Tag Archives: mumbai

A Rule of Property for Bombay

This book review appeared in edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36, 4 September 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010).

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”.

The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay.

Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians. Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development.

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Mumbai Free Map Community GIS

NASA LandSAT 7 self-made composited imagery with my GPS tracks overlaid, Greater Mumbai and Vasai-Virar 2004-2006
NASA LandSAT 7 self-made composited imagery with my GPS tracks overlaid, Greater Mumbai and Vasai-Virar 2004-2006

This is both the first project proposal (2004-5) and final report (2009) to the Pan-Asia ICT R&D Grants Programme of the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme),

CRIT (Collective Research Initiatives Trust) obtained a grant to pursue this project and organise workshops and labs. In recent years this work has been  superseded by OpenStreetMap.

 

Proposal Abstract

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is one of Asia’s largest cities, in which urban spaces are the central arenas of political imagination and intervention. The past decade has seen the articulation of a new politics of space in Mumbai — through the contesting claims of the urban poor majority in slums and squatter settlements, assertive residents’ associations and civic reform movements, the prosperous construction industry and builder-politician nexus, and concerned practitioners in the design, architecture and research professions.

In spite of this increased awareness and concern with urban spaces, basic information on housing, land, infrastructure and environment — the right of citizens — remains largely inaccessible, because of bureaucratic obstacles and vested interests. This asymetry of information has given rise to predatory classes of builders and speculators, whose privileged access to information is transformed into “development rights” for construction, eroding accountability to local communities and urban stake-holders, and the planning policies meant to uphold their rights.

Existing applications of new spatial technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) for commercial services or scientific research remain distant from the needs of these grass-roots communities and local decision-makers. Citizen increasingly demand their rights to information on urban space — and recent legislative enactments and public interest litigation on freedom of information have recently institutionalised this right. Continue reading Mumbai Free Map Community GIS

Taking the Dogs out of the Slum

Slumdog Millionaire has been running since September at the cinema across the street from my apartment in Cambridge. I enjoyed the film when I finally saw it in December, despite the cliched invocation of Bollywood in the concluding song and Danny Boyle’s populism — the last scene of Trainspotting, where Renton “chooses life” by robbing his heroin addict mates from Glasgow, was more my style. But melodrama has its uses. Watching Jamal and Latika dance on the platforms of Victoria Terminus in the film’s finale reminded me of the protective grandeur of India’s greatest railway station, in which a few weeks before 56 people had been shot by gunmen in the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

While its cast was mostly local, Slumdog Millionaire only opened in India in late January, many months after it had become a sleeper hit in the U.S. It is a measure of the globalisation of urban India that even before the film was released, there were already protests over the apparently disparaging name of the film, and its popularity prompted Amitabh Bacchan to complain of the Western fetish for cinematic realism, while more recently, Salman Rushdie has claimed the film is not realistic or magical plausible enough.

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Who Sank my Mothership?

Experts, journalists, and film-makers are seeing motherships everywhere.

In an interview today on Here and Now with Bob Baer, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, he just let drop the terrifying scenario of a jihadi mothership docking in Baltimore Harbor and launching commando attacks from a swarm of dinghies, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the film Syriana was adapted from Baer’s intelligence memoirs.

In the weeks before the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, a Saudi oil tanker was hijacked off the Horn of Africa. In a direct action against Somali pirates menacing the high seas, on 19 November the Indian Navy sunk what was called a “pirate mothership” in the Gulf of Aden, in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa. This seemed to many Indians a swift and effective strike in the subcontinent’s own maritime near-abroad, the western Indian Ocean. Continue reading Who Sank my Mothership?

Bombay is Still Burning

The attacks on Mumbai are unbelievably gruesome and at this point hard to comprehend. I am not there right now, and am writing from faraway. I was quickly able to (recursively) account for all my friends and family with a single message “are you safe?” sent to all my loved ones in Mumbai. Everyone is. Thank you, all, for asking.

The nature of this attack is globally unprecedented. This is not even like 9/11 — it has lasted three days,11/26-11/28, and is still not over. The first news I heard on Wednesday afternoon, was of gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing grenades in Victoria Terminus at rush hour. This immediately reminded me The last time something like this happened was July 11 2006, or 7/11, when I was on the railway platform in rush hour at Dadar, and the overhead electric lines suddenly popped and the station went dark. After learning of bomb blasts up the line at Matunga Road, I walked home amidsty an enormous jam of vehicles, as all the train commuters emerged onto the streets. It was only when I came home that I learned what had happened. Bombs had gone off all over the line, killing and injuring hundreds of train commuters.

The signature of 7/11 and terrorism in Mumbai were their attacks on the city’s vital arteries, its train and bus network, where most Mumbaikars spend hours everyday together.The nature of the targets is very different from previous terrorism such as 7/11 or the bus bombs, or at least the news coverage here would have us believe. While its sister station in India, Channel 7-IBN, is leading in their coverage in Mumbai, CNN here has focussed largely on the shootout and hostage situations Taj and Oberoi hotels. The dramatic photos of the Taj Hotel dome draped in smoke and flames on today’s New York Times front page has already become the signature image of the Mumbai attacks.

There are other ways in which these attacks are remarkable, and different. The attackers apparently arrived by sea, landing in the very heart of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command in Colaba, in the Sassoon Docks, where a busy traffic of fishing boats, country craft, and small vessels land everyday from Bombay Harbour. There’s been a lot of news recently about piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, where the Indian Navy allegedly sunk a pirate “mother ship” last week. In signs of the hyperbolic tendencies of Indian journalists, there were reports yesterday of a terrorist “mother ship” detained off Gujarat, a Pakistani merchant vessel.

While images of mother ships in the high seas of the western Indian Ocean might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that strategically, an arc of coastal states from Aden to Muscat, Dubai and Karachi are key nodes in a region where Bombay has been the largest coastal city. The Taj and Oberoi hotels are perched at the very southern tip of Mumbai’s Island City. And while these hotels — and Nariman House — are located in one of Mumbai’s most posh central business districts, at their feet and edges cling crowded colonies of fisherfolk and slum-dwellers who regularly venture out to the seas. These attacks were a brazen assault on some of the key symbols of the financial, military and commercial architecture of Mumbai, and its role as a regional and global capital. But anyone who has walked the streets of Colaba or Cuffe Parade can tell you that this regional command and control centre has feet of clay

Here in the US, the attack has coincided with the Thanksgiving holidays, when many families are at home glued to their many plasmas, tubes, and flat screens. The coverage here is banal at best, parachute correspondents or terrorism experts who know little about India, using the famous backdrop of the Taj Mahal hotel — now exploding, now on fire, now duck they’re shooting. For once I wish I could watch Rajdeep Sardesai shouting his way through the crowds, or even my buddy Sreenivasan Jain on NDTV. While I am not in Mumbai today, all Mumbaikars are part of a real-time news space that is following events as they unfold. Some of the more amazing moments so far have been the top cops shot as they let down their guard outside Metro Cinema, NSG commandos landing by chopper at Nariman House and storming their way in. Stay safe friends, and pray it is all over very soon.

Mumbai in a World of Cities

This is a panel which I organised with Professor of Geography Matthew Gandy and Andrew Harris of University College London (UCL) at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) on Friday 18 April 2008 at the Westin Copley Place Hotel, 10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts. See this link to AAG Online Program Panel 4551.

Over the last decade, Mumbai has become far more prominent within international coverage of contemporary urbanism. This greater focus on Mumbai has been a welcome rejoinder to a continued predominance of North American and European cities within urban studies and debate. Yet in accounting for urban change in Mumbai, there has been a tendency to uncritically adopt Eurocentric models and terminology.

This session seeks to explore some of the ways that Mumbai disrupts and contradicts existing categories, histories and narratives of urban analysis. The session will question some of the institutional frameworks for urban research and a tendency for debates about the future of cities to be initiated and directed by experts and practitioners based in the global North.

It will attempt to assess why Mumbai has recently assumed significance as an urban archetype, and examine ways urbanists can help facilitate scholarship in cities such as Mumbai, and develop new progressive forms of learning and research. The aim is not to isolate Mumbai as an exceptional form of urbanism nor to confer paradigmatic status on Mumbai, but to show how a city such as Mumbai can be used to generate new theoretical dialogue, greater historical perspective and open up new channels of urban policy formation.

Andrew Harris, Department of Geography and Urban Laboratory, University College London (UCL)

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz

Shekhar Krishnan, Program in Science Technology & Society, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Nikhil Rao, Department of History, Wellesley College

Ninad Pandit, Department of Urban Studies & Planning (DUSP), MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

- Why has Mumbai increasingly been used as a resource for international urban research and debate (e.g. Urban Age)? What models, metaphors and categories have been deployed to depict Mumbai, and what have been their capacities and limitations? Why have certain processes and spaces been emphasised?

- How does this new international spotlight on the city reinforce/overlap with the portrayal of Mumbai as world class? How and where do these new circuits of knowledge operate?

- Can Mumbai be used as a laboratory for refiguring, complicating and renewing (Eurocentric) urban concepts and theories? How can comparative research between Mumbai and cities elsewhere best be framed and undertaken?

- How have narratives of history in Bombay/Mumbai been assembled and fragmented, and has there been sufficient analysis of the city’s specific formations of modernity? Is a colonial gaze being replayed in contemporary urban redevelopment policies and practices? What does this teach us in terms of wider understandings of a ‘colonial present’?

- What research strategies and institutional arrangements are best able to cope with Mumbai’s opaque, mythical and chaotic qualities and the dynamic and performative forms of power in the city? Does researching Mumbai demand and generate new innovative methodologies and outputs?

- What examples and opportunities does Mumbai provide to imagine and realise new notions of citizenship that challenge neoliberal world views and offer a radical democratisation of urban politics? How have alliances been formed, dialogue created and ideas translated between Mumbai and other cities?

Kala Ghoda’s True Heritage

One of the worst examples of the neglect of the city’s history is the Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai. This sounds like a contradiction – in recent years Kala Ghoda has become synonymous with the heritage movement, with its museums and galleries, arts festivals and concerts, and recently restored colonial architecture. But if the conservationists had bothered to look behind their charming building facades and fancy street furniture, they would note that one of India’s most venerable and best-stocked repositories of historical documents occupies the back of the Elphinstone College building, in the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA).

The MSA is a treasure-trove of government records, correspondence, maps, and all manner of big and small publications stretching back nearly four hundred years, from the Marathas, Portugese, British and postcolonial Indian governments. The staff of the MSA are the real keepers of the city’s heritage, the Common Man who cannot afford the glossy coffee table books or steep entrance fees to the festivals and concerts celebrating Mumbai’s heritage.

More knowledgeable than their better-paid counterparts in such places as London’s British Library or Delhi’s National Archives, these clerks and peons eagerly serve up the papers and files which are the historian’s raw material for narrating stories about the still mostly untold history of the city and its region. Everything from sewerage reports from Victorian Bombay, to the diaries and letters of Maratha ministers and chiefs, to early town planning schemes and maps for Bandra and Juhu may be found in the MSA. The tragedy is that once in your hands, many of these records crumble to pieces before they can be read, or have already been eroded over time by the elements.

In spite of the flourishing interest in researching and understanding the history, culture and politics of Bombay/Mumbai amongst various groups of academics and urban professionals – from anthropologists and activists to film-makers and architects – the career of the urban researcher in Mumbai is a precarious adventure. The existing institutions charged with this task are, for the urban researcher, a veritable black hole, nowhere more so than the sprawling campus of the University of Mumbai.

While Bombay University was in many ways the birthplace of the social science research in India – the old Bombay School of Economics and Sociology counted amongst its graduates the venerable G.S. Ghurye and M.N. Srinivas – it is nowhere on the map of the new urban research being conducted by NGOs setup in recent years to study and report on urban culture, design, governance and planning. And these NGOs themselves often function in dubious ways, setup by foreign academics for offshore influence peddling, or by the city’s elites to entrench their agendas with the BMC and MMRDA.

The unfortunate result of this situation is that coffee table heritage has replaced serious historical and social research. For example, a well-known work about the “cities within” glorifies the progressive role of the colonial era Bombay Improvement Trust in urban development. To the historian, this is something akin to calling the land-grabbing and corruption of the present-day Slum Rehabilitation Authority an enlightened civic governance. With the vacuum left behind by the collapse of genuine research institutions, critical and independent research in and on Mumbai must play second-fiddle to the whims and agendas of local socialities, foreign academics, and the racketeering of consultants and bureaucrats, all seeking to turn Mumbai into a “global city” through patronage of “urban research”.

Unfortunately, most of the best recent research on Mumbai is done by writers and academics based in wealthy private universities in the U.S. and U.K. One consequence of this is that these scholars are neither responsible to local institutions such as the MSA, nor does their work circulate back to those for whom it is an essential element in discussions about the past and future of Mumbai.

(Published in TimeOut Mumbai special issue on Bombayology Vol.3, Issue 24, 27 June to 9 August 2007)

The City as Extracurricular Space: Re-Instituting Urban Pedagogy in South Asia

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Mumbai Metro RegionThis journal article, co-authored with Anirudh Paul and Prasad Shetty, was published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (Routledge/Taylor & Francis, London), Vol.6, No.3, 2005, in a special issue on South Asia edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha. The original essay originated in a presentations given by myself and Anirudh Paul at the 2004 Annual Conference of the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society (IACS) in Bangalore and in the work of the Design Cell of the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) and CRIT (Collective Research Initiatives Trust) in Mumbai from 2000-2004.

ABSTRACT

This paper addresses the pedagogic and disciplinary challenges posed by the effort to understand urban spatial practices and institutional histories in Bombay/Mumbai, and other postcolonial South Asian cities. Many cities in the region, such as Chandigarh and Dhaka were designed as iconic of the abstract space of the nation-state.

The dominance of the nationalist spatial imagination in the understandings of public space, citizenship, and the metropolitan environment – combined with the functionalist perception of architecture and spatial practice – have resulted in an urban pedagogy that regards the city only as a technological or physical artefact. Architectural education and urban pedagogy is therefore unable to address the diversity of social-spatial formations in the city, and its political regime of predatory development, tactical negotiation, and blurry urbanism. To better understand this new regime, we require a collaborative urbanism that treats the city as an extra-curricular space by which we can reconstruct existing institutional frameworks.

Drawing on the work of CRIT (Collective Research Initiatives Trust), Mumbai, this papers explores the post-industrial landscapes of the Mumbai Mill and Port Lands as a case study in two extracurricular research projects, which grew into urban design and community planning interventions in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, where urban spaces became the arena for re-imagining the relations between knowledge production, institutional boundaries, and civic activism on which nationalism has imposed a long estrangement.

Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters

This essay was written the day after the catastrophic floods in Mumbai on 26 July 2005 and was published as Some Reasons to be Optimistic, or, Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters in TimeOut Mumbai Vol.1, Issue 26, 26 August to 8 September 2005.

Whether you consider the recent floods in Mumbai to be either a natural disaster, or a man-made crisis — or  a bit of both — most will agree that we have just been through the biggest social crisis to face the city since the communal riots and bomb blasts in 1992-1993. It is not often in history that an urban disaster prompts wide-ranging public reflection and institutional changes. There are many contemporary lessons to be drawn in Mumbai from the global history of urban disasters, from floods and famines to terrorism and riots. Crises such as these prompt immediate action, but often the most sweeping and epochal changes they inspire happen once the original impulses to act are forgotten. These impulses are buried away in subsequent events and history, obscuring their effect in prompting wider, often revolutionary changes.

The catastrophic earthquake which destroyed most of the Portugese capital Lisbon in 1755 and wiped out most of its population — and the philosopher Voltaire’s satirical reflections on its causes and consequences in his novel Candide, or Optimism inaugurated the Enlightenment in Europe, the tradition of thinking which questioned the divine right of kings and priests to rule.

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Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Mumbai, 5 August 2005.

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

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