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.
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.
The past twenty years have witnessed the decisive end of attempts at state-centred urban planning in Mumbai. The post-Independence Development Plan, which has guided land, housing, and economic growth since the sixties, has been displaced in favour of piecemeal investments in infrastructure and transport, and housing and slum rehabilitation by the state, with increased participation from private builders and agencies.
With the retreat of the state from its ambitious agendas of rational land-use, equitable distribution of services and resources, and protection of the environment, the instruments of abstract spatial planning used by the state have withered and mutated into new urban forms marked by severe exclusions and enclosures. Classical urban planning practice was historically premised on the segregation of the functions of modern urban life into residential, commercial/industrial, and public spheres, and their centralised location governed by state directives.
However, Asian cities have constantly demonstrate the falsity of this separation of functions — with their vast districts of dense, mixed-use settlements governed by porous legalities, popular politics, and tactical negotiations over space and survival. This vast and complex economy has been inadequately imagined as the Third World ‘slum’ or theorised as the ‘informal economy’. With the retreat of the state, centralised planning practice and its technocratic spatial imagination has been appropriated into a new spatial regime in which a predatory class of private builders dominates the production of formal housing for a minority of the rich, amidst rising inequality in access to housing and basic services for the majority of the urban poor in Mumbai .
Heritage architects have complained for years that the Soviet-style concrete statue next to the Flora Fountain ruins the visual sweep of the Fort’s colonial facades and streetscape. But did you ever wonder what this monument is supposed to commemorate? Fifty years ago this year, the struggle for Samyukta Maharashtra spilled onto the streets of the city formerly known as Bombay.
This socialist realist sculpture was later erected as a martyrs’ memorial to Marathi nationalism — the Hutatma Chowk — marking the 105 people who died in protests against Nehru’s plan to make Bombay into a City State after Independence. Like with the Shivaji statue opposite the Gateway of India, the statue at Hutatma Chowk was intentionally placed to ruin a view of a famous colonial landmark, and reorient the symbolic geography of the city.
The battle for Mumbai heated up when the States Reorganisation Committee report, published in 1955, recommended statehood for Telugus in Andhra Pradesh, in the old princely state of the Nizam of Hyderabad. But the same report proposed the erstwhile Bombay State either be a bi-lingual Marathi-Gujarati unit with Bombay as its capital, or that Bombay be made an Union Territory, separate from the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
These proposals stirred a popular outcry against the denial of a Marathi state without Bombay, and a coalition of anti-Congress activists and political parties united in the demand for Mumbai to be the capital of a united Maharashtra — from Socialists, Communists and trade unions to the Marathi press, literati and workers across the city. After popular unrest and street violence, the Centre capitulated, and made Mumbai into the capital of the new state of Maharashtra on 1 May 1960.
It is no coincidence that Maharashtra Diwas is also May Day, the annual holiday when working-class solidarity is celebrated throughout the world. Samyukta Maharashtra was important because the demand for linguistic statehood was in Mumbai combined with a popular movement against rigid class hierarchies in an industrial city dominated by big business interests.
In the years before and after Independence, city politics was a conducted in back-room deals between the Congress Party cronies and fat-cat industrialists — the Parsi, Gujarati and Marwari sheths and sahebs of the popular imagination. It was this corrupt party machinery, identified with S.K. Patil and the party bosses, that was targeted by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement as unrepresentative, and not in keeping with the new order of things in independent India, where common people should participate in governance.
While today we identify the official changing of the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai with the Shiv Sena in 1995, it was a generation earlier, during Samyuka Maharashtra, that “Mumbai” was first extensively used in the public sphere to signify a city different from “Bombay”. For Acharya Atre, S.A. Dange, and Prabodhakar Thackeray (father of Balasaheb) — the leaders of Samyukta Maharashtra — Mumbai was to be a working-class city with better employment opportunities and social justice for all — not just a city that spoke Marathi, favoured sons of the soil, and suspected outsiders of stealing their jobs.
Class justice was as important as linguistic unity in the socialist vision of the Samyukta Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena was founded in 1966, more than ten years after the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, when the city’s economy stagnated and shrunk, and popular dissatisfaction with the hopes of statehood led to the emergence of more parochial forms of linguistic politics.
Originally published contra the case made by J.B. D’Souza on Should Mumbai be a City State? in TimeOut Mumbai, 10 April 2005.
There are several arguments routinely invoked about making Mumbai into a City State. They go something like this — for most of its modern history, Bombay was an island off the coast of India, a cosmopolitan port city with enterprising migrants and bustling industry and commerce — symbolic of India’s engagement with the world, rather than with its rural countryside.
This pre-Independence Bombay is now viewed with sepia-tinted nostalgia by heritage enthusiasts and the media as an innocent age of civic order, a beautiful city which existed before the filth and chaos of democratic politics. Bombay became the victim of narrow linguistic politics when Maharashtra was formed in 1960. Since then, the story goes, public culture has been parochialised by Marathi chauvinism and mismanaged by vote-bank-seeking politicians. The beautiful city is now a horrible mess, and this situation must be reversed through bold action, to make it a world-class metropolis again.
The economic rationale for creating a new City State is the counterpart to this narrative — that Mumbai is denied an equal share of the revenue it generates (which the Centre invests elsewhere in the country), that the city’s resources are otherwise plundered by rural politicians and illegal migrants who don’t care for the city, that new industries are locating elsewhere, and we cannot keep up either with Singapore or Shanghai, or even with Bangalore or Hyderabad. Something must be done to avert what the media have recently termed the “death of the city”, and statehood for Mumbai seems like a bold solution to a host of very real problems affecting the quality of life and governance in India’s biggest city.
In Mumbai, public awareness of urban arts and heritage has experienced a significant revival in the past ten years in the same historical moment when manufacturing industries have closed and factories emptied throughout Greater Mumbai. Heritage discourse and conservation practice have only implicitly acknowledged this economic context. Since the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982-3, entire working-class communities across the city have been retrenched and dispersed in the Mill and Dock Lands of central Mumbai, the chemical and engineering factories and industrial estates in suburban Mumbai, and across the Metropolitan Region.
With job losses going into tens of lakhs, and uncertain growth prospects for Mumbai, several years ago the media and civic elite began speaking of the “death of the city” they once knew, whereas planners and academics eagerly awaited the birth of a new “global city”. However one described this restructuring of the city’s economy, it is clear that manufacturing has declined in value compared to the new service industries, not just in Mumbai but in big cities throughout the world. The post-industrial landscapes of London’s Docklands and New York’s Lower Manhattan are oft-cited symbols of this change monstrous, gleaming high-rise districts dominated by banking, finance, and white-collar services. In today’s urban economy, the making and marketing of immaterial signs has replaced the production of durable goods as the primary circuit of wealth creation.
Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004.
If you look left while crossing Haji Ali into Worli, the brightly-lit ground floor showroom of a well-known auto major is emblazoned with the words “Improving the Quality of Life”. You can’t miss it, because this is a congested junction, with cars queueing up at the next signal to ascend the Worli Fly-Over. Stuck in the gridlock, you’re forced to ponder the shiny cars and hopeful slogan, and try and forget the honking horns, choking exhaust fumes, and street kids trying to sell you fashion magazines, before the signal changes.
Surely the guys at McKinsey and Bombay First, who must also get stuck in traffic jams, would appreciate the irony. Their recent report on making the city “world-class” and yes, improving its “quality of life” has just joined the long queue of studies, reports, and consultancies on the city’s ascent to becoming a global city. Recent changes at the state and centre have shown the government is increasingly keen to step in and clear the traffic on the road to Mumbai 2010. Plans and strategies that piled up for decades are beginning to move, and the authorities are trying to play traffic cop between contending visions of the city’s future.
While McKinsey is a recent entrant into the global game of urban brand-building, city architects and planners are its most usual suspects. For the past several years, the media and corporate world in Mumbai have been arguing over the “death of the city”. There seems to be neither enough money nor political will to tackle the monstrous problems of housing, transport, infrastructure, and the city’s slipping position in the global economy. Visions of Mumbai have been stuck between the apathy of our elected representatives — the politicians — and the elitism of our un-elected representatives — the NGOs.
The collapse of the Bowling Company in Lower Parel after the storm which lashed the city in the past several days perhaps pales in comparison to the larger human tragedies that took place in other parts of the metropolis this week. However, the potential for a tragedy like the landslide which occurred at Azad Nagar in Ghatkopar should not be overlooked. Luckily the entertainment outlet remained closed on Thursday, but had the bowling alleys and the cafe inside been filled to their normal capacity, hundreds of people could have perished, when the rusted stilts and columns which grounded the century-old structure gave way.
The history of Mumbai is a narrative of the struggle over space. The fate of the mill lands of central Mumbai, and its industries and workers, is the latest chapter in this story.
The life of any city is not simply tied to its flows of goods, services and capital, but also to its patterns of work, leisure and movement — all of which revolve on the use of space. Throughout Mumbai’s history, claims on land and space have been the narrative thread of the most celebrated and most notorious chapters in our urban history. These range from the legendary reclamations that linked up several marshy outposts and settlements to compose the island city in the eighteenth century, to the disastrous Back Bay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s. This scheme to fill in the Back Bay earned the name “Lloyd’s Folly”, after the bungling of the then Governor, whose plan ended in failure and infamy because of engineering mistakes, corruption, and the crash in land values during the Great Depression.
The story of the Mumbai Mill Lands is a fin-de-siecle echo of this familiar urban theme. The historic textile mills of the city are industrial dinosaurs dotted around the city landscape, whose textile production has been eclipsed in efficiency and profitability by the sweatshop labour employed in powerlooms towns like Bhiwandi. The millowners realised long ago that the lands of the city mill compounds are more valuable than the textiles they produce, and the workers whose livelihoods they have sustained for several generations.