Why Mumbai’s Slums are Villages

November 26, 2008

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Mumbai’s history reflects 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. The essay argues that the point of intersection of these histories is one that can potentially explain the overwhelming presence of poor, infrastructure deprived habitats – often referred to as slums – that dominate the landscape of the city.

Worli-Koliwadad, one of seven century old fishermen settlement in Mumbai

Mumbai’s slums occupy an unusually large scale – even when compared to other Indian metropolises, with similar economic and political constraints. The essay proposes that the scale and depth of the phenomenon requires a special inquiry into its history. The essay does this by focusing on the story of a small habitat – called Khotachiwadi – that encapsulates many of the issues being debated. Khotachiwadi eventually however, becomes a springboard to discuss other issues to do with the political economy of built-forms in the city – especially with regard to the dialectic of the slum and the village.

Khotachiwadi, Girgaum, South Mumbai

It also asserts that a critical examination of the category ‘slum’ – and its relationship with the ‘village’ – can challenge take-for-granted notions of urbanism and urban futures for labour-surplus countries like India that have old agrarian histories.

These notions usually render village-like habitats as being inappropriate for modern urban spaces. These spaces are viewed as having a certain kind of density that can only be absorbed by the high-rise form, which, in turn, is presented as antithetical to the village. While critiques of these notions have the potential of moving into radical ideas of the urban – especially in the realm beyond built-forms – this paper restricts its discussions to the physical dimension of urbanism.

When the Portuguese empire handed over islands in the southern end of the region to the East India Company they did not see this cluster of islands as valuable. They were more interested in the rich fertile lands of the north that supported their trading activities connecting Daman, Vasai, Goa and Calicut. These lands were dotted with villages that went all the way to Mahim and Bandra, perceived to be the southern borders of the Portuguese sphere of influence. The social structure of this space was dominated by a combination of feudal and mercantile practices subsidized by low-caste labour. Large parts of the population were converted to Christianity, a process that preserved the caste divisions by allowing for the emergence of upper caste land-lords and low-caste labour and artisanal groups.

When the East India Company took charge of the southern islands, they forcefully integrated Bandra and Mahim, which they saw as the northern borders of their territory. As the influence of the company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Parsee, Hindu and Muslim Gujarathi merchants, shop-keepers and businessmen moved in and around the Fort areas and brought in their urban traditions of built-forms from their city of origin – Surat – an architectural legacy that is still evident in some neighbourhoods of south Mumbai – especially Kalbadevi. On the other hand, the low-caste predominantly labour communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. The lands were mostly owned by Christian landlords or occasionally by a member of the Pathare Prabhu community – an old courtly caste that linked its existence to a thirteenth century kingdom nearby.

All through the nineteenth 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. These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. They looked like the older upper-caste landed villages of Bandra, Mahim, Gorai and Vasai but had actually been built afresh in the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, swampy land around Mahim, particularly in a village called Dharavi (that was occupied primarily by Koli fisherfolk) became the site for the settling down of untouchable communities from different parts of the country. Those regions were seen to be unlivable and peripheral, from the vantage points of both – the fisher community that lived by the sea, as well as the city civic-authorities in the south.

Dharavi-Koliwada, a fishermen village that has for long been called a slum

As it turned out, as more low-caste groups arrived from the countryside, attracted by the mills and the docks, the southern city could provide only limited accommodation. Most of the surplus labour lived in the villages, outside the perceived city limits.

As the southern city kept expanding and as dependence on agriculture declined in importance, it became easier for landlords to make more money by renting or selling out land than through agriculture. However, when their lands got integrated into the city they had to give up their control either to the civic authorities or to slumlords. This process got even more complicated in the post-independence period with the development of a local electoral process and the growth of new neighbourhood leaders.

The landscape that thus formed by the middle of the twentieth century in the northern parts of Mumbai was really a cluster of villages that had become outsize settlements. Even today, the largest slums of Mumbai in that region -  Dharavi and Jari-Mari – reflect this village like legacy with their land ownership patterns revealing this quite clearly.

However – villages do not simply become slums because of an awkward growth in population. It helps a certain political economy to view them as slums and this is the main argument being made in the essay. The attempt is to understand the deeper historical basis of slum formation in Mumbai and see it as much as a story of habitats and perceptions about habitats, as about the political economy of scarcity of infrastructure.

To explicate this point – we focus on a small village – called Khotachiwadi in Girgaum.

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.

Engendered architectural heritage in Khotachiwadi

During the course of our interactions with the villagers, we came across frequent statements by elderly residents mentioning that the wadi used to be referred to as a slum in the early twentieth century. It was called as such by British surveyors who were developing a larger urban plan for the city. Intrigued by the fact that a village now celebrated for its architectural legacy was once referred to as a slum, we continued to explore this observation.  In spite of frequent attempts though, we were unable to actually verify this through archival material. The records only mentioned the real name of the village, never the underlying assumed category. However, on inquiring with contemporary architects, urban planners and government officials, we found most of them agreeing with the residents. Their certainty was based on the awareness that many habitats even today tend to be loosely referred to as slums, though they are historically distinct villages. Some historical accounts of the city even referred to its native towns (immediately outside the Fort precinct), as slums. Referring to Khotachiwadi as such was, thus, quite understandable.

After all, even today, there exist village lands – called ‘gaothans’ – that are specifically recognized as distinct non-urban habitats, with separate development laws. They are treated by developers – and commonly perceived by neighbouring settlements – as slums.

According to urban historian Rahul Mehrotra, it was in the fifties that one saw the emergence of the simplistic binary – the slum and the multi-storied building dominating rhetoric of built-form in the city. It came to represent a discourse that over-wrote the diversity that existed in the earlier experience of Mumbai’s built-forms and transformed the perceptions of the future of the city through the aspiration of being a high-rise oriented city. This aspiration eventually started a process that aimed at erasing all ambiguous habitats, especially those that embodied the ethnic elements of built-forms found in the erstwhile “native city” – but more so those structures that seemed rural and therefore inappropriate . Thus till the heritage movement in the city really firmed itself up as some kind of a force to reckon with in the 1980’s – much of the old city (that was not protected by the old Rent Act) was destroyed on the grounds that it was part of a back-ward looking colonial experience .

House of famous fashion designer and Khotachiwadi life-long resident, James Ferreira

Places like Khotachiwadi were seen to be anachronistic, since they were villages. While most “native” spaces were distinctly urban buildings, this particular habitat’s resonances of being “rural” created further trouble for it. The colonial “native” city had quite comfortably absorbed the rural memories that its migrants had brought in. These memories had provided the quaint architectural flourishes of habitats like Khotachiwadi. However, in the long run these very flourishes and characteristics made these hamlets seem inconsistent with the ideals of a modern “urban” present – one, that wanted to distance it self as much as possible from any rural memory.

This necessitated an inquiry into the category slum itself and brought us to Mike Davis.

Davis uses a large canvas to talk about the future of housing and the rise of slums at a global level. His analysis works brilliantly in analyzing the rise of inequality in terms of a force-feeding of liberal economic policies to developing countries. However, if we accept Davis’s vision of slums as being manifestations of certain kinds of economic relations, then we are forced to view slums as an integral rural phenomenon as well. After all, just because the one room huts of landless and poor peasants are not historically seen as slums, does not mean that they have never functioned as such.

By this very fact alone – we move to an observation that seems to contradict Davis’s over all argument. The planet is not going to be witnessing an increased presence of slums for the first time in its history at all. It is simply re-arranging resources to suit an economy that is now openly acknowledging the fact that the indicators of development are almost singularly indicators of a certain kind of urban growth. It is not just that the poor migrants are moving to cities and creating slums – they are also bringing in their histories. Slums from rural areas are being transplanted in urban contexts. Conversely, urban contexts are treating the urban poor exactly in the way older feudal agrarian economies treated their rural poor.

However, as Jan Breman in his review of Davis points out, modern slums are emerging in villages as well and are being referred to as such – making the process of urbanization in countries such as India more complicated. In fact, it is becoming particularly difficult to distinguish slums from villages in many parts of the peri-urban areas of the country.

And if one adds to this explanation the special case of Mumbai, then slums are not only a question of developing a critique of the economic policies that the world is choosing for itself – but also about the way the idea of the city functions in this process. Many studies demonstrate how the city produces more pockets of urban poverty by converting its land-use patterns into real-estate development zones that push the poor to its peripheries. These real-estate development zones subscribe to a certain kind of appropriate built-form – the high-rise – to validate its imposition. In cities like Mumbai – this form itself helps in escalating costs and pushes the poor further into infra-structure deprived regions.

As Linda Clarke and David Harvey demonstrate – capitalism has always operated best within the context of the city. It has not only responded to the rise of the modern city after industrialization but has actively propagated it as the most appropriate human habitat for modern living. Besides, this propagation has a material basis – a certain industry – the construction industry – that benefits most from this process and is constantly looking for new land and new ways of appropriating old modes of land use.

The construction industry, along with its baggage of architects, engineers and urban planners, have a historical advantage in as much as they have been perceived as playing an ideologically neutral role in the process of economic transformations. For long, we were under the impression that they service a foregone economic choice – the logic that industrialization follows urbanization – but as Davis himself demonstrates, they may also lead the process. While doing so they evoke ideological justifications, like all economic interests and use the notion of the city – a specific kind of city – as their ideological anchor. They transform the city from a site where different ideologies play themselves out to becoming an ideology itself.

While theoretically, the high-rise apartment block has been used in Mumbai as a possible solution to the city’s problems of density – in reality it has only produced more slums. This happens because the high-rise apartment block comes hand in hand with increased costs of building and a new economy of land – use, one that depends significantly on wider roads, more car-parking space and in the final order of things, fewer people occupying per square feet.

In Mumbai – the earlier colonial mode of monopolistic land use was substituted, in independent India, by an enormously corrupt administration that protected large land-holdings and worked in tandem with corrupt builders. What it used to justify this state of affairs was the argument that land in Mumbai was scarce and people too many. Besides, the image of the city as a modern city meant funneling all resources to the production of appropriate habitats.

This process was recently evident most clearly, when the city’s industrial history got re-written. Old defunct mills, with acres and acres of land in them were released into the market even as housing activists cried themselves hoarse saying that a proportion of the land be used for housing the poor. Not only did the authorities not respond to the demand, even the use of land for open space and parks was rejected. Old chawls in the area were then rapidly pulled down to make for shopping malls and high-rise apartment blocks.

However, what is to be noted is that this process and this choice is not new. It continues an older story. The gaze of the British surveyors in the early twentieth century and their categorization of Khotachiwadi as a slum was part of the very same process. The native town even then was constantly being shifted and moved around to make way for imperial projects.

If one looks at the story of slums across the world one is struck by the relativity of the term. In one context it appears as impoverished living in the most basic sense – without water and toilets – while in another it could denote a full fledged – middle class housing complex that is a slum only in relation to the larger story in which it is embedded.

If one builds on this cross-cultural understanding of slums and locates that one common variable that cuts across contexts – I suspect the variable will be this; the slum is simply an inappropriate habitat in contrast to the larger aspiration of the economy in which it is embedded.

One is not de-contextualizing the impoverished slum from the story at all. The fact of the matter is, that the impoverished and the inappropriate habitat are collapsed into one for the overall push in a specific direction – the one that the construction industry aspires for itself.

It is this idealized notion of the high-rise city that is used by builders and urban planners in cities like Mumbai to push forth a land-use pattern that produces more slums.

While so far, the city’s poor have responded to the crisis by highlighting their impoverishment – a move that is picked up by Davis to indicate that the problem lies mainly in questions of economic transformation. However, the issue of homelessness and slums also needs to address issues of inappropriate habitats as well.

This can use some well-worked out arguments such as those by Charles Correa in his work ‘The New Landscape’ as mentioned earlier. According to Correa, the high-density low-rise form that much of Mumbai historically demonstrated is widespread in urban areas not only in India but also much of Asia. In concrete terms, it is the relinquishing of this habitat ideal – in favour of the high-rise apartment complex – that benefits the builder and urban planner lobby the most and contributes to the increasing presence of slums all around the world.

According to Correa, in the Mumbai of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the relationship of dwellers to architects, builders and living space was extremely different. Dwellers had more control over the process of building homes and memories about building skills played a vital role in the development of these spaces. Villages, clusters of small buildings, colonies of bungalows got build through these negotiations. Even though major architectural and engineering companies shaped the docks, government offices and public buildings – the inhabitants in most of the native city had a greater say in building their own homes. In many cases, and definitely until the early twentieth century, much of the native spaces were surprisingly ‘rural’. Orchards and paddy fields accompanied the docks and industries as backdrops for a newly emerging city.

Interestingly, the poor in Mumbai still follow a similar pattern of building habitats. They find cost effective ways of building them and allow for a diversity of skills to converge into the act if building. What causes them to become slums is that the land on which they reside is part of a competitive market. This renders their built-forms illegal and squeezes them into a zone of non-citizenship that traps them further in a spiral of oppression. Almost all their income is eaten up by this status and they become victims of the informal apparatus of the state, which exploits their position and earns massive illegal revenues from these transactions. Creating a context where their growth and the threat of their annihilation is a constant presence.

This story is well known in Mumbai. However even as this knowledge fuels an activist zeal amongst everyone – the non-corrupt dimension of the state, voluntary groups and the media – it often translates itself into a desire to build homes for the poor in the mirror image of the construction industry. Through planners, builders, engineers and architects. The mathematics is worked out to allow for a particular kind of built-form to dominate the city’s landscape – most certainly vertical and definitely out of the control of the dwellers. Almost immediately, the question of costs rises and pushes for an acceptable compromise that lets in builders who build for profit into the scene and allow them to subsidize the homes of the poor. The homes for the poor become shadowy and shaky versions of the real thing – built in the image of the modern city – but not only are they never numerically enough to absorb the impoverished millions, there is no guarantee that they will outlive even one generation of the intended inhabitants.

The ineffectiveness of this method is getting more and more clear as slums continue to dominate the landscape and vast tracts of precious (hitherto not even available land) get utilized to create massive apartments for the rich. Defying all logical of use of space, Mumbai sees more tall buildings appearing with lesser people utilizing the floor space index. Where verticality is supposed to absorb more populations, one finds that space is manipulated to produce habitats for the rich and of course these approximate the ideal rich habitats that one finds all over the world – with swimming pools, enormous personal spaces, multi-storied car-parks and lush gardens. However, in poorer economies like India, their horizons are always darkened by the presence of the poor and their shabby habitats.

In conclusion, we would like to evoke the work of anthropologist Anthony Leeds. Leeds understanding lends itself to a powerful anthropology of habitats and helps us to strengthen some of the questions that the paper asks.

According to Leeds, we cannot view urban and rural spaces solely in terms of their geographical and occupational distinctions. He points out that all through human history even though most people have lived in rural habitats these habitats have been shaped and ruled directly or indirectly by the relatively smaller populated urban centers. Agricultural practices have often evolved to produce certain kinds of grains for taxation and farming systems have been linked – through feudal structures – to important urban centers. Thus, the world had been urbanized for a very long time (even though most people did not physically live in cities) and the industrial revolution only marked a quantitative shift of populations into urban spaces. Most importantly, the narratives accompanying modernity, progress and urbanization have been used and re-used in different ways. The ideology of urbanism as presented above is very much part of this narrative and needs to be analytically isolated.

Especially in contexts such as India, with its long history of  (urbanized) rural habitats. One needs to reflect upon the remarkable similarities between urban slums in Mumbai and the rural habitats its inhabitants have left behind. One needs to re-think what cities ought to look like in a world, which is becoming increasingly unequal, maybe because it refuses to do so.  One needs to reflect upon the anachronistic urban village of Khotachiwadi and one needs to re-think the way in which cities create hardened aspirations for themselves and render inappropriate habitats into ideological wastelands – that we call slums.

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Government of Maharashtra (GOM), Guidelines for Implementation of Slum Rehabilitation Schemesin Greater Mumbai. Mumbai: Slum Rehabilitation Authority, Housing and Special Assistance Department, 1997.

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Patel Shirish, ‘Slums mean failed Housing’ Mumbai Newsline, Indian Express, Thursday, 6 January, 2005.

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  1. needs a information list of Slum Declaration area in Malad East.

    Comment by yogesh pawar — March 24, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  2. A well done article …
    I visited a immigration museum in New York that showed how people migrated in various parts of US.
    We should somewhere visually document the flow of people and cultures all over India. It would be an excellent source of learning about why we are what we are.

    Comment by Nitin Pande — February 18, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

  3. really interesting article. i love the cross referencing done with regards to hamlets of Khotachiwadi nature to the Slums. Understanding the growth pattern of these urban formats is something that is well achieved.

    Comment by vivek sheth — May 10, 2010 @ 8:13 am

  4. Its unfortunate this article was written in lieu of material available for public consumption by the authorities.
    Here is a fact.
    The Bhim raja had surveyed 15,000 villages in the salsette and the upper Mobai = Mob [People] Aai [Mother] in Kokni. Today political parties want to assert a religious historical existence by altering history. Hence its called Mumbai today after a Goddess Mumba devi. What is interesting is that this temple around Crawford market is maintained by Gujrathis – High class hindus [So called / or they claim to be]. The premise of this temple being built was that its a Hindu Temple. Why is this an irony? Well, the fisher class and the Pathare Prabhu’s were included in the Hindu fold since they had the land and had lower classes or poorer classes [in hinduism are the lower class] working for them. Most Pathare Prabhu’s converted to Christianity. If the temple was built for the fishermen then why are they not maintaining or let alone, allowed inside.

    The Kokni tribe being indigenous have been always sidelined for their meek ways. The Portuguese saw this and saw that their rights were protected by forming these Gaothans. Remember a village has a church next to it. That shows that the Portuguese converted villages that were already in existence prior to their arrival. The natives followed the Buddhist faith, since they rejected or evolved from the Hindu faith to this new dynamic philosophy. RULERS HAVE CHANGES HANDS OF THIS CITY ANd ITS VILLAGES. It does not mean this land was without children. This land had its children in the form of Kunbis, Kolis and the Kumbhars. This land had its saitns prior to the Aryan invasion / or the onslaught of Hinduism. The rock carvings on mountains are places of meditation and not for cave men. This land created the script “Dev nagri”. The land of Saints. This Script Dev nagri has given shape to all languages today. But sadly, politics of money, religion and power have wiped out truth from a nation whose philosophy depends on it – Satyame Vijayate”. Here again an IRONY.
    The old Moguls too have surveys of this island. They have their Kuran read in Kokni language. Which is far older than URDU and Sanskrit. Mobai has been raped by the Greedy thats all. All the information provided in this well written essay is a sham with regard to truth. If truth be depended on books only, then all wars would break hell on the world, they all tell different truths.
    Have fun finding the truth. Its really difficult.

    Comment by Luke — February 3, 2011 @ 7:01 am

  5. Remember I mean KOKNI and Not KONKANI. Konkani is the language studied by the Portuguese and altered for lack of elements brought in by them. Example Pagar = Pay in konkani and not Kokni. Earlier people worked for exchange – Barter, Hence the word pay does not exist. The Portuguese created this word since they brought in a system with them.

    They studied Kokni and additions made by them to the language was called Konkani. They did this – calling this added on words to the original Kokni as Konkani only to preserve the original Kokni and not dissolve it. They Proselytized in the native tongue. Hence the churches. The british didnt build churches they were here on business. Or else the whole of the GUlf would have Churches. The British were there too.
    Most villages have been given last names of clergy men who converted villages here. These last names are of Portuguese and not British. Ferreira, Mendes, Fernandes. The British surnames were DIFFERENT mc Donald, John, Mac Millan etc.

    Bottom line – Kokni is the mother of all languages. In coastal Karnataka a rock was found with Kokni inscriptions dated some 2000 years ago. If you read above that Konkani is portuguese additions to KOKNI what would you tell those who say that the rock has inscription in Konkani. Well Its Kokni. Study will only help you. not surfing the net.

    Comment by Luke — February 3, 2011 @ 7:12 am

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