Spatial Dimensions of Property


Prasad Shetty & Rupali Gupte

August 2015



Consider the description: “The street is narrow with two storied buildings on either side that have balconies on the upper floors and arcades on the ground. They almost touch each other sideways forming a continuous wall along the street embellished with uninterrupted balconies and arcades on the ground floor. Small and large shops on the ground floor of the buildings open into the arcades. The street is more than a mile long and connects two major roads of the city. The shops are popular and provide enough opportunities to fulfil all kinds of desires, While it remains busy the entire day, the evenings are significant when the bright colourful signboards of the shops switch on. Every evening on this street appears to be a carnival”.


In this description, the street is an ‘urban space’. It being more than a mile long, having shop fronts on either sides, its narrowness, two storied height, with continuous strips of balconies, uninterrupted arcades, bright and colourful signboards, large numbers of people walking, etc are the ‘distinguishable physicalities’ of the urban space, or the ‘urban form’ All urban spaces have distinct urban form. This street described above is evidently different from a highway or a city artery. Similarly different neighbourhoods in the city will have their own distinct urban forms – some neighborhoods have narrow streets and buildings touching the street; some have wide streets where the edge of the street have sidewalks, which in turn are edged with high boundary walls enclosing buildings; some are made of tall commercial buildings, some are predominantly residential high rises, etc. Different qualities get attributed to different urban spaces based on form. For example, an incrementally developed neighborhood, where people have built their own houses could appear dense and ‘slum’ like. On the other hand a neighborhood that is developed on a grid plan with wide roads and rectangular plots would appear completely different. Attributes such as organized, informal, clean, dirty, safe, unsafe, congested, sparse, ordered, etc. get formed about urban space.  The urban form also produces an urban life. In the above description, the street is a place of enterprise, it fulfils desires; it is like a carnival, etc.


Also, for the purpose of this paper, ‘property’ is specifically ‘real-property’ – land, buildings, urban space, real-estate, fixtures on land, etc. Real property is produced through ‘claims’ of people. In urban India, the claims over land are complex and can be of various kinds. There may be many parties making different claims over a single piece of land – all coexisting and simultaneous. For example, a person may have obtained a piece of land from the state on lease and then rented it to a company, which has built houses and shops over it. Hence, all parties involved have various kinds of simultaneous coexisting claims that are not necessarily contradictory to each other. The overlap of customary holding of land with the ‘one land–one party’ titling system brings about other kinds of complexities. For example, in many parts of pre-colonial India, lands were claimed jointly by several people – feudal lords, tillers, family members, community members, etc. In many places, such joint claims continued after independence. However, the modern systems of land transactions and development that were put in place by the government was compatible with the ‘one land – one party’ titling system. Lands with joint claims became extremely difficult to transact or develop. Claims also exist by prolonged occupation of property. For example, a person living in a place for more than a certain number of years cannot be evicted in many parts of India. Property in urban areas gets formed through all kinds of claims – claims of a title holder, a tenant, a sub-tenant, a part-holder of title, an occupant of premises for several years, etc.


In this paper, we shall discuss the relationship between urban form and urban property through a case of a neighborhood in Mumbai. The neighborhood is an electronic cluster along a street called Lamington Road.




The Street


Like many other streets in Mumbai, Lamington Road displays some amount of clarity during the early hours of the day when the shops are still shut. If one walks the street during this time, three distinct parts of the street are identifiable – a carriage way in the centre with four car lanes; two reasonably wide walkways along the edges of the carriageway; and a line of buildings along the edges of the walkways. The buildings almost touch each other forming a continuous boundary to the street and have shops on the ground floor. The traffic is very thin during the early hours and there is an occasional car parked along the edge of the carriage way. The walkway has several kinds of installations on its edge along the carriage-way. Usually, these are large wooden boxes or rag-tag tables made of make-shift wooden pieces. These are the sidewalk-shops which start business around ten o’clock in the morning. Many wooden pieces are attached to these boxes and tables to provide necessary extensions for shading the shop or increasing storage. In some cases, the tables and boxes have things kept on them. These things are neatly covered with thick plastic sheets and secured to the boxes and tables with tightly tied ropes. It is difficult to make out what these things could be as only a vague form is seen covered in plastic. In many cases, the doors of the boxes are locked with large padlocks. Though the sidewalk-shops are secured with ropes and locks, they look extremely vulnerable to burglars operating during the night. A few homeless men sleep on the sidewalks during the night. Some of them are employed by the sidewalk-shopkeepers to guard their shops and wares. The shops along the other side of the sidewalk, in the buildings, seem to be of all sizes – their shutters measure anywhere between a meter to about six meters. One can figure out two kinds of shops – building-shops that are deep and become the ground floor of the buildings, and one-foot-shops that are simply embedded in the walls. These one-foot shops dig themselves one foot within the wall and extend themselves one foot outside. They usually come up on the free part of the wall between two building-shops. All the shops of along the buildings have metal rolling shutters covering them. A deep and thick awning generally protrudes above the shutters of each building-shop. The name of the shop is displayed on the front of the awning.


As the day progresses, the vehicular traffic on the carriage way increases, and some of the night-guards start sweeping the sidewalks. A few men open the shutters of the building-shops and start bringing out empty cardboard boxes and keeping them next to the doors of the shops. The cardboard boxes make customers believe they can get what they are looking for. Most of the times when the shops do not have the requisite items with them, the shop-keeper calls a few nearby shops to get them. The customer is never left disappointed. The sidewalk-shopkeepers also arrive and start setting up their shops. Many of the shopkeepers carry their wares with them, which are brought from the adjoining buildings. They rent spaces in the building to store their wares. Usually these spaces are within houses. The shopkeepers pay a small amount to the family occupying the house to rent a part of the house during the night. Some of the sidewalk-shopkeepers also rent the spaces within the thick awnings of the building-shops. The one-foot-shopkeepers also open their shops. When these open, they become much larger objects. Their insides unfold into several small shelves with colourful wares and turning these benign looking boxes into glittering magical creatures. The street also has a few other shops selling vegetables, fruits and flowers. The vendors using these shops sell most of their stock by the day time, leaving only a cadaver of the shop at night that waits to gain life again the next day with fresh stock. Sometimes, different vendors occupy same spaces during different hours of the day – for example, a newspaper vendor and a flower vendor may use the same premises in shifts. Or then there is the day and night shop – when the day shop shuts the night shop takes over its closed shutters. At certain times of the day, even the surfaces of the parked cars become temporary shops.


Urban property in Lamington Road seems to be configured through multiple claims and does not come across as a clear entity belonging to a single person. Boundaries, that are so essential to define property, get constantly made, erased and remade through claims of different people – homeless night occupiers, building-shopkeepers, one-foot-shop-keepers, sidewalk-shopkeepers, vegetable and fruit sellers, newspaper vendors, buyers and casual walkers. This dynamic nature of claims and property has its impact on the urban form of the street. A visitor walking in Lamington Road has to pass through capillaries formed by the juxtaposition of various kinds of shops. It is often difficult to identify where one shop ends and another begins. Everything along the edge of the street including the visitors and shop-owners diffuse into one another. The urban form is blurred and has a very high transactional capacity. It allows many activities to take place. In this blur, the differences set up by notions of public and private space, concepts of inside and outside and all other ideas that define spaces through clear boundaries are challenged. Urban form seems to be clearly a function of claims.




The Chawl


Lamington Road is on the edge of the inner city areas of Mumbai. These areas acquired their intensity about two centuries ago, when they were converted from paddy fields and vegetable orchards to a market place. The development of a port in Mumbai along the eastern edge of the city in the 1700s attracted large numbers of traders and other trade workers. The farmers of Mumbai found it more profitable to convert their large houses and fields into rented accommodation for traders rather than continuing with farming. They also started developing multi-storeyed buildings with tiny rooms for rent. These were called ‘chawls’. Several traders also bought lands from farmers to build chawls. The chawls usually had shops and offices on the ground floors and residential units on the higher floors. The process of converting agricultural lands into rented built-form happened slowly over time – initially, only small and non-fertile parts were used, but later as demand for housing and shops increased more and more lands were converted. By early 1900s, this part of the city was entirely turned into a dense place for trading and living. Several religious, educational, community and artistic institutions also developed to provide a cultural support to the place. The place produced an urbanity like a cauldron, where activities of working, recreating, chatting, praying, cooking, sleeping, gathering, etc. mixed with each other. The chawl stood as a unit of such a cauldron and shaped the space and form of this urbanity.


A typical chawl consists of small one or two room tenements strung along a long corridor. Toilets are usually outside at the end of the corridor. A medium sized chawl is ground plus two storied and has around 70 – 100 houses. Each tenement is about 10 – 15 square meter in size and usually has about 5 – 8 persons living in it. Chawls usually have an internal courtyard, which becomes an important community space for the inhabitants. Initially, a group of male friends lived in each tenement of the chawl, but later as the place became more hospitable and the opportunities increased, the traders and others brought their families to live in the chawls.


After 1850s, cotton textile mills came up in the northern parts, outside the inner-city areas. People, largely men, from all over the country came to Mumbai to work in the mills. Along with the mills, chawls were developed as housing for the mill workers. Here again, usually a group of 5 to 8 men shared a tenement and its rent. Before the chawls, the pastoral communities of Mumbai either lived in large independent agrarian houses or in small shack-like dwellings within tightly packed hamlets. With the growth of trade and industries in the city, the chawl house had become the urban house type of Mumbai.


Most of the migrant workers usually lived in the city for around 8 to 9 months and went back to their villages and families during the rainy season to farm. For these migrants, the sense of property in the village was different from what it was in Mumbai. The place they considered home was in the village, where they had their families. The idea of ‘permanence’ was associated with the village house. The chawl house on the other hand was simply a place to sleep. Here in the city, their idea of property was feeble – it was a small nebulous sleeping place, which was not permanent. Through the chawl, Mumbai had produced a diffused notion of a house and property.


After India’s partition in 1947, large numbers of people came to India from across the new border. As large cities could offer opportunities, they became attractive destinations for these people. As these cities experienced an overnight explosion in their population, demand for housing increased rapidly. With the increased demand, the house rents also spiraled. Chawl-owners of Mumbai increased the rents significantly and evicted older tenants, who were unable to pay them. Responding to this, the government enacted the Rent Control Act in 1948. This Act did two things – first, it froze rents at 1940 rates and second, it prohibited eviction of tenants. As tenants could no longer be thrown out of a chawl tenement, they acquired a new sense of property: the urban house was no longer just a sleeping place, but a permanent home. Friends living together in the chawl tenement split and each one tried to get his independent tenement. With this new sense of property, the mill workers got their families into the city. The chawl community consolidated and life changed in the chawl.


The multiple claims created through the ‘non-eviction’ policy made buying and selling of property or change of tenancy difficult as neither the landlord nor the tenant could make any property transactions without each other’s permission. To deal with this deadlock, the practice of Pagadi came into existence, where the revenue from the transactions on property got shared between landlord and tenant. Though this did not have a legal basis for a long time, thousands of properties got transacted through this practice.


Some of the tenants further rented a part of their tenement to a sub-tenant. The Rent Control Act also applied to such sub-tenants and over time they also became part of the chawl. There were sub-tenants occupying spaces under staircases, lofts, walls, and all other spaces in the chawl. With every inch of the chawl getting claimed, occupied and protected, the form of the chawl started blurring. All clear spaces corroded with additions and extensions erupting from everywhere. Old furniture was left in common spaces to be used by everyone. Overtime, people forgot whom such loose furniture belonged to.  It became part of the chawl’s corroded form. Some chawls became denser than the densest slums. But everything in the chawl was protected and perfectly legal.


Usually, the long tenements in a chawl have doors on both sides, which open onto corridors that are also on both sides – the front and the rear. As houses are small and occupants are many, the doors are kept open throughout the day. People freely pass through each other’s tenements and most of the day gets spent in corridors and the courtyard. It is as if the entire chawl is one large continuous space with small pockets of intensities, which close themselves into small rooms during the night. The house happens during the night with the doors shutting. A series of folding furniture – folding tables, doors that double up as cupboards, chairs that open up into beds, etc. were devised to multiply space inside the tenements when required. The form of the chawl blurred personal boundaries producing a continuous urban space with pockets of intensities that could be identified as houses or shops. It is this blurred and continuous urban form that lends certain logic to Mumbai – here people associate a sense of permanence and property to an unbounded space. Such blurred space enhances transactions, provides safety, optimises resources, affords a very high occupancy and produces a unique urbanity.




The Apartment


In the past five decades, Lamington Road has transformed from being a street popular for automobile spare-parts and accessories in the 1950s and 60s; to a sound and electronic cluster in the 1970s and 80s; to a computer assembly and repair node in the 1990s and early 2000s; to a market that sells branded computers, mobile phones, new media hardware, surveillance devices, specialised sound systems, etc. The people who frequent Lamington Road have also changed accordingly – from automobile mechanics, to electronic technicians, to computer assemblers to new media specialists. Branded goods came with their own logic. The informal entrepreneurship of small repair had given away to corporate call-centre centric service centres. Of course, the service centres themselves remained largely informal and were handled largely by contract labour that had fallen out of the earlier repair economy.


By the 1990s, there was not much land in Mumbai left for new construction. This constrained the supply of real-estate pushing their prices higher. With real-estate prices hitting the sky, property developers became extremely aggressive in creating new real-estate. On the other hand, some of the chawls had started deteriorating on account of intense usage. Since the 1960s there were instances of old chawls falling. The government had also set up a ‘Repairs Board’ to repair such old chawls. But due to the enormity of scale and lack of capacity, the Repair Board was not very successful in maintaining the chawls. The dilapidation of chawls produced enough opportunity for the aggressive developers to create new real-estate. This was done by demolishing the chawls and building skyscrapers in their place. The government policy allowed and encouraged such ‘redevelopment’ projects. For the government, redevelopments did two things: first, they created new housing stock for people living in old dilapidated chawls and second, they also produced new real-estate for the city. The redevelopment policy was populist in its orientation and promised a free house of a minimum standard on free-hold basis to all existing tenants of the chawl. The money for building such houses to rehabilitate all tenants came from new real estate that was to be developed on the same plot and sold in the open market. Since the last few years, most of central areas of Mumbai including Lamington Road have several such redeveloped buildings.


The new rehabilitation houses are however completely different from the old chawl houses. They are small self contained apartments, with each apartment having a little living room, a tiny kitchen, a bathroom and a toilet. All of this is fitted in minimum 25 sq meters of floor area. The living room is sometimes further divided into two smaller rooms, one of which is then called a bedroom. This subdivision usually creates dingy corridors inside the houses. There are usually no common corridors like that in older chawls. Unlike the chawls, these corridors never get used as community spaces. Moreover, the doors of the houses usually remain closed through the day.


The apartment as a house-type came to Mumbai in the 1920s when the British Government created large housing schemes for attracting the educated sections of the Indian society to Mumbai. The Government required educated people to run the public institutions of Mumbai. The ‘educated’ Indians however were from the upper castes, who historically lived through extreme exploitation of lower castes. People from the lowest of the lower castes, the untouchables usually cleaned the toilets of the people from the upper castes. The toilets were considered dirty and since the untouchables cleaned them, they would be usually located outside the living quarters in a typical upper-caste house. So when the new ‘apartments’ of Mumbai with toilets inside were offered to educated upper-caste families, they did not accept it. Many questions were asked – How could a toilet be inside the house? How would it be cleaned? Will the untouchable come inside the house to clean the toilets? This would dirty the entire house and how could such a house be purified? The architects and engineers then came up with an innovative idea to solve this problem – they made two doors to enter such houses – one that led straight to the toilets and second for the rest of the house. While the lower-caste toilet cleaner would use the door that led to the toilets, the occupants of the house would use the other ‘pure’ doorway. In the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, this innovation reached another height. There, apartments had three doors – one to the living quarters, one straight to the kitchen, and the third straight to the toilet. But unlike in Mumbai, where the apartments were built by either traders or real-estate developers or the British Government, in IIT Chennai, these apartments were built by one of the modern institutions of the socialist democratic secular republic of India.


By the 1960s, the ‘apartment’ had hijacked the idea of a house in Mumbai and also got established as a ‘standard house’. All other forms of houses – the chawl house, the old village house, a house in an incremental settlement, etc. were considered inferior to the apartment house. Typically, in the apartment of the 1960s and 70s, the common spaces were made very small and internal spaces were maximised. The idea of house as a ‘private space’ of a family was established. While the chawls and early apartments were built by landlords whose business was to make rented accommodations, the delivery system of the apartments of the 1960s, and 70s was very different. They were built by cooperative housing societies, which would buy land from the government, borrow money from banks, appoint their architects and contractors, and build their apartments. As the money had to be borrowed, there had to be a mortgage. This mortgage was the house itself. Such a house had to have clear titles as mortgage was not possible on property with multiple claims – the bank would not know whom to run after in case of non-payment, and it would be difficult to follow-up with all the claimants. The relationship between banks and property was getting consolidated and this required clear titles.


In the 1980s however, the cooperative movement of Mumbai was hijacked by private developers, who formed fake cooperative societies to get land from the government. They took on the responsibility of organising funds, hiring architects and contractors, managing approvals, etc. The housing delivery system had changed from renting until the 1950s to self-building in the 1960s and 70s to buying from a developer since 1980s. This was very good for the banks, investors, contractors, architects, governments, etc. They now had to deal with only one agent – the developer. The developer of the 1980s was usually a tout-like character, who would manage difficult things like getting finance, land, approvals, etc. through bribes and favours. The real-estate market has been good throughout except for a couple of short spells since the 1990s and the tout-like developers quickly grew into omnipresent agents in the housing and real-estate market. They turned themselves into large corporate houses by the end of the last century and today exist as large companies. However, the corporatisation has only enhanced and organised the tout-like behaviour – the bribes had become larger and the favours sophisticated. Moreover, the ‘developer’ today cannot be identified as a single person anchoring all activities of real-estate production – the developer is rather a constellation of investors, land assemblers, financers, lawyers, accountants, architects, liaison agents, government officers, real-estate agents, contractors, plumbers, landscape consultants, etc.  And the configuration of this constellation keeps changing with every new real estate project. It appears that that the entire sector of real-estate has a large set of people, who form smaller groups as and when required. Putting together a house had become a large industry – and this industry required a clear standard commodity that can be reproduced over and over again. The modern planning rules specified such standards and irrespective of what was happening to the city economy, whether it required shelter for migrants, or single women, or transit workers, or call centre workers, or anyone else, only apartments were built. This mixture of rules for standardisation and investment that required clarity of tenure became the prime reason for the production of apartments.


Life changed when the apartments started replacing chawls in Lamington Road. The edges and boundaries were guarded, and their blurring was not possible. The one foot shop, the sidewalk-shop, and the other vendors started disappearing wherever the apartments came. On the upper floors, the common corridor where most of the living happened had disappeared and now people were restricted within their flats. Since titles had become extremely clear, buying and selling of property proliferated. The old community that lived in the chawl found the apartment difficult to adjust to. The apartment created its own new community.



The paper makes three main arguments – first, that there is a relationship between urban property, urban form, urban space and urban life; second, that the logic of Mumbai is derived from its form that is blurred and continuous; and third that increasingly there is an effort to change this form and hence changing the logic of the city. Property has a spatial dimension and with every change in the idea of property, the spatial dimension changes. The multiple claims shaped the blurred street edges; the ‘non-eviction’ enacted in the Rent-Control Act created the diffused and continuous space of the chawl; and the housing delivery requirements of clear titles produced the bounded apartment. Each of these property and spatial forms produced their own unique city life.





Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte are urbanists based in Mumbai. They are trained as architects and specialize in urban management and urban design respectively. They are co-founders of the urban research collective, CRIT ( and of the School of Environment and Architecture (