Geographies of Resistance: Urban Housing in Mumbai

Presented at the Roundtable on Asian Cities and Cultural Change at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, July 2005.

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 [1].

Modern, western approaches to architecture, urban design and planning still treat urban housing as a place of residence, domesticity, and leisure — as a privileged site of social relations, and a prized object of consumption. However, a greater understanding of the cultural history of Asian cities must situate urban housing as a key unit of production in the urban economy, the material grid and medium through which everyday politics and culture are experienced. In mega-cities like Mumbai, the dissolution of large manufacturing industries in the eighties, and growth of new elite-oriented service economies in the nineties, has elevated the construction industry and land speculation into the primary circuits of cash and capital accumulation in the city [2].

While a functional and economic separation of home and workplace is a central tenet of modern urban spatial practice, in Asian cities like Mumbai this false spatial division poses severe obstacles to situating the production of housing as part of the larger ‘informal’ economy of small scale manufacturing, casual labour, and flexible employment which defines the urban landscape for the majority of the urban poor. Such a classical understanding of the role of the housing economy also lends support to the predatory urbanism and its regime of speculative accumulation, legal exclusion, and the violence of mass demolitions of the homes and workshops of the urban poor.

The valorisation of the middle-class home and over-consumption in the urban media has its parallel in the marginalisation of the majority of the urban poor from land and housing — some 60% of the urban population of around 14 million citizens. Secure housing is now the most desired object of consumption by all classes, from land-less squatters and working slum-dwellers to established tenants and the middle classes. The new social and spatial relations of global Mumbai have given rise to various movements for housing and tenancy rights, and are now becoming the main arena for public politics.

Our presentation will focus on two practical interventions by the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) in these new urban landscapes in Mumbai, on understanding urban housing as social practice in the contemporary city. The first interventions include an online platform, called the Mumbai Free Map [3], in which a digital base map of Greater Mumbai is being made available in an accessible and interactive web-based interface. Through this platform — built completely on open source software, copyleft city maps, and public geo-data — communities can read and write free information on their neighbourhoods, buildings, public spaces and environment and assess the existing opportunities for self-development. This information, while ostensibly ‘public’, has previously only available to a closed circuit of builders, municipal officials, and their agents, and our hope is to create a new medium for communities to realise their spatial rights in Mumbai.

The second intervention by CRIT which we shall discuss is a programme for Community Housing Support [4] providing financial models, policy advice, and architectural, design and information services to urban poor communities seeking to redevelop their housing through an open and decentralised design and financial model, with communities replacing builders as the agents of self-development. In this programme, CRIT is working with local housing associations in the Mumbai Tenants Federation and Slum Rehabilitation Society. Through an open design and production process, communities are actively involved in the design and construcion of integrated home and work units, spatial types which allow for inclusion and flexibility. The model of developing a community corpus to finance the housing project also allows use of the often lucrative profits from commercial land values to be reinvested in the maintenance of the housing by the community as a secure asset.

The presentation will focus on the new geographies of community resistance to the predatory forces of the new metropolitan environment, through our work with local housing rights movements and associations of the urban poor [5]. While the Asian city is famous for its rich local geographies and exotic cultural mixes, we need more detailed studies and analyses of the cultural history of housing in Asian cities — both as a material technology and as a social practice. The tactics and negotiations of urban poor communities in the context of Mumbai’s contemporary housing crisis indicate a new form of urban politics. The future directions will be articulated by a historical understanding of the production of urban housing as material culture in the Asia Pacific.


[1] “The City as Extracurricular Space” by Prasad Shetty, Anirudh Paul and Shekhar Krishnan at forthcoming in the Journal of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, September 2005.
[2] Post-Industrial Landscapes Projects on Mill Lands at and Dock Lands at
[3] Mumbai Free Map Community GIS (Geographic Information System) at
[4] Community Housing Experiment at Betwala Chawl at
[5] Geographies of Resistance, presentation by Anirudh Paul at Workshop on Emerging Urbanism, SARAI-School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi,