Of Blurry Claims & Forms

(Paper published in SEMINAR-636 August 2012)

IN 1995 the government of Maharashtra floated a scheme for the unemployed. Under this scheme, the unemployed were to be given small food stalls and licenses to run them. These stalls were to be located along street edges – generally on the sidewalks. The scheme became popular as it promised to provide zunka bhakar – a Maharashtrian preparation consisting of gram and onion (zunka) served with jowar bread (bhakari) at one rupee per portion. To offset the cost of production of zunka bhakar, the government allowed the stalls to sell other food as well. The scheme was designed at addressing two constituencies – the unemployed, who were provided an enterprise, and the poor, who got cheap food.

The stalls were popularly called Zunka Bhakar Kendras and the scheme was termed the Zunka Bhakar Scheme. Of course, the scheme never worked as planned: while most stalls were given to members of the ruling party in the state government; they also failed to continue providing zunka bhakar at one rupee. The scheme nevertheless kept its promise in another way by providing employment to people working in the stalls, and providing cheap food. The food was not as cheap as promised, but was much cheaper than restaurants and other eateries. These stalls soon became popular with the working classes and they added themselves to the plethora of street side eating places in the city.

Over the years, the zunka bhakar kendras extended themselves into the space of the street, occupying more space on the sidewalks and sometimes even the carriageways. Some also provided seating arrangements for customers. The edge of the street – an otherwise clear boundary comprised of a clearly demarcated plot bounded by a compound wall with a sidewalk and a carriageway outside – was blurred by the occupation of the sidewalks by these stalls. This occupation contributed to ambiguous legalities witnessed throughout the city: they were promoted by the government but occupied ‘public’ land that was not intended to be occupied, such as the sidewalks.

Moreover, planners and urban designers were concerned about hygiene and safety: food was prepared on the street, using water that was procured from unknown sources; raw material and utensils were stored and handled in an unsanitary manner; and fuel was mobilized through black markets and used in precariously dangerous ways. These stalls diffused the clarity of the urban property regime; the idea of ‘public space’ associated with the street, and the clear urban form of a street contained within boundary walls, building edges and sidewalks.

Mumbai is made of such diffusions where building edges, boundary walls, sidewalks and carriageways fuse together. Display and storage spaces extend into the streets from shops along them. Two feet deep shops, with one foot anchored inside a plot or a building protrude out the other foot on to the street and establish themselves as independent property. Street vendors do business during the day either on the sidewalk or on the street. Some of them employ a homeless person to keep a watch over their wares during the night, while others hire spaces in the shops and houses in the neighbourhood to store their goods and possessions. Vegetable, fruit, fish and flower vendors sell most of their stock by night time, leaving only a cadaver of the shop at night that waits to gain life again the next day with fresh stock.

Shops are joined by other spaces and objects such as roadside temples, newspaper stands or seemingly permanent stray furniture. Different groups of people occupy these spaces during different hours of the day or inhabit them jointly. A newspaper vendor and a flower vendor may use the same premises in shifts, for example. Or shops – especially shops near courts – house lawyers, typists, photocopy vendors, etc. all in one shop, but each having a separate nameplate. It is as if shops and houses multiply within themselves – where several of these exist within one space. They spill over into sidewalks, which in turn not only accommodate such houses and shops, but also pedestrians and a number of fixed and temporary enterprises that extend further into the vehicular carriageway. The bleeding of functions is not merely one-directional, as vehicles sometimes cross over onto sidewalks.

Though these spaces appear to be ragtag and temporary, they have different degrees of legality. Some vendors have licenses, some pay rent to plot owners whose boundary wall they occupy, some have ration cards, some pay electricity charges, some have voter’s identity cards, some pay bribes to the local goons or police, and some simply occupy space temporarily and move when evicted. However precarious, these spaces are etched firmly onto the collective memory of city dwellers. Rickshaw drivers know the exact locations of the zunka bhakar kendras. River fish consumers know the exact places to get cheap rohu. Neighbourhood residents know where to get photocopies, chai, cigarettes, pan, tire puncture removers, cobblers, vegetables, fruits and flowers. The urban conditions produced by the overlapping uses in a same space are part of daily life. Iron and steel occupy the streets of Lohar Chawl. The streets outside Dadar railway station smell of different flowers and vegetables during different times of the day. People congregate outside famous wada-pav or lassi vendors.

The city seems nicely messy with an overlap of objects, activities and smells. Its logic gets structured through numerous and simultaneous claims: of shop owners, two feet shop keepers, vendors, pedestrians, car owners, buyers, and of causal walkers. Its form is shaped by constant morphing and mutation of building envelopes, plot shapes and street edges where boundaries are made, erased and remade continuously. This is the context of blurry claims and forms, where much of the city – its enterprise, property relationships and much of its life – gets worked out. It is these blurry condition that not only make the city, but are the city.

Historically, land in Mumbai (like many parts of India), has been held by innumerable claimants in small and large irregularly shaped pockets. The shape and size of these lands was determined by an agrarian logic of yield worked out through generations of subdivisions. A small piece of fertile land was considered equal to a large piece of non-fertile land if the yield in both these pieces was the same. When the British colonized India, they employed cartography to map the land, etching the shape and size of land pockets into a record – the ‘survey map’.

In many ways cartography formalized property and created the basis to collect land revenue for the colonial government. This cartography (epitomized by GIS today) uses points, lines and polygons to represent positions, edges and bounded spaces, respectively. These points, lines and polygons are drawn over a piece of paper at a certain scale and with a system of codes to produce the cartographic map or the ‘survey map’. A ‘register of titles’ accompanies survey maps, compiling the names of the owners of land that were described in the maps. Together, the ‘survey maps’ and the ‘register of titles’ forms the backbone of land records.

One piece of property had a single claimant in the register of titles (the owner), and was represented by a polygon on the cartographic map with a specific number given to it during the survey (the survey number). Through elaborate administrative and legal processes over a period of years, several changes were made to these records on account of subdivisions, amalgamations, changes of owners, etc. Today, a map of land holdings comprises of small and large irregularly shaped polygons.

Cartography not only provides the framework and system to make maps and records of land, but also installs a way of ‘seeing’ and ‘understanding’ land in a particular manner through the idea of boundaries (lines and polygons). In the cartographic map, the street is the space in between polygons, which do not have a mention in the register of titles. As it is not supposed to have any claims, it is considered to be a ‘public space’, owned and maintained by the government. Any claim to the street is either not recognized or vehemently resisted by agencies seeking some kind of neutral publicness.

In Mumbai, though some streets embody the clarity laid down by cartography and remain pristinely ‘public’, most streets are shaped differently. In these streets, positions change, edges mutate and spaces morph. Urban space (especially on the street) is full of overlapping and simultaneous claims. Property on the street is defined through claims and is not a fixed and clear entity. The clarity of cartography has an inability to deal with instabilities of positions, edges and spaces. Moreover, it is also unable to deal with heterogeneous claims to property. There is no space for complex claims such as multiple tenancies, sub-tenancy, squatting and customary rights in cartography.

As modern urban spatial practices (of development planning and architecture) are embedded in regimes of formality and legality, these practices require clear boundaries not only to execute ideas but also to think about spaces and plan them. Without a boundary, the planner is unable to function. He is unable to plan a city as there would be jurisdictional issues – to protect environmentally sensitive areas as people would otherwise encroach on them; to upgrade or redevelop a slum as the beneficiaries would not be known; to make projects for decongesting streets as their edges would not be known. Moreover, as cartography is the default language of urban spatial practices, such practices find it difficult to map the blurred relationships between the edge of the street (a public property) and the plot (a private property) adjoining it.

It takes years to change the polygons of property in the cartographic map – on the street it happens every hour. As cartographic maps are a law, anything that cannot be captured in them becomes illegal. So at one level it is the cartographic map (the instrument of law) which is in contradiction with the blurry form of the city. But at another level, it is cartography itself (the system of seeing and understanding), which is in contradiction with the blurry system of the city. So when the practitioners of spatial practices, planners and architects try to understand the blurry conditions using ‘cartography’, they will find it being not legitimate and conveniently label it as ‘informal’ or ‘illegal’.

When urban spatial practices intervene in the blurry conditions of the city, they employ the frameworks of cartography clarity. (Clarity in boundaries becomes very important to these practices and it is sought in the activities which occupy the edge of the street.) Conventional interventions seek to remove ‘informality/illegality’ and design the street edge with clear boundaries where only one activity can happen within a singular boundary. Progressive interventions, on the other hand, attempt to accommodate heterogeneous street activities by separating them – perhaps by widening the sidewalks and making grade separations for various functions – a process that, like conventional planning practices, defines clear and static boundaries.

Because there is insufficient space for the accommodation of all activities, some activities are erased. On the other hand, in seeking to accommodate everyone – the formal and the informal claimants on land – the progressive planning formalizes the informal. This formalization creates an internal contradiction in the entrepreneurial nature of the activities that occur on the edge of the street, threatening them. For example, if an informal shop is formalized by providing clear bounded space, the shop will have to pay taxes and service charges and the prices of wares will increase. Moreover, clear private tradable property will be created on sidewalks and streets that are not supposed to have such private property.

Orthogonality, the system of straight, perpendicular and parallel lines accompanies cartography as its language. For conventional planners, the ideal city is embodied by neatly laid rectangular or square plots of land in a grid that is joined by straight, long roads of reasonable width. Moreover, in this ideal city, every activity should be given a defined and clear space with no mixing permitted between them. Problems arise when this orthogonally driven imagination of the ideal city is mobilized to intervene on lands where claims exist in a complicated manner, having their own inherent logic.

When a planner in Mumbai draws a master plan over a map comprised of small and large, irregularly shaped polygons representing land holdings, she/he is most likely to make a drawing with neat straight lines that not only define the roads, but also separate residential, commercial and industrial areas. The overlay of this master plan with irregular, pre-existing land holdings is awkward, creating more irregular shapes and sizes of property. For example, in a typical scenario, a road would be planned to cut through existing plots of land in such a manner that the plot is divided into small fragments on either side of the road.

Moreover, the distinct separations of activities render most entrepreneurial processes as ‘informal’. For example, if a small steel workshop owner employs six people who also reside in the workshop, and the workshop is located in the ground floor of a residential building on land that is zoned for residential use, then the activity would be deemed informal. First, the activity is so-called ‘industrial’ and is non-confirming with the residential use of land. And second, because the labourers live inside the workshop, which is an industry, their living accommodation is also informal as they are not expected to live inside an industry.

The cartographic and orthogonal logics also shape the way urban form gets validated. Straight lines, right angles and clear divisions of activities are considered as ‘good city form’. As blurry urban conditions complicate the clarity of space, property and form, spatial practices such as development planning and urban design seek to remove the blurs in search of clarified property and urban form. This tendency is most pronounced in the projects related to heritage conservation and urban renewal.

For example, in the case of DN Road in South Mumbai, heritage conservationists were able to clean up the street edge and restore clarity. DN Road is a mile long street stretching between one of the busiest train terminus and a central node of the business district. Colonial buildings encompass both sides of the street. Some of the largest industrial and financial corporate houses have their offices on DN Road. Each building has an arcade on the ground floor facing DN Road, making the entire stretch of the street arcaded. The street was developed during the colonial era and followed the wisdom of European urban design.

Many local architects and urban designers consider DN Road as one of the best designed streets in Mumbai. The ground floor of the buildings has a series of shops that open into the arcades. Over the years, like other parts of Mumbai, the shops of DN Road have multiplied. New and old camera shops, shoe shops, bookshops, garment vendors, electronic goods sellers, craft shops, and many more grew inside the arcades of DN Road and out onto the road. This transformed the morphology of the arcades – while the decorated arches of the arcades were covered with teeming signboards, each shouting for attention, the columns and the walls became anchors for shops to hang themselves and the wares. The ideal of disinterested leisure and repose envisioned for the arcade gave way to a lively space that bustled with multiple forms of activity. Movement slowed down as shoppers revelled in flanerie.

But the life of the arcade was a target of criticism by the heritage activists of the city, who considered the lively character as ‘chaotic’ and its slowness as ‘congestion’. They spoke of developments inside the arcades as ‘incongruous’ with the urban ‘heritage’ of Mumbai. Architects, planners and conservationists smitten by cartographic and orthographic logic made many drawings to illustrate the chaos and the congestion and how the neatly laid arcades with symmetrical arches and clear sidewalks were corroded by haphazard shop extensions, random vending furniture and irregular signboards. They also made drawings without the shops and signboards to show the ‘original’ arcade of DN Road.

After championing the cause for several years, in 2004, they succeeded in cleaning up some part of the arcade. People’s participation and public-private partnerships were sought in removing the ‘incongruent’ transformation of the arcades, cleaning the stones, installing new furniture and signage, and arranging security to guard the newly cleaned and spruced up DN Road against vandalism. All of this was organized using funds from the large corporate houses that occupied the buildings on DN Road and the project boasted of not using a penny from the state coffers. But a recession hit in 2007 and private funds dried up. Soon, the security guards were gone. The heritage-sensitive furniture and signage began corroding. The smaller shops started coming back and the street slowly regained its former life.

There are similar stories from other parts of Mumbai. Plans are made to clean up the bustling inner city areas and replace irregularly shaped, densely packed buildings with tall high-rises having clear setbacks and plot boundaries. Schemes have also been drawn up to redevelop the historic area of Dharavi, aiming to replace an incrementally developed industrial settlement with clearly plotted high-rise residences and commercial offices. Architecture and planning firms from all over the world have produced incredible visions for this transformation in an attempt to generate a new clear urban form for these localities. However, in the bid to generate a clear urban form, these seem to be efforts in removing heterogeneous claims from the inner city and Dharavi, opening them for newer actors like developers and financiers, who would have otherwise found it extremely difficult to enter the messy logic operative in these localities.

But the stories of cleaning up are not straightforward. In the planned elite neighbourhood of Juhu, several small eateries had mushroomed on the street serving the poorer classes who work in the rich houses. The residents’ associations repeatedly took measures to remove these shops. With constant complaints, aggressive follow-ups and influential actions, these groups forced the municipality to demolish the shops. For the residents’ associations, the existence of shops along the street edges did not concur with the ideas of ‘good urban form’. They also appointed a local architecture school to make plans for ‘good public spaces’ in the locality.

But, even after several demolitions the shops keep coming back. Demolitions seem to have become part of the daily order of their life and livelihood. Shopkeepers employ innovative strategies to deal with demolition, including establishment of a network of informers to report the whereabouts of the demolition van, identification of safe spaces in the locality to quickly transfer wares, payment of weekly bribes to municipal and police officers, and establishment of connections with dominant political parties.

Demolitions are sometimes staged to record the ‘action taken’ on the complaints – in such cases, the shop owners arrange demolishable parts for the officers to raze. Some have even changed their strategies of selling to avoid being targeted. They have begun to tactically brand their food as ‘health food’ and the health-conscious, wealthy residents seem to have bought the idea, as these vendors are not usually disturbed.

Cartography provides a ready-made idea of public space as a space without claims. This idea of ‘public’ is double edged – while it is useful against appropriation, it is also problematic when used as an intolerant/indiscriminate instrument to remove claims to urban space. Moreover, cartography and orthogonality shape the way we accept and validate city form. These not only influence the way we understand the city, but also the way we intervene – including our aesthetic.

For spatial practices to be relevant there needs to be a significant reorientation. They cannot remain obsessed with clarity, cleaning up the mess or resolving blurry conditions. If plans are made to clean up the city of its blur, it may not only be irrelevant, but such plans may also get subsumed into the blur, further blurring the city conditions.