Rupali Gupte & Prasad Shetty
This is a semi-fictional narrative. There are no resemblances to true people, organizations, events and places and should be treated as montages stitched together from various experiences in the city.
These are three stories of Mumbai – first, of a process of housing delivery and inhabitation of an apartment building in a suburban working class neighbourhood; second, of redevelopment of a slum-resettlement colony in an expensive locality near the business district; and third, of the slow transformation of a shopping street / mall in a middle-class neighbourhood.
The amorphous builder
For almost a year we were in search of a house to buy in Mumbai. Renting was not an option because it defied economic logic. At the time we started looking, we still didn’t have enough money in hand to buy the house. We were also not happy with the kind of spaces we were seeing. Many of these apartments abutted other apartments such that there were serious compromises in daylight, ventilation and privacy. At the same time we were trying to sell off an old property in the inner city of Mumbai one of us had inherited. The peculiarity of such property in the inner city is that it has multiple tenants (we were one of them) who had been conferred property rights by law. We could not be evicted. The landlord, unable to do anything had sold the building informally to a builder, who was an ex-underworld man. This builder tried to buy off the tenants of the old building, one by one so that he could get a clear title before redeveloping the building. We decided to sell off the property to this builder to get some money to buy this house in the suburbs. Other members also slowly sold off their rights and moved to various other places in the city. The money was given to us in liquid cash. This took some time as the builder himself was negotiating to get this cash from other sources and networks. By the time we got the cash we had to immediately reinvest it to evade tax.
In the course of one of our routine visits to real estate agents, we found a building under construction. We went to the site office, which gave information on the availability of flats and prevalent market rates. The builder quoted a certain price. The figure seemed higher than our expectation. As we were walking away, we heard someone call. As we turned around we found a real estate broker following us. He had a shop on the lower floor of the building under construction. He quoted a price much lower than the price that the builder was asking. Also, the plot in front of our house was a low-rise municipal school, so the east-facing flats received ample light, ventilation and had an endearing view. We immediately agreed to buy an east-facing flat in this building. The building was called Gyandarshan.
An investor had bought the flat we were interested in. He was quoting a price lower than that of the builder because he wanted to dispose it off quickly. We went with a bag full of money to the investor’s office in an old industrial estate. The investor took the money. Not trusting this informal and ambiguous transaction, we thrust a paper in front of him asking him to sign an acknowledgement of the receipt of the money. The investor simply laughed at our foolishness and lack of experience and asked us to forget that we had given any money and to go home and sleep peacefully. The house would soon be ours. With fear tugging at our hearts we left the place. We soon realized that the price was depressed because the construction of the building had stopped due to some problems in building approvals. Luckily by the time we realized, the work had started again. Within a year’s time we received possession of the house.
The office of the builder was in a structure next to the building edging the street. He had occupied the structure a few years ago. Overtime he had managed to gather some rights due to the Slum Act that prohibited eviction of squatters without providing alternative accommodation. Building of such structures invariably started on Friday knowing that the Municipal office was closed on the weekends. Then on Monday someone from within would complain to the Municipal office. An officer from the Municipal office would come and demolish some previously decided part of the construction in return for a small bribe. Photographs would be taken of the demolition and recorded. The construction would then proceed.
Having bought the flat, we had to now deal with the builder for several issues of advance payments for building maintenance, modifications to the flat interiors and buying of parking. The knowledge that we had to buy a parking space itself was a shock to us but ultimately we conformed and decided to pay up. We informed him that we would take a month to put up that money. He said he would give 25 days and that if we came after 30 days we would have to pay Rs. 25000 more. We went after 27 days and he decided to charge us the higher rate. We fought with him. He was adamant. However suddenly he had an idea. He told us he would charge us the lower rate if we as architects gave him ideas for his upcoming wedding decorations. Both taken aback and disgusted by the decadence, we tried to get out of the situation by suggesting that he get married on a yacht. He said that that idea was not feasible as he had four thousand guests. He said he had planned the whole thing at his guesthouse outside the city. According to his plans, he and his wife-to-be would walk on a red carpet along a long access road to the guesthouse. In true Bollywood style, beautiful women would be dancing beside them as they walked along. All along there would be tattoo artists, double storied bars and jugglers entertaining guests. A light would follow the couple over their heads as they walked over to an elaborately decorated stage. (He still hadn’t figured out how that light would float over their heads.) As they reached the stage, the lights would come on. Here’s where he said he was stuck and needed ideas from us.
After we moved into the building we found out that our builder was originally a dealer in sand and cement. Our building was the first he developed. He had received some small contracts to build houses in a nearby resettlement colony owned by the State Housing Board. The State Government had a policy of providing land at a cheap rate to a group of people who had organized themselves and formed a cooperative housing society. The policy required that none of the members could previously have owned a house anywhere in the city. Our builder had managed to collect a group of people in the required proportions of caste and gender, had formed a society and prepared documents for getting such land from the government. With contacts developed in the Housing Board and after paying bribes to several officers, his society managed to get a piece of land. His father was shown as a contractor and he himself was the secretary of the society. The other office bearers were trusted friends. Even though the land was allotted to the society members to build their own houses, there was a small amendment in the regulation that allowed new members to be added to the society. So when funds were required to build the building, new members were included. The land was in an industrial area next to large slums and resettlement colonies; hence the price was kept low initially. Slowly as floors started adding the price of the flats started soaring.
Like others, we had not realized the politics behind acquiring the land and putting the building together until recently. So when we went to buy a house, the builder was just another arrogant and scheming person wanting to fleece our money. Later, when the papers were shown, it turned out that we, as members of the society were ourselves building our apartments. Most places in Mumbai have such complicated processes of putting together a project. The idea of a builder / developer, being a ‘scheming monolithic figure’ had for us broken down. Gyandarshan revealed that the category of the builder included investors, real-estate agents, architects, finance agencies, contractors, government officials, society members, buyers etc. – each having their own desires and aspirations – sometimes contradictory to each others. The agency of gentrification was itself very ambiguous.
Gentrification and re-gentrification
Soon we found that other members of the society had also managed to buy houses through convoluted processes. Many of these people were from nearby slums and slum resettlement colonies. They had made enough money to buy a house through striking deals with developers for their slum houses. Moreover, the price set earlier was low. Many others from nearby slum rehabilitation projects in the city also found it possible to invest that money into this building. They had received money to vacate their premises from builders who were undertaking these projects of slum rehabilitation. After vacating the premises, the builder would still use their names and identities to show that these people live in the slum because the amount of incentive for rehabilitation was directly proportional to the number of people living in the slum. So generally, the builders would prefer more number of slum dwellers on paper, but none physically present on site as he could then sell all houses developed for slum dwellers in the open market. Of course, the law does not allow this.
Two members of Gyandarshan were scrap dealers ‘bhangarwalas’. They lived in a nearby slum. This was the first time they were moving into an apartment. An apartment for them was a sign of their own social mobility. Some of the former slum dwellers in the building, which had surplus money received from deals with builders, also bought new cars. Cars were signs of status, markers of a newfound respect they now commanded in society. These cars however never moved from their parking spots in the building premises. They became immobile furniture pieces in the building compound.
Many families in the building were living in an apartment for the first time. Their spatial practices in their earlier homes found their way into the new apartment building in different ways. One evening we heard goats bleating. We wondered where this sound came from. After some investigation, we realized that there were two large goats on the mid-landing just outside our door, tethered to the railing on the staircase. In their former places of residence, streets and other outdoor spaces became places where everyday life spilled out. The apartment type did not allow this spilling out in a very pleasant way. Some people from the building complained to the secretary, who called our neighbours and informed them that they were not allowed to leave their goats outside. The neighbours then took the two large goats into their tiny 400 square foot apartment shared by 7 other family members. The following day was Bakri Id (The festival of sacrifice). A large tent was built in the side open spaces of the building and goats were sacrificed there. A large feast followed.
There are also a number of struggling Bollywood actors, models and model-supply coordinators living in Gyandarshan. New entrants to the film industry who cannot afford the real estate prices in the other localities of the city have started renting spaces in buildings like Gyandarshan. Along with them are call center workers, who work in the nearby cluster of BPO offices. All these people we found, were renting apartments in Gyandarshan from investors who were holding on to the houses to sell them at the right time. The interiors of these houses were modified to accommodate maximum numbers of renters. As this young group had odd working hours and a sense of morality different from the other residents of the society, there were constant conflicts between the occupants who were owners and the occupants who were the renters. The highly moralistic families of Gyandarshan often demanded that renting should be restricted to only families and not single people.
Gyandarshan had inverted the idea of gentrification on its head. It was not clear, who were the gentry. The otherwise easy narrative of the middle class taking over a lower class area did not work here. This is a case, where different urban actors played up the markets to make a different mobility possible. This phenomenon caused chance encounters where diverse groups came together to reside in one housing block. The planning dream of ‘mixing social groups’ was made possible in the environment of high corruption, illegality, entrepreneurships and shrewd tactics. These mixes were not without their intense moments. Most society meetings ended up in bitter quarrels about modes of operating the housing society, use of building premises etc. Many of these were completely irrational arguments as building society members came from completely different social settings and hence harboured completely different registers of how to govern their societies. While some were worried about day-to-day costs and attempted to reduce the monthly maintenance, others thought about the future costs incurred as the building aged.
Appropriations and re-appropriations
In the early 1970s, large numbers of slum dwellers were relocated to different parts of Mumbai. Bharat Nagar is one such site, about 44 acres and divided into several plots. In these plots, 160 square feet pitches were given to people to build their houses. Each of these plots had about 160 pitches stacked next to each other in rows. In later years, houses were extended in the front and the rear by about 5 feet each and also floors were added above. Houses also doubled as spaces of work, where families undertook small household enterprises. The State Housing Authority was the landowner of Bharat Nagar.
In the earlier years of relocation, people found it difficult to feed their families as their economic networks were severed. They started doing a variety of things – largely activities that were considered illegal. The old residents describe the Bharat Nagar of the seventies as, ‘infested with thieves and mosquitoes in the same numbers’. Bharat Nagar became an important node in Mumbai’s drug trade and illicit liquor production.
Along with shifting of polluting industries and relocating older settlements, the 70s also saw large-scale reclamation of land for real estate particularly for commercial activities. The marshes that were around Bharat Nagar were also reclaimed to make land for the new business district. The land was ready by the mid 80s. Large banks and industrial houses were invited to build their offices in the new business district. By the 90s, the city economy had started changing – large industries had started shutting to be soon replaced by commercial and financial establishments. Large manufacturing industries disintegrated into smaller units located largely in slum settlements. The strong environment movement – particularly the coastal zone regulation had restricted further reclamation. The traditional land making process by reclamation had stopped making land a limited commodity. Meanwhile commerce flourished and the old business district of the south remained inadequate to accommodate it. The demand for new land rose tremendously and the business district next to Bharat Nagar started commanding one of the highest property prices in Mumbai.
Ilyaas Sheikh, a carpenter, had bought a house in Bharat Nagar in 1992. Buying a house at that time meant paying off the original owner to vacate the premises and bribing the Housing Authority officials to change the name in the records and rent receipts. The total cost of the house including the bribe was about Rs. 3 lakhs (1500 USD). As a carpenter, he was extremely skilled and worked for several architects. He had made enough money to hire a team of workers who lived in the lower floor of his house.
One evening in 2005, a local real-estate agent by the name of Suleman approached him. He offered Ilyaas Rs. 50 lakhs (100,000 USD) to vacate the house. Though the offer was tempting, Ilyaas could not respond immediately. The next day he asked around and found that his neighbours were also made similar offers. An atmosphere of pleasant uncertainty had spread in the area. While a few people had already sold their houses and were packing up to move, most of the others were in a state of confusion. Some people also decided to call Suleman and bargain for more money. There were several informal meetings throughout the day. In the evening, Suleman came again with several other men and four large cars. They parked in the open space near the toilets and opened their trunks. Inside the trunks were bundles of thousand rupee notes. As the crowd gathered, a man started speaking to the crowd. He said his name was Iqbal Qazi. Everyone knew Iqbal as the kingpin of the illegal liquor production. After the police had dismantled the liquor and drug trade in the mid 90s he had started running a bar and a restaurant. His men continued to work for him. He told everyone that he represented a builder who wanted to buy all the houses in Bharat Nagar and redevelop the land. He further said that the builder was ready to pay Rs. 90 lakhs to anyone who would vacate before the next morning and Rs. 80 lakhs to people vacating within seven days. The others would be paid not more than Rs. 65 lakhs. More than 200 families took the money that evening and shifted by the following morning.
Ilyaas was one of those who did not take money – everything was too fast for him. In the night Suleman approached him again – this time with another proposition – he said that he would speak to Iqbal and get him 90 lakhs if he agreed by the next day. Suleman also offered him temporary accommodation until Ilyaas was able to find a new house. Ilyaas said that he needed time to think and would answer by the next afternoon. Later in the night a group of neighbours led by Mehboob came to Ilyaas’s house and asked him not to sell his house. They said that if everyone stuck together they could bargain for more than a crore of rupees (200,000 USD). As Ilyaas was not sure of the whole thing, he thought that following Mehboob would give him some more time. When Suleman telephoned Ilyaas the next day, Ilyaas said that he needed more time to think. Suleman’s advisory tone suddenly changed into a threatening one – he said that he would not even get Rs. 50 lakhs if he delayed any further. A couple of days passed in the phase of uncertainty. Meanwhile Suleman and Iqbal had called the dissenting members several times. On the third evening, when Ilyaas was returning home, he was stopped by four heavily built men. They told him that they would break his legs if he did not sell the house by the next day. Ilyaas immediately visited Mehboob and learnt that several others were threatened in the same manner. Someone in the colony had found out that the developers were the company, DHIL and were operating through ex-gangsters and hit men. People were scared. They started moving around in groups. Ilyaas’s employees would always accompany him everywhere after that incident. Some dissenting members could not take the pressure of living in fear and sold their houses. After two weeks, Ilyaas got a phone call from Iqbal saying that Mehboob had sold his house for Rs. 1 Crore and the same offer was open to Ilyaas. By this time, Ilyaas had already gone through two weeks of living in fear. He had made up his mind to leave the area and had started looking for alternative places for himself and his employees. The timing of Iqbal’s call was apt and his offer was good. Ilyaas immediately agreed. The next day he visited Iqbal’s Office in Kherwadi Slum and signed some documents. That evening he carried hundred bundles of thousand rupee notes back home.
Ilyaas bought two houses with the money and tried living in one of them for some time. He rented the other one. He then rented a place in Bharat Nagar for his workers. Soon he realized that he couldn’t live in the apartment and needed to live with his employees. He decided to rent out his apartment and shifted to Bharat Nagar. Today, just as before, he occupies the upper floor, and rents the lower floor for his employees – the only difference is that he is now richer by two apartments.
DHIL was able to buy off about 500 tenants from four plots of Bharat Nagar spending about Rupees 450 Crores. In the following years, DHIL got these plots declared as a slum and also got approvals to redevelop them under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme to accrue the benefits of the incentive development rights provided to offset the cost of redevelopment. This was a case where housing provided by the government was declared as a slum and tenants of the government were considered slum dwellers. DHIL built houses to rehabilitate old tenants (now slum-dwellers) in the four apartments over a small piece of land; the remaining land was sold to another developer for Rupees 2250 Crores to develop the commercial complex. As the old tenants were already bought off, the houses that were developed to rehabilitate them (as slum dwellers) were informally sold in the open market.
The change of the four plots of Bharat Nagar came about through intense negotiations, threats and bargains where everyone seemed to have made money. It is difficult to mobilize the otherwise easy narrative of ‘appropriation’ here.
In Plot no. 11, a group of tenants had come together under the leadership of Usmaan Khan a shoe trader and had refused to sell their houses. Usmaan had managed to convince them that if they could themselves redevelop the land they occupied their property would be worth much more than what DHIL was offering. Over a period of three months, all tenants had been convinced about this ‘Self-Redevelopment’ project. In 2008, they approached an NGO of architects and planners to help them with the process. A rule in the development control regulations allowed such resettlement colonies to undergo redevelopment. According to the rule, a built-up area of two and half times the plot area could be developed on such a plot. A part of this built-up area could be used to accommodate the current tenants and the remaining could be commercially exploited. The returns from such commercial exploitation were expected to pay the cost of redevelopment. As per the feasibility worked out by the NGO, each family would get a house of about 500 square feet and an amount of Rs. 11 lakhs (22,000 USD).
This community had withstood threats and seductions by developers who wanted to buy off their property. With the help of a housing activist, they managed to get the ownership of the land from the government. Mushtaq, who was one of the most active members in the process of following up on the development, stood for corporator elections in his ward. He did not align himself with any party and stood as an independent. His main election agenda was ‘self re-development’ of Bharat Nagar neighbourhoods. He had a landslide victory. The Tenants Association of Plot No. 11 is now in the process of acquiring investors for their project. Numerous venture capitalists are showing interest in the “self redevelopment” project.
The NGO started its survey to ascertain the characteristics of land and of the community. One of the most unexpected finding was that, while the community had reported that there were only 160 families that need to be re-housed, the survey indicated that actually there were more than 280 families and about 40 shops that occupied the land. Most members of the community had sub-let a part of their house to another family or shop on rent. Such sub-tenants and shopkeepers were occupying the houses since the past 10-15 years. If all such families and shops had to be accommodated, the feasibility of the project would have changed – each family would have got not more than a 300 square feet house and a corpus of about Rupees 3 lakhs. When the NGO discussed the issue with the members of the community, they responded with the information that the ‘original’ tenants of the Housing Authority were only 160 and only they should be re-housed. The tenants were confident that they would be able to evict the sub-tenants without any problem. There were more questions to answer – what about the income generated through renting of spaces or using them as shops? And what about the evicted sub-tenants – where would they go? The members of the community answered both questions with great ease – they said that once the land would be redeveloped, the value of property would be very high, which would give them better options for selling and renting. And regarding the sub-tenants, the tenants simply said, “it was their problem to find a new place”.
As opposed to the narratives of appropriation by builders, middle and lower middle class communities had managed to play out the market creating newer opportunities for themselves. But at the same time, it was not the developer or a builder or the state, which was evicting people from their houses – in this case, one set of occupants was ready to throw out another set. And all of this would occur very silently.
The slowness of change
A street in Irla, a suburban neighbourhood of Mumbai, had over the years become one of the most popular destinations for retail shoppers. The street began as a quiet residential neighbourhood comprising of low-income state housing board apartments and slums. Just adjacent to this area were elite upper class neighbourhoods. Slowly, the ground stories of the housing board typologies were transformed into shops. The intensity of shopping grew as more and more ground floor apartments on the street transformed into shops and as new extensions to these shops emerged, which spilt out on the road. Many of these extensions were further rented out to other smaller traders. Banking on the footfall on this street other street vendors selling small wares set shop. The street became one of the liveliest shopping streets in the suburbs.
Many specialized shops came up in the area. One of them was called ‘Alfa’ which became a phenomenon on this street. The owner was able to manage large amounts of imported goods including electronics, food items, accessories, toys etc. and sell them. Everything in Alfa cost less than market rates. Alfa became a mecca for the middle class shoppers with a taste of ‘foreign goods’. Soon the shop diversified – luggage, mobile phones, household wares, electronics, garments, and even a foreign exchange center – Alfa gave the best rates in the market and accepted almost all currencies. The shop felt the need to expand. The owner kept buying shops on the street naming them Alfa1, Alfa2, 3, 4, and 5. The street was often nicknamed the ‘Alfa street’.
Today, as the street has maxed out, its tentacles have started moving into the large slum behind. Property here has become one of the most sought after in the area. There is a high demand from shopkeepers for warehouses and living spaces for their labour. While the houses in the slum closer to the street sell their spaces for showrooms and display type shops, the ones behind continue selling or renting for warehouses. As the display type shops go further into the slum, they find ways of attracting customers inside by painting and signposting the narrow access ways in the slum.
The change of the Irla Street has been slow and textured. This slowness affected many people as they found ways to deal / engage with it. People were not thrown out, but new people came in. They were accommodated generously as well as awkwardly.
In 2004, a mall came up on the street trying to piggyback on the footfall already garnered by the other enterprises. It was called Prime Mall. The smaller traders were afraid that their businesses would be taken over by a big mall. However the story of the mall unfolded in a very different way. The shops in the mall were tiny because of space constraints. No big retail business came into this mall. Even the bigger spaces were subdivided into small shops. The mall was taken over completely by small traders. The prices of goods in these shops were obviously more than those in the other enterprises of the street, especially from those in the Alfa stores. So people would go to this mall not to buy goods, but to take an air-condition break from shopping – they would visit the mall for simply loitering in the air-conditioned space, without buying anything. There was another set of people who visited in large numbers. Even these did not come here to buy goods. They came to use the toilets, as there were no toilet facilities in the street. So the mall became a large air-conditioned public toilet and a recreation space.
With very little business in the shops, many shop keepers decided to dispose off their property. But there were no buyers. There were others who kept changing the type of goods in their shops hoping that something would work. But even these did not succeed. Rents remained low and the owners of the mall found it difficult to maintain the space. The first thing they did was to shut the air-conditioning. With air-conditioning shut, the number of people visiting the mall further reduced. The shopkeepers installed their own small air-conditioning units. Their compressors were kept outside the shops, spewing heat into the common spaces of the mall. So the lobbies and corridors became extremely uncomfortable places to be. Some shoppers looking for discounted deals still come to the mall, bearing the brunt of the heat-spewing atriums, dodging quickly into the air-conditioned shops. However many of the shops in the mall are closed. The food court has completely shut shop.
Today there are ads proclaiming the investment in this space to be cheaper than buying a place in a slum. The owner of the Alfa shops on the street offered to buy two floors of the mall and call it ‘Alfa mall’. But the owners of the mall refused to give up their name. They are desperately trying to keep the mall alive by coming up with innovative ideas for the space. For instance there is a huge hoarding outside the mall inviting people looking for brides or grooms from the Gujarati community (a community largely of traders). From time to time the mall owners organize events for potential brides and grooms from this community to meet.
As opposed to the conventional arguments of malls engulfing street enterprises, Prime mall was a case, where the street engulfed the mall. The mall has disintegrated into the street, blurring the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the formal and the informal.
While in all of these cases, the narrative of gentrification can be mobilized – of middle-class takeover of working class neighborhoods, or a developer’s appropriation of a slum-resettlement land, or a large mall engulfing an informal shopping street; a closer look at the mechanics in which each of these get worked out in the city, reveals complex processes that dismantle easy conceptualizations of takeover, appropriation and engulfment. In these stories of change, one finds that these messy processes actually open up different possibilities for a variety of urban actors and sometimes are far more inclusive than desires of ‘equity’, ‘the greater common good’ or ‘transparencies’, that are often advocated. For example in the case of the housing society, we see two things, one, how diverse groups of people have managed to inhabit a common space, and two how the apartment typology has been used in multiple new ways challenging the myth of a takeover. In the case of the slum resettlement scheme, we see how, as opposed to singular narratives of appropriation by builders, slum communities have managed to play out the market creating newer opportunities for themselves. And finally opposing arguments of a mall engulfing an informal street, we see how the mall itself has disintegrated into the street, blurring the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the formal and the informal.