Notes on future

Prasad Shetty

November 2014



The urban problems of Mumbai and its metropolitan region have generally been articulated as deficiencies and failures in infrastructure and housing. Several forums and studies have rigorously discussed issues like – poor quality of habitation; an exhausting and inefficient transportation system; polarised health and educational facilities; and dismal public spaces. The reasons for such a miserable condition of the city have also been analysed thoroughly by several intellectuals. These analyses have broadly pointed at two problems – low capacities in the public sector and corrupt nexuses between different urban actors. These problems in turn result in: populist and ad hoc policies that invariably get appropriated by developers and contractors; poor implementation practices that result in bad quality of work, delays and cost overruns; and shoddy governance with an appalling service delivery.


Several academics, activists, planners, government officials and other experts have suggested many specific and doable measures to address these problems. These include: getting rid of the ‘free-housing’ policies; encouraging repairs and retrofitting of old housing stock (including slums) instead of redevelopment; removing all kinds of relaxations of light, ventilation and open space norms; connecting proposed densities (of people and cars) to infrastructure availability; making owning of private cars difficult; making parking exorbitantly expensive; developing excellent quality, reliable and adequate public transport system; making good quality education and health facilities accessible to all equally; protecting critical environmental features; improving quantity and quality of public spaces; removing all kinds of private control from open spaces and making them accessible for all; taking strict actions on people responsible for delays and bad quality of work; building capacity of government officials; etc. The numbers of such proposed measures have only increased over the past few years and the new media has made them freely available to anyone interested in such suggestions. Any serious government that intends to do good for its people, only needs to make an effort to pull out and compile these suggestions, look at them carefully and implement the appropriate ones. The implementation of these measures may involve strong political will and difficult administrative decisions. To regain any kind of confidence on the state machinery, the State Government and the Municipal Corporation will have to implement at least some of the above measures. Only then, they will be able to tear away the thick layers of hopelessness that were built by the previous regimes.


In many ways, the problems articulated above are the problems of the present and could probably be addressed by taking immediate and adequate measures. As so much has already been said about these problems, I would not spend more time on them. In this paper, I would take up an exercise of speculating on future urban life and space based on a single aspect of the city – housing. This speculation may help prepare for the prospective crisis that seems to be slowly emerging, but going unnoticed in the cloud of present problems.


To construct the shape of the future, I will look into some instances of the past and pull out their trajectories. In the 1970s, many people who lived in slums from Mumbai were relocated into large resettlement colonies like Shivaji Nagar (Govandi), Malvani (Malad), Bharat Nagar (Bandra), etc. Thousands of families were shifted into these locations – usually on the outskirts of the city or on difficult and uninhabitable lands. These families came from different places, had different backgrounds, did different works, spoke different languages, followed different rituals and ate different food. Though the diversity was immense, they were forced to live together in dense colonies. Frequently high decibel quarrels would erupt regularly in these colonies, which sometimes continued into physical scuffles. Trust was very low amongst the neighbours.


After relocation, most people found it difficult to feed their families as their economic networks were severed. As the relocated places were usually on the outskirts with very low connectivity to the rest of the city or on difficult sites like marshy lands, people spent most of their productive time in travelling to work or dealing with the problems of the site. Also, there were no middle-class localities close to such resettlement colonies to absorb labour. These places remained isolated from the rest of the city and the government machineries also turned a blind eye towards them. The social and physical infrastructures provided were also very feeble. This was a case of extreme and deliberate exclusion brought about by relocating people, stripping them of their livelihood and leaving them to fend for themselves.


In this environment of desperation, activities that were otherwise considered out-caste and illegal started being resorted to. Many of these locations became nodes for Mumbai’s drug trade. Illegal liquor was also produced here. The old residents of Bharat Nagar describe it being – ‘infested with thieves and mosquitoes in same numbers’. By the 80’s these colonies had become a place inhabited by gangsters, drug traders / addicts and thieves of all kinds. The Vakola Nala along Bharat Nagar, the garbage dump yard along Shivaji Nagar and the Malad Creek near Malvani were all famous for disposing murdered bodies. People from the rest of the city avoided these places either because of their mess or because of fear.


In the resettlement colonies, each family was provided a tiny piece of land. In some cases, a room was built on this land. In a few years, the families invested on this piece of land and built houses. In later years, as families grew, houses were extended in the front and the rear and also floors were added above. Houses also doubled up as spaces of work where small household enterprises were undertaken. The ground floors of houses edging the main roads were converted into small shops and industrial units. When the colony was built, group water taps and common toilets were provided.  Later families got their houses connected to water supply as well as made toilets inside their houses. Some families also rented some rooms of their houses to new migrants.


It took more than thirty years for these places to settle – for the families to come to terms with each other’s lives, for neighbours to gain the trust of each other, to make these colonies into neighbourhoods and to make people into a community. This was the long process of settling. ‘Settling’ here is not a resolution of differences, but a process by which people come to terms with each other’s lives and the environment. Most places in the city have settled in this manner; but in the case of the resettlement cases of Mumbai, this settling has been extremely difficult. In many ways, these neighbourhoods have ended up becoming ghettos of the poor.


Thirty five years later, since the mid 2000s, there has been another wave of resettlements. About thirty thousand families have been moved. But this time, lands are not given to families, instead an apartment is provided. In most cases, the resettlement is done in eight storied buildings stacked next to each other with three meter distance between them. Each building has eight to twelve houses on each floor. Each house is twenty five square meters in area and has either a single multipurpose room with a kitchen space and toilet at one corner or two rooms separated by toilets, where one acts like a multipurpose room and the other as a kitchen. The building design shows no typological experiments to deal with work-living situations prevalent in low income house-holds. The regulations are relaxed for building, giving rise to an unliveable urban form. Light and ventilation conditions in the houses remain abominable. Fire norms applicable to regular construction in other parts of the city are overlooked. Many of these buildings are already showing signs of dilapidation within a few years of their construction. Moreover, there are no mechanisms in place to deal with such dilapidation. Further, overuse of infrastructure like lifts and their vandalism is also rampant in these buildings.


The future settling process of these new colonies needs to be closely examined. The settling here will be of a completely different nature than their older counterparts as the densities are much higher. In the earlier colonies, as families had their own piece of land, they could build, extend and enlarge their houses to accommodate the growing families or augment their incomes. In the new multi-storied apartments, such enlargements are not possible. So when the families will grow, the already dense colonies will become fatally overcrowded. This situation combined with abysmal light and ventilation is certain to produce a health crisis. The overcrowding will also intensify the use of buildings pushing them into dilapidation soon. A vertical slum will soon emerge that is – much more intense than the current slums; far poor in terms of quality of life; and teeming with dirt and disease. Life will however continue and innovations will be made to live through this condition. But escape from here will be extremely difficult as everything else will be super expensive.


Like the earlier resettlement colonies, the loss of work due to shifting has pushed people of the new colonies to desperation. The future will probably see all kinds of crimes flourishing in these colonies. Safety through legal systems will become an issue as police will be unable to penetrate these ghettos. Violence related to households, gender, underworld, etc will proliferate without check. Para legal systems of mafia will grow, which may be helpful for people to survive in these colonies in the absence of state machinery. The future trajectories of such colonies are horrifying. They seem to be producing conditions worse than what the existing slums or the earlier resettlement colonies have produced.


Along with vast greed and heartless planning, the problems of the new resettlement colonies are largely to do with their form. The high densities of people packed into tall buildings which are stacked very close to each other seem to be the real cause of the physical and social degradation in these colonies. This problem of form is not limited to resettlement colonies. The ‘high density – high rise’ type of housing is replicated in most developments related to the poor. One sees the same form in the redevelopment of slums, in redevelopment of old and dilapidated buildings as well as the new rental housing schemes that are emerging all over the metropolitan region of Mumbai. In Mumbai itself, if all the people living in slums and dilapidated buildings were to live in high rise buildings with such dense conditions, then that would constitute about 60 percent of the city’s population.


On the other hand, it appears that the remaining 40 percent people, in the future, would slowly move into large super luxury apartment enclaves. For some reason, the middle class has been obsessed with such apartments for a long time, where the common aspiration has been to own a large house in a gated community equipped with gymnasiums, swimming pools, multi storied parking lots, security men, surveillance cameras, lawns and servants quarters. The laws of the state had earlier enabled the middle class to build their assets over time and own land and property in the city. The laws are now facilitating the middle class to redevelop these assets into their dream apartments. For such redevelopments, the middle class have been colluding with developers and the state laws have also ensured that the developers make significant profits.


Mumbai in the future appears to be clearly divided into two kinds of landscapes – the super luxury enclaves of the rich and over-crowded ghettos of the poor. This will produce a highly divided and polarised city. The challenge of today will be about coming up with new ideas to avoid this polarisation of tomorrow.