Plotting & Scheming: Land Acquisition & Market Values in Colonial Bombay City, 1898-1910

Please click here to download my presentation (PDF) to the Cities Cluster of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) Research Division, National University of Singapore (NUS) on 18 January 2017. The talk was co-sponsored by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster of the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI) and chaired by Professor Tim Bunnell. This seminar talk is based on  a chapter from my forthcoming book, Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay, 1860-1920.

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In the late 1890s, an epidemic of bubonic plague swept through the ports of the British Empire in Asia, dramatising the vulnerability of imperial power in its urban centres of command and control. Colonial cities like Singapore and Bombay served as gateways to regional and global flows of people, money and machines, centralised and accelerated by networks of steam, rail and electricity. Freedom to trade and the rule of law underpinned both business and politics. Within these urban centres, power was shared and contested between colonial rulers, Indian elites and urban populations.

My presentation explores the social and spatial restucturing of early 20th century Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic. In 1898, the British colonial state established the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to “clean up” the city, equipped with draconian powers of compulsory acquisition and land clearance to demolish slums, erect new buildings and build broad boulevards. Within a decade, the BIT emerged as the single largest land-owner in colonial Bombay by seizing and plotting vast tracts into new planning “schemes” – though not without costly legal and technical challenges to its eminent domain from landlords and tenants, temples and mosques, and owners of shops, theatres and quarries.

Arbitrated through Victorian ideas of “market value” and techniques of measurement and valuation in colonial courts, urban environments once valued through overlapping chains of title and use were now awarded hypothetical cash values, driving speculation and generalising a new logic and political economy in colonial Bombay. I will examine this transformation in the urban land market through tribunals and court cases fought against the BIT by Indian claimants, appeals against acquisition and for higher compensation which often dragged on for years. These lengthy arguments and novel interpretations of Anglo-Indian land and property law continue to shape urbanisation in the cities of post-colonial South Asia.

Bombay Time: Power, Public Culture & Identity

Towards New Histories of Mumbai, 6-7 January 2017, Department of History, University of Mumbai
Towards New Histories of Mumbai, 6-7 January 2017, Department of History, University of Mumbai

As a tribute to our friend and mentor Professor Jim Masselos, the Department of History at the University of Mumbai, the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the University of Leicester have been hosting a conclave of historians, scholars and researchers of the the city at the Vidyanagari Campus of Mumbai University on Friday 6 to Saturday 7 January 2017. Click here to download my presentation (PDF) on “Bombay Time: Turning Back the Clock, 1870-1955″.

The completion of global networks of railways, telegraphs and steamships across British India and globally in the 1870­-1880s made possible the coordination of time signals across these lines of communication and transport, as observatories electrically transmitted the precise longitudinal time simultaneously from cities such as Madras and Bombay to their expanding territorial and maritime frontiers. However, the proposal to standardise time-keeping in cities confronted a multitude of visible and audible temporal signs in the urban environment – public clocks, factory sirens, office shifts, railway timetables, sunlight and sunset – as well as across the vast subcontinent, where local solar times varied by more than an hour between Calcutta in the east and Karachi in the west.

Despite repeated attempts to secure uniformity by colonial scientists and the state, a patchwork of temporal standards in colonial India resulted from rivalries between scientists, port, railway and municipal authorities, and persistent defiance of these standards by religious and civic leaders, traders, and the urban public. “Railway Time” or “Mean Time” on the longitude of the Madras Observatory – fixed on the completion of the trans-continental railway link with Bombay in the 1870s – encountered stiff public resistance in Bombay, for whom the new standard was more than 30 minutes ahead of local solar time, or “Bombay Time”, and was hastily withdrawn.

The introduction of “Indian Standard Time” (IST) amidst Lokmanya Tilak’s arrest and trial and the “Swadeshi” agitations in 1905-06 prompted further protest, from the stoning of public clock-towers to strikes by office employees and factory workers, as the state attempted to “turn back the clock” by more than half an hour. Thereafter, “Bombay Time” was observed in the city as an insignia of native difference and everyday resistance, as the “annihilation of space by time” was reversed in the spatial arenas of urban temporality. For Indian workers and office employees, “Bombay Time” could turn up later at work; native bankers and brokers could remain open for trading later than European commercial banks; and local philanthropists and municipal leaders sponsored public clocks at variance with official IST.

My paper revisits Jim Masselos’s essay “Bombay Time” (Meera Kosambi, ed., Intersections: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2000, pp.161–83), seeking to complement and deepen Masselos’s pioneering research into the standardisation of clock time in the colonial city. My paper will explore how “Bombay Time” dramatised the social construction and moral economy of time, extending Masselos’s original insights on the transformation of urban life in the context of technological change with new material from the municipal and state archives, and up to the demise of “Bombay Time” during World War II and after Independence.

The Master of the Game: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Let Donald Trump Mumbai

Click here to download this presentation (PDF) which I gave in the South Asian Studies Programme (SASP) seminar series at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This talk and presentation was co-sponsored by the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI) and chaired by Prof Annu Jalais.

It was held on Wednesday 9 November 2016 in Singapore, just before and after the final results were announced on U.S. Election Day and Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to win the U.S. Presidential election.

This presentation was based on and develops an earlier talk on Donald Trump in Mumbai given at the workshop “Constructing Asia: Materiality, Capital & Labour in the Making of an Urbanising Landscape” organised at ARI on 12–13 May 2016 by Dr Malini Sur and Dr Eli Asher Elinoff, where I presented a talk on “Constructing Trump Tower Mumbai”.

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Mumbai’s real estate is amongst the most expensive per square foot anywhere in the world. Property developers and construction magnates dominate the city’s political economy and public culture, and are portrayed as sovereigns of its skyline, an imagined community whom city newspapers commonly refer to as “the builder-politician nexus”.

Builders’ unique appetites for risk make visible and channel the desires of millions for new and better futures (or to make things “great again”). Both real estate and politics are shadowy domains which demonstrate how money, time and space are sources of social power in the contemporary city. The games of language and number played with them favour those who can challenge norms, wait out long battles, and anticipate changes in the rules.

Rather than seeing those who play them as gamblers, populists or moral failures, we need to understand their business strategies as the materialisation of uncertainty. On the occasion of the U.S. Election Day, my talk will focus on the business of building a luxury high-rise Trump Tower in Mumbai and Donald Trump’s Indian apprentices and opponents, first on the disputed site of a charitable hospital and community housing trust, and later in an old textile mill compound.

This presentation is part of an ongoing ethnographic and archival project on the real estate speculation and property redevelopment in post-industrial Mumbai.

मुंबईत ‘ट्रम्प टॉवर’ बांधताना | शेखर कृष्णन

This was published as the cover story in the fortnightly Parivartanacha Watsaru (16-31 August 2016). This is a translation from English to Marathi by Avadhoot of “When Donald Trump Came to Mumbai” from the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), Vol.51, Issue No. 23, 4 June 2016. You can download the PDF of the English article here or download the PDF of the Marathi article here (from Parivartanacha Watsaru, 16-31 August 2016).

Parivaratanacha Vaatsru (Marathi), 16-19 August 2016
Parivartanacha Watsaru (Marathi), 16-19 August 2016

फोर्ब्स इंडिया’ या मासिकाच्या सप्टेंबर २०१४च्या अंकात प्रसिद्ध झालेल्या मुलाखतीत डोनाल्ड ट्रम्प यांनी खास त्यांनाच साजेल असं असभ्य विधान केलं होतं: “तुमच्याकडचं स्थावर मालमत्तेचं क्षेत्र अविश्वसनीयरित्या स्वस्त आहेमुंबई हे महान शहर आहे आणि तरीही तिच्या तुलनेतील इतर शहरांसारखी या शहराची किंमत लावलेली दिसत नाही. उलट दुय्यम महत्त्वाच्या शहरांपेक्षाही मुंबईची किंमत कमी ठेवलेली आहे. याचा अर्थ, गुंतवणूकदारांना इथं प्रगतीसाठी प्रचंड वाव आहे.” (श्रीवास्तव २०१४). अमेरिकी राष्ट्राध्यक्षपदासाठीच्या मोहिमेमध्ये त्यांनी ज्या थरावरून शेरेबाजी केली तेवढा मुंबईविषयीचा त्यांचा शेरा वादग्रस्त नव्हता, पण ट्रम्प यांची ही अतिशयोक्ती भारतात मोठी बातमी बनली. वास्तविक भारतामध्ये मुंबईतील घरबांधणी बाजारपेठ देशात सर्वांत महागडं आहे. भारताच्या राष्ट्रीय अर्थव्यवस्थेचं उदारीकरण १९९०च्या दशकामध्ये झालं, तेव्हा मुंबईतील महागड्या स्थावर मालमत्ता क्षेत्राविषयीच्या बातम्या नियमितपणे वर्तमानपत्रांच्या पहिल्या पानांवर प्रसिद्ध होत असत. अनेकदा मुंबईची तुलना भारतातातील दिल्ली, चेन्नई किंवा बंगलोर अशा समकक्ष शहरांऐवजी अधिक संपन्न लंडन किंवा न्यूयॉर्क अशा जागतिक शहरांशी होते.

अमेरिकी डॉलर व भारतीय रुपया यांच्यातील विनिमय दर (एक अमेरिकी डॉलर= ६०-६२ रुपये) पाहिला, तर परकीय गुंतवणूकदाराच्या दृष्टीनं ट्रम्प यांनी केलेल्या मूल्यांकनासंबंधीच्या विधानांमध्ये काही अर्थ सापडू शकतो. २०१४ साली मॅनहॅटनमध्ये स्थावर मालमत्तेचा दर प्रति चौरस फूट १,२५०-,५०० डॉलरच्या दरम्यान होता, आणि मुंबईत त्याच काळात मुख्य ठिकाणांच्या इथला दर रु. ४०,०००-५०,००० (किंवा ६५०-८०० डॉलर) इतका होता. या थेट तुलनेमध्ये अर्थातच पायाभूत सुविधांमधील मोजता न येणारे भेद किंवा दोन्ही शहरांसंबंधीचे इतर मुद्दे लक्षात घेतलेले नाहीत. शिवाय तुलनात्मक शहरी उत्पन्न पातळी व अमेरिका आणि भारत यांच्यातील चलनाच्या संदर्भात प्रति एकक क्रयशक्ती समानता (परचेजिंग पावर पॅरिटी- पीपीपी) किती आहे, हेही या तुलनेत विचारात घेतलेलं नाही. क्रयशक्ती समानतेचे समीकरण जुळवून त्यानुसार गणित केल्यास मुंबईतील प्रति चौरस फुटाचा दर १,८००-,५०० अमेरिकी डॉलरच्या घरात जातो, म्हणजे सर्वसाधारण नागरिकासाठी न्यूयॉर्कच्या तुलनेत मुंबई हे शहर ५० टक्के अधिक महागडं ठरतं, असा अंदाज मध्यंतरी एका पत्रकारानं वर्तवला होता (कौल २०१४).

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Constructing Trump Tower Mumbai

This was first published as “When Donald Trump Came to Mumbai in the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), Vol.51, Issue No. 23, 4 June 2016. You can download the PDF of the original article here.

Donald J. Trump, Mumbai, September 2014

In an interview to Forbes India Magazine in September 2014, Donald Trump made a characteristically outrageous statement. “Your real estate is unbelievably cheap… Mumbai is a great city and yet it is not priced like other comparable cities. It is priced lower than cities that are less important. That gives investors a tremendous amount of growth potential” (Srivastava 2014). While not as controversial as his more recent slurs in his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Trump’s hyperbole nonetheless was big news in India, where Mumbai’s housing market is by far the most expensive in the country.

Since the liberalisation of the Indian national economy in the 1990s, Mumbai (then Bombay) had routinely made headlines for its pricy real estate, which is more often compared to more prosperous global cities like London or New York than to its peers in India such as Delhi, Chennai or Bangalore.

Trump’s value proposition perhaps made some sense from his perspective as a foreign investor, going by prevailing market exchange rates between the U.S. Dollar and Indian Rupee (around USD $1 = Rs 60-62). By most measures, the price of real estate in Manhattan in the same period was anywhere between $1,250-1,500 per square foot, whereas in prime areas in Mumbai in 2014 around Rs 40,000-50,000, or USD $650-$800.

This direct measure of course takes no account of the almost incommensurable differences in infrastructure and other aspects of both cities, or relative urban income levels and purchasing power parity (PPP) per unit of currency between the U.S. and India. In these terms, one business journalist estimated that the actual rate per square foot rate in Mumbai would be more in the range of USD $1,800-2,500 after adjusting for PPP – thus making Mumbai almost 50% more expensive for its average citizen than New York (Kaul 2014).

But beyond the calculations of economists and business journalists, Trump’s statement about how India’s most expensive city was “unbelievably cheap” begged a wider question about the political economy of urban real estate, indeed the very reason for his very first business visit to India in late 2014. What comprises the value of urban real estate?

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Education, Society & Science in Modern India

I taught this course for doctoral students in the Graduate School in Science Education at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, in the fall semester of 2015.

Click here to download the full course syllabus as a PDF. All the course readings listed below are available to download on Google Drive.

About the Course

This graduate course is designed to expose doctoral students to the history and sociology of modern science education in colonial and post-colonial India, with a focus on ideas and institutions, concepts and thinkers, and major debates in this emerging field.

The seminar will meet twice per week for four months, and is spread over three units or themes of five weeks each on 1. “Colonialism & Modernity”, 2. “Nation & State” and 3. “Education, Policy & Society”.

Participants shall take turns writing three 500-600 word review/discussion papers on the assigned readings for prior circulation via the mailing list, as well as to lead discussion in that day’s seminar session.

The main requirement is a long essay or research paper of 5,000-6,000 words, comprising a literature review, social, demographic or other data with a theoretical argument on education, science and society in India. Rough drafts are due mid-way in the term.

All seminar participants are expected to complete close reading of assigned texts in advance in every session, and be prepared to participate in person and online via the course mailing list.

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Happy Birthday, Mr Commissioner

Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” on 2 July 2015.

It is a year of missed anniversaries in Mumbai. The downpour which shut down the city on 19 June 2015 not only forced the Shiv Sena to cancel its Golden Jubilee celebrations, but to answer for more than two decades running a municipality larger than many state governments. While the ruling party must indeed be held to account, another, much older, anniversary that passed unnoticed should help explain why India’s oldest and wealthiest civic body remains such a mess. In 150 years there has been hardly any structural change in the institutions of municipal government in Mumbai.

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हॅपी बर्थडे, मिस्टर कमिशनर! | शेखर कृष्णन

Marathi translation by Avadhoot of “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” originally published in Mumbai Mirror on 2 July 2015. 

मुंबईसाठी हे वर्ष वर्धापनदिन, जयंती वगैरेंसारखे अनेक दिवस चुकवणारं ठरलं. १९ जून २०१५ रोजी झालेल्या पावसाने शहर बंद पाडलं आणि शिवसेनेला आपला सुवर्ण महोत्सवी समारंभ रद्द करावा लागला. कित्येक राज्य सरकारांपेक्षाही मोठ्या असलेल्या इथल्या महानगरपालिकेवर गेली दोन दशकं शिवसेनेचीच सत्ता होती, त्यामुळे पावसाने शहर बंद पडल्यावर पक्षाला अनेक प्रश्नांनाही सामोरं जावं लागलं. भारतातील ही सर्वांत जुनी महानगरपालिका एवढ्या अनागोंदीमध्ये का आहे, याचं एक उत्तर सत्ताधारी पक्षाच्या अकार्यक्षमतेमध्ये आहेच, पण त्याहूनही तपशीलवार उत्तर हवं असल्यास विस्मरणात गेलेल्या एका जयंती दिवसाची दखल घ्यावी लागेल. मुंबईच्या महानगरपालिका प्रशासनातील विभागांमध्ये गेल्या दीडशे वर्षांत क्वचित रचनात्मक बदल झालेले आहेत.

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Seize the DP, Don’t Scrap It

Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Don’t Scrap the DP, Seize It” on 22 April 2015.

The first draft of the 2014-2034 Development Rules and Plan for Greater Mumbai were published online and in print by the BMC three months ago. Since then, an apparent profusion of errors has proved its undoing – many of which were themselves mis-reported. At first the media exposed some genuine but minor bloopers, which the BMC quickly corrected. But soon news came daily, and in the rush to outdo each other, editors failed to verify the alleged mis-marking of roads proposed through building societies, vanished heritage buildings, and commercial and residential zoning. Reporters did not seem to know that the BMC has limited planning authority in areas under the Collector, MMRDA or MbPT. Headlines were based on misunderstandings of terms like “permissible use”, “public purpose”, and the difference between “R-C” and “C-R”.

While technocratic lingo is not easily decoded, the BMC should have intervened more in the media, especially after journalists abandoned their responsibility to check the DP before reporting “errors”. They could have pointed out that many of these roads were already proposed in DP 1991 but never built, that Banganga and GPO were never shown as hospitals, and that Azad Maidan Police Station is indeed inside the Esplanade Court. Instead they issued a gag order to their planners. In the meantime, some Corporators proudly claimed that they opposed the draft DP from the moment it was published by their own agency, the BMC. Our elected representatives should have instead taken part in its preparation from the time they were elected in 2012, when land-use mapping for DP 2034 began.

The media and political uproar was welcome in some ways. Until recently, hardly anyone who was not an architect or engineer knew what the DP was. Most citizens will still have not seen their local sheet of DP 1991, by which we may remain governed for years to come. What is sad is that while the urban planning process has now been irreversibly democratised, nobody now wants to own the next DP. NGOs who had organised public consultations with the BMC in 2013-4 to demystify the planning process and input on the draft have since opposed it. When last week the BMC claimed that the few thousand complaints received until then were not enough to justify “dumping” the DP, a few shifted to attack mode, engulfing the BMC with objections to force the CM’s hand.

The DP’s “scrapping” is being hailed across the ideological spectrum from political parties to heritage activists, builders to environmentalists. Their political victory is an economic disaster for the city. Until a new DP is drafted, accepted and framed, Greater Mumbai remains governed by DP 1991, a tattered patchwork of rules and policies first conceived more than thirty years ago. It is this policy framework that sustains the city’s famous builder-politician nexus. With no new DP, housing redevelopment across Mumbai – in the lurch for years – will remain stalled, while projects such as the coastal road, Metro 2 and 3 (including the symbolic car shed at Aarey) and opening up NDZs will now be implemented without reference to any wider design and planning considerations. This is a policy vacuum which even the most ardent free-marketeer would abhor, and is no reason to celebrate.

Not Just Bose, but Bombay Too

Published as “Not Just Bose, Bombay Too” in Mumbai Mirror, Cover Story, Sunday 19 April 2015.

Nehru and Patel’s Government not only authorised snooping on the extended family of Subhash Chandra Bose well after Independence, but many other ex-Indian National Army (INA) veterans, including prominent Mumbaikars who served as Union and State ministers.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)
Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, ex-Chief of Staff of Bose’s Indian National Army and later Union Minister for Rehabilitation (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)

Jagannath Rao K. Bhosale and S.A. Ayer together led the Bombay branch of the Indian National Army (INA) Relief & Enquiry (R&E) Committee established in 1946 at Congress House with Sardar Vallabhai Patel as its chair and patron. Remembered for his work with displaced Partition refugees and returning WWII veterans – and the road named for him in the sixties at Mantralaya – Bhosale was Netaji’s Chief of Staff in the INA, and served as Deputy Union Minister for Rehabilitation in Nehru’s cabinet from 1952.

Ayer was the Director of Information of the Government of Bombay from September 1946 until 1951, when he joined the Censor Board. A Bombay journalist since 1918, and the first Indian to head Reuters and Associated Press India, Ayer was a correspondent in Bangkok at the outbreak of WWII. He soon became a close associate of Bose and in October 1943 was appointed as both Propaganda Minister and member of the War Council of Netaji’s Azad Hind Sarkar.

S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose's Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay
S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose’s Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay

After the fall of British Singapore in 1942, almost 50,000 Indians became prisoners of war (POW), and of these around 25,000 had joined the INA – soldiers who served the Azad Hind Fauj or civilians in Azad Hind Sarkar based in the Andamans. By the end of WWII in August 1945, the drop of atomic bombs, Japan’s immediate surrender, and the mysterious death of Subhash Chandra Bose a few days later, his myth had reached its peak just as the Allies (and ex-colonisers) deployed the tired and near-mutinous Indian Army to re-occupy the arc of territory under Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command (SEAC), derisively known as “Save England’s Asian Colonies”.

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