting in Dharavi, we are looking at mobility from the point of view of home-based economic activities. What we are observing is that the house is connected to the city through a constant flux of goods and people moving in and out. Our cities are not organized in formal and informal zones. The division between the center and the periphery are blurred. The city’s activities are organized in webs and hubs that span across places and classes. On one level Dharavi is one such hub. On another, it is a collection of small producers themselves clustered in different parts of the neighborhoods, working in a networked fashion, each according to their own traditions and specializations.

AJ: For Dharavi to have a leading position within economic chains, it possibly needs to shift from executing orders to also initiating them. Can we expect that to happen in Dharavi? How would you describe the role that Dharavi fulfills within national and international chains?

ME&RS: Dharavi’s strengths are in recycling, manufacturing, construction, and services. Its localization at the center of the city, its spatial logic, its deep social networks, its cultural diversity, its extreme density and clustering of activities, are strategic advantages in the domestic and global market. We are not sure if we can simply project the wisdom of the day in terms of planning and development onto Dharavi’s future. Not everyone aspires to be a designer. Optimizing the production process is itself a creative activity, which can be valued for its own sake. Of course, Dharavi is not one homogenous space or system. It is perfectly feasible for some industries and activities to establish leadership in the larger market and start initiating more orders. In fact, this has been happening for a long time in some industries. For instance, the potters sell products that they have designed themselves. Lots of leatherwork is designed locally as well. However, to mark that out as a joint aspiration for the whole neighborhood does not really make sense. Nothing can be pushed onto the neighbourhood. Its strength is its ability to reinvent itself constantly. To appreciate its logic we need to accept its existing specializations as well as its multi-zonal mind-set. Dharavi is deeply connected to the wider economic systems at large, not as one consolidated neighborhood, but through its own very diverse and adaptable systems. To visualize it as a distinct, holistic sub-system and then imagine its transformation through taking a position of leadership, falls back in the trap of thinking of neighborhoods as planned, zoned spaces in their most ideal form.

AJ: The likes of Harvard, Droog, The Economist, Domus and many others study Dharavi. It is a goldmine for case studies in business, urban planning, architecture, design, recycling, (etc.), becoming a central point of reference for research across disciplines. Why is the world looking at Dharavi and what does it hope to learn?

ME&RS: Actually if we come here looking for case studies that are framed in conventional practices then we will be disappointed. What is commendable about Dharavi is certainly linked to its ability of creating a functioning vibrant economic environment from very little support and capital. It managed to do this by relying on community networks that are deeply connected to native homes. At the same time native histories for most communities were connected to feudal oppressive relations and caste prejudice. Migrating to the city meant freeing oneself from those older histories. The desperation, freedom, and liberation, along with making the most of very little in a new environment – often by accepting very poorly serviced conditions – are all aspects of Dharavi’s ‘success’ story, but cannot be put in a business case-study. One can hardly turn those histories into economic models! However, what one can do is look carefully at what aspects of its functioning can inform contemporary urban environments, so we respect it when we see it elsewhere. Our studies indicate that its spatial logic, collapse of live-work functions, low-rise high-density structures that incrementally grow over time, the presence of community-based support structures are parts of a larger functioning system, that may help us understand how urban neighborhoods in different parts of the world can stimulate a similar local economic dynamism. This is definitely worth a study. These conditions allow for a collective upward social and urban mobility of neighborhoods in a manner that builds on internal resources of the residing communities and allows them to respond to economic needs in an efficient manner and with lower risks involved. Having multiple sources of incomes, creating value through spatial development, renting and sub-letting, manufacturing and trading, creating creative co-dependencies between individuals, groups and families, keeping alive connections with native histories, and also investing in new opportunities through education, are all factors that have helped Dharavi and neighborhoods like Dharavi transform themselves in a manner that is worth understanding and then emulating. Besides this, its ability of providing highly skilled labor services relying on community skills connected to artisanal histories, but which now adapt to industrial and post-industrial activities, is another special feature that needs to be documented and understood.

AJ: Has all the attention and admiration from the formal world changed the way Dalits – a marginalized group of people in India traditionally regarded as ‘untouchable’ – are perceived and their role in society? Does the economic success story translate into a social success story?

ME&RS: The fact that Dharavi has the largest presence of Dalit communities in the city is hardly ever foregrounded in discussions about the neighborhood, at least in the mainstream media. As it is, positive discrimination and affirmative action are touchy topics for dominant classes in the city. In fact, the temporary subsidies or rights of use of government land by poor migrant communities is resented much in the same way as reservation for jobs and educational opportunities for Dalit and other marginal communities.

However, it is also true that the Dalit identity is not something that many residents actively use in their daily lives. In many ways, neighborhoods like Dharavi allow for reinvention of identities which try and erase marginality connected to older names and histories. Yet, this is a complex game. Political parties use caste as an active principle at times and as subordinate at others.

The role of caste in Dharavi’s economic and social success is not often understood or appreciated enough, except by some enthusiastic scholars and activists. It is true though that today the global attention to the special economic history of Dharavi has made the media more aware. But this does not often translate into a deeper appreciation that transforms into productive policies. For most of the time the fact that economic success is not reflected in civic infrastructure only reinforces the idea that the ‘slum’ needs to be erased. When this happens, off goes its economic dynamism. What it needs really is better provision of services and improvement of its environment without destroying its existing built-environment, allowing for a gradual incremental logic to unfold in a manner that foregrounds its economic functions. For this some deep-rooted prejudice against some of the communities that make the human fabric of Dharavi must be overcome.

AJ: Dharavi attracts people from across India, attaining a certain kind of density and diversity. When people converge in one place, they usually reinvent their identity. Is that happening in Dharavi?

ME&RS: Yes, certainly. We have documented hundreds of religious shrines in the locality. These reveal the regional affiliations and traditional background of different residents and communities of Dharavi residents. Each shrine is a story of reinvention and transformation, a play of remembering and forgetting caste and ethnic identities and celebrating new freedoms.

India’s most definitive leaders, Gandhi and Ambedkar did not see eye to eye as far as stories of caste histories went. Gandhi glorified an imagined Indian village and its functional division of labor as the fulcrum for Indian society. Ambedkar was firm that erasing the past, leaving the village and moving to the city was a more reliable means to genuine liberation from caste. In a paradoxical way, Gandhi’s imagined, hardworking, productive, artisanal village was actualized in urban settlements like Dharavi, which also became a site for Ambedkar’s dreams to be actualized in terms of transcending caste and achieving freedoms. At a symbolic level, a nod of acknowledgment towards each other, by Gandhi and Ambedkar, can only be visualized in a place like Dharavi. It would never have happened in reality during their lifetimes.

However even at a symbolic level, such an acknowledgment can only happen if Dharavi is respected and transformed in a manner that can continue to host and provide opportunities for waves of new migrant communities of different backgrounds to keep creating opportunities. Unfortunately the present urban imagination in terms of policies everywhere in the world is not in a position to facilitate this.

AJ: Is Dharavi sustainable? What is the future of Dharavi?

ME&RS: In many ways, Dharavi is a manifestation of a set of urban processes that we believe belong to the trajectory of a ‘natural’ city. This oxymoron is our way of saying that positing the city as a hard-wired counterpoint to ‘nature’ and thus seeing it solely as a variable of human intervention and control is ultimately what makes them become totalized, over-controlled, sterilized spaces. That only encourages landscapes that are speculatively financed, producing miles of built forms and real estate development, neatly segregated into zones of recreation, residences, and livelihood. In the process of constructing ideal cities, so much investment is made that no one sees how economic vitality is often leeched out of human lives and put into buildings and boulevards, creating brittle and vulnerable cities in the long run.

As a natural city, the historical development of Dharavi has been a testimony to the ability of residents to create dynamic environments. However physically impoverished, they are nevertheless indicative of possibilities of a better urban future for all. In our minds, the future of Dharavi can be a better one, reflected in the concrete reality of some Tokyo neighborhoods, which often share a template of urban development with Dharavi, but in a much more developed way. Or even in the confidently transforming streets of ‘favela’ neighborhoods in Sao Paulo.

Of course, the hard reality is that urban visions for all are now trapped in rather limited designs and projections. It is highly unlikely that Dharavi will be able to challenge those easily, and be allowed to follow its own trajectory.

The ongoing process of urbanization in Mumbai and the world at large is one that erases as much as it builds. Guy Debord said that urbanization negates the city because it deprives neighborhoods of the chance of reproducing and reinventing themselves.

The idea that development must follow a linear trajectory from the slum to the formal city is plainly wrong. Particularly if by formal we mean a certain form of urbanization characterized by high-rise buildings and large motorways. This formal city is a false kind of urbanization. What makes a city a city is the people that inhabit it and the way they interact with each other and their environment, making it their own, constantly balancing between their history, present needs, and aspirations, individually and collectively.

The city is reproduced everyday through the million social or commercial interactions that knit people together. The city should therefore not be understood as a counterpoint to the slum or the village. These are enmeshed in the city’s economy, fabric, and ethos.

Recognizing the User-Generated City

June 17, 2012

Construction in Utkarsh Nagar, a predominantly Kokan neighbourhood in Mumbai.

Presentation at the World Bank in New Delhi on Monday June 18th, 2012.

This presentation seeks to offer alternatives to apocalyptic visions of over-crowded cities, rural wastelands and endless slumscapes, which may well become self-fulfilling prophecies. Our practice and engagement with neighbourhoods in Mumbai and its hinterland has lead us to question taken-for-granted categories such as the slum and city. We will make a case for policy recognitions of existing practices and urban patterns, and for moving towards a more realistic and pragmatic approach to urban development in India.

One of the forgotten memories of Mumbai is that of the nearly 190 villages that compose its historical fabric. Lost somewhere in between the ‘slum’ and the ‘high-rise’, villages may be out of the city’s mental map, but they are still very much present in its culture and urban dynamics. The vernacular urbanism of Mumbai is as much a reflection of the city’s history as of its post-industrial makeup. The “tool-house” combining living and working functions is at the heart of the spatial, social and economic organization of Mumbai’s “homegrown” neighbourhoods.

These neighbourhoods, where more than 70% of Mumbai’s population are said to be living, are incrementally developed and improved by an army of contractors, masons, plumbers, electricians, painters and material providers, who typically live in the same neighbourhoods where they work. This makes for a vibrant local construction industry responsible for the production of hundreds of thousands of affordable houses all over the city. This process is however not recognized by the authorities, which either look the other way or actively repress it.

Our engagement with residents and constructors living and working in neighbourhoods notified as slums comes both in the form of collaborative projects and discursive output. Our practice and writing steams from the conviction that the involvement of local actors is the only way that the government’s affordable housing targets can be met. Between 1997 and 2002, the government and the builders built 500 000 houses in urban India, when in the same time, the people built 8.5 million units in so-called “slums”.

There is another the way the village continues to haunt Mumbai, and nearly all other cities in India. Migrant communities rarely disconnect from their native points of origin. Deep ties to the land, hearth and family create loops of interconnectedness that sustain the life of residents on both sides of their habitat spectrum. People draw from either side for self-reliant insurance and security. Even when people dig deep roots in the city, they often relive their village life in its architecture and cultural life.

Urbanization in India is not the one-way street that one normally associates with the phenomenon. The communities that keep the connections most going are often the service, working class communities who occupy the kind of spaces often referred to as slums, gaothans, urban villages. Not only are the connections between big cities and villages forged by migrant communities an important characteristic of urban life in India, but almost all small towns and villages are networked and connected to each other through different forms of mobility.

Rather than see the vast regions of the country as a rural hinterland punctuated by towns and cities, our research shows us how most districts function as urban systems in which people from villages and towns travel to and fro all the time, function as markets and circulate objects, finance and people. One of the important consequences of looking at networks of towns and villages as a valid urban form is an acceptance of a diversity of habitats, that includes villages and towns, and in some cases forests and other landscapes within one fold.

Recognizing the existence of urban systems spanning over large regions can help us think of alternative models of urban development and help promote more sustainable habitats across the sub-continent. It may also help us revise our approach to the big metropolises and the large-scale presence of so-called slums. By turning around the idea of villages and their connections to cities, we may be able to address issues of affordable housing in a more creative and effective way.

Our presentation will touch upon both these themes. We believe that a policy which recognises the ability of homegrown cities to contribute to better and inclusive cities is vital for urban policy. It will help evolve more realistic infrastructure policies that adapt to the needs of the maximum populations that reside in cities.

1. Sticky feet on rails

Ratnagiri Station on the Kokan Coast.

Because of the price of real-estate in Indian metros people living in neighbourhoods notified as slums often have no option but to move out to better places. As a result, residents with “sticky feet” often reinvest their earnings in their house. When reinvestment in their city homes is made difficult by hostile policies, they prefer to invest in their native places. India’s well-developed railway network means that urban migrants can keep good connections with their native town. Even over several generations, the link between the village of origin and the city is maintained. These flows benefit the village economically, since it captures a large share of the savings of the urban migrants. Whenever dwellers feel that investing in their urban dwellings is safe enough, they often prefer to do so, since the return on investment is higher. The desire to grow roots in the city, as well as keep deep connections with the village is often facilitated by the family structure where members divide their loyalty. This contributes to the incremental improvement of their neighbourhood as well as allows for the benefits of support structures from back home, to remain active. This dynamic relationship across city and village/town is something that needs to qualify the misplaced faith that authorities in India now have in one-way urbanization trends.

2. Homegrown Homes

Construction site in Dharavi, opposite the URBZ/Urbanology office (photo taken by Ben Parry).

Investment in homes happens when there is some sense of security. Local builders make hundreds of thousands of affordable homes all over the city, improving, reconstructing or building afresh. They are socially networked in neighbourhoods where they live and work. Their success rests on the reputation they establish over time in the localities where they operate. Their physical and cultural proximity to their client means that a relationship of trust replaces contractual arrangements. They understand local politics and regulations very well since their work entirely depends on it. They often have evolved working relations with local bureaucrats and corporators. Flexible and adaptable in their approach, they are typically open to collaborations with outside agents who can enhance their profile locally. They are private actors of development that institutions, organizations and corporations can partner with.

3. Tool-house

The structure that dominates these home-grown neighbourhoods is the Tool-house. They combine living and economic functions, where the houses themselves are often used as income generating spaces. Along with living spaces for families or workers, a “tool-house” combines retailing, manufacturing or servicing functions. Such post-industrial habitats define the typology of many neighbourhoods. They are also central to their economic development. Even in cases where people predominantly work outside the neighbourhood, the house is often an economic unit for supplementary incomes in some way or the other. Inter-linked clusters of such homes make up distinct settlements, shaped by different factors – community, caste or just history

4. Connected neighbourhoods

Study in process on mobility patterns in Dharavi.

Far from being self-sufficient and autonomous “cities in the city”, unplanned neighbourhoods are extremely connected to the rest of the city. Many of their residents often work in shops and offices outside.  Some send their children to private schools in other neighbourhoods. Those who live and work in the neighbourhood (for instance in a tool-house) have suppliers and clients from all over the metropolitan region, from elsewhere in the country or from abroad. These connections are vital to the neighbourhood as much as to the city, which benefits from the proximity of production centres and service workers.

5. Public streets

Street in Dharavi (photo by Lasse Bak Mejlvang).

The lack of formally defined “public spaces” such as squares and playgrounds in many unplanned settlements is made up for by the use of streets as multipurpose spaces. The narrow streets, typical of unplanned settlements, makes them hard to access for cars. The result is that most unplanned settlements are largely pedestrian. Streets are relatively free to be used for public purposes such as temporary markets, socializing, playgrounds for children (whose parents can keep an eye on them from their homes), and ritual functions (prayers and festivals). Recognizing these aspects as valid, will help evolve sensible plans for transportation and public spaces.

6. Walk2Work

MG Road in Dharavi.

More than half the population of Mumbai walks to work. If we add the human and animal powered vehicles (bicycles, carts)– which are very common in many localities, we have a spontaneous constituency already practicing sustainable transport practices. These practices are well connected to existing mass transportation systems like trains and buses. What the city needs is less car-centric development and instead an increased attention to the interconnections between sustainable modes of transportation. Many cities today are trying hard to create the walk to work kind of environment, which is both prevalent and threatened in Mumbai and other Indian cities today.

7. Incremental development of habitat

Incremental improvement at the Dharavi Shelter.

Unplanned neighbourhoods systematically improve overtime, unless they are prevented from doing so by local authorities (through demolition drives or overly restrictive control on construction). Incremental development encompasses urban, economic and social aspects of the neighbourhood. This is particularly so when the house also serves as income generators (tool-house), since reinvestment in the house translates into higher productivity. Incremental development may be driven by individual house occupants but favourably affects the neighbourhood as a whole. Collectively, incrementally improving homes add value to the entire neighbourhood and to the city. Through incremental development, neighbourhoods become upwardly mobile.

8. Incremental development of infrastructure

Community toilet in Dharavi.

Infrastructure improves over time thanks to internal and external mobilization of resources by community leaders and through the participation of inhabitants. Electoral politics, strengthen the links between residents and civic authorities. The more politically stable a neighbourhood is, the better its civic infrastructure will be. In Mumbai, through a combination of local intervention by private contractors, civic involvement and public interventions, the large majority of unplanned settlements have access to water and basic sewage and roads. Coordination between different actors does happen, but it would benefit from being institutionalized.

9. Community economics

Mosque in Baiganwadi, Deonar, Govandi.

Caste, ethnicity and religion play an important role in the provision of employment opportunities. Neighbourhood boundaries are often defined along ethnic lines, and the same logic structures the neighbourhoods internally. Clusters of specialized activities relying on economic cooperation produce economies of scale. Agents connect these clusters to spaces of trade. Economic interdependency and trade networks consolidate neighbourhoods and create bridges between different communities, promoting social peace. Within neighbourhoods, community ties help raise capital and resources for individuals and families and help provide social security to tide over bad times.

10. Institutional roots

Construction of Sai Baba temple in Bhandup.

Public institutions and non-governmental organizations have deep roots in neighbourhoods notified as slums. Residents and activists spend much time lobbying political representatives for schools, hospitals, temples, public baths, gyms, resident associations and youth clubs. These institutions enrich the life of the neighbourhood and also become important actors in mobilizing communities and external resources for ongoing development projects, in particular infrastructure development. They are also a strong assertion of mobility aspirations.

11. Political right to use land vs. than legal right to sell it

Tool-houses in Dharavi (photo by Sytse de Maat).

Occupancy right is a political rather than a legal right. Elected representatives often seem to act against the interests of municipal authorities, and recognize the political right of inhabitants to remain on government or vacant land. This is what has kept many neighbourhoods going for so long in Mumbai – but in a half-hearted and conflicting way since residents are not legally owners of the land. The bureaucracy and the middle-class usually perceive unplanned neighbourhoods as encroachments, regardless of their history. The wisdom of the day is to turn occupants of neighbourhoods notified as slums into property owners. In the speculative context of India today, land titles will quickly swap hands and be used to develop new property for another kind of constituency. In Mumbai, the supply of new housing has been not responding to demand of house buyers/tenants as much as that of real estate investors (whether they are large funds or middle-class investors). Recognizing the right of using land over that of selling it would go a long way into protecting neighbourhoods in formation from speculative redevelopment.

12. Informal construction tax

Destruction of illegal floor by BMC in Dharavi.

Far from being remote and disconnected from the process of development described above, the municipal authorities are actively involved with local actors. Rigid regulations and the lack of accountability for institutions such as the BMC in Mumbai have provided many opportunities for the imposition of “special taxes”. The reconstruction or extension of houses in neighbourhoods notified as slums typically happens through un-receipted administrative procedures in which the Municipal authorities validate the moves made by inhabitants and local agents. Sometimes, this system adds up to 40% to the cost of construction and forces builders to work at extreme speed. Non-adapted regulations, low wages for municipal workers and corruption are all to blame. Yet, this informal system could inspire a new model of public financing through taxation of local construction that could be extended to other parts of the city.

13. Interdependence of communities & diversity of habitats

Diversity of habitat in Kemps corner, South Mumbai.

The idea that an entire neighbourhood must be homogenous in terms of class goes against the way in which urban India operates. Middle-class and upper middle-class homes often prefer to have service-oriented people living around them or in their vicinity. The current restructuring of Indian metros that is pushing low income residents to the suburbs is particularly unsustainable in view of the existing strains on public transportation. While mixed income neighbourhoods are still the norm in older city centres, new housing developments in the suburbs are leaving no space for the working class to stay. Due to the loss of a mixed income crowd in central neighbourhoods, India may loose one of its most democratic urban dimensions.

14.  Slums as urban villages

Worli Koliwada in Mumbai. Often mistaken as a slum. In fact one of the most interesting urban village in the city.

In Mumbai, like in several Indian cities, many old urban villages have become the nuclei around which unplanned neighbourhoods have sprawled. Villages have a different typology (low-rise, high-density), land use (mixed use) and value structure for historical reasons. This has produced cheaper tenancy and sub-tenancy systems in various pockets of the city. About 189 goathans in Mumbai have evolved into larger settlements, which are often mistaken to be slums. The Chawl system and the Rent Control Act have also played a major role in allowing certain (non-native) groups to stay in central locations over generations. This historical and cultural fabric, which predates British colonization needs to be recognized and validated.

15. Urban systems

North Goa: Below the trees a dense urban system.

Gandhian inspired rural development strategies, which focused on the self-sustainability of villages and the post-liberalization urban centric policies that believe that city are the engines of economic growth – are ignoring much more complex historical patterns of communication between towns and villages that promoted cultural and economic exchanges. To date many Indian regions are organized in a network of towns and villages that form an integrated economic and cultural system. This is clearly visible in Goa, a state composed of hundreds of villages and small town with a capital city of 100, 000 residents. Far from being an impoverished economy Goa provides some of the highest standard of living to its residents, many of who work in urban sectors while living in villages. This pattern is repeated in several parts of India, in the form of districts. However, these units are rarely treated or administered as urban systems, even though they are networked spaces with people and goods moving within them all the time, interspersed with a variety of economies and habitats, ranging from forests, villages, fields, industries and cities. These urban systems are loosing out from the current focus on “cities” because they get ruptured and divided by rural/urban specific schemes and policies, which do not factor these deep ongoing connections.

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…

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