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.

The best works of urban history, both in India and elsewhere, spatialize the classic opposition between capital and labour in the geography of the modern capitalist city. In Bombay, Raj Chandavarkar has shown how trade union politics and industrial protest were shaped as much in the workplace and factory as in the organization of working-class neighbourhoods. Jim Masselos has narrated how control over urban space was central to public politics and nationalist mobilization in colonial Bombay.

In capitalist cities, space and the built environment are both the outcome of ongoing struggles, as well as an arena for new practices of politics and social life. The state, in turn, ensures the reproduction of the dominant spatial practices – private ownership, profitable land uses, and stable property values – through technologies such as cadastral mapping, revenue surveys, and urban planning.

It is within this “theatre of conflict” over land and property relations that Dossal’s spatial history of the colonial and postcolonial city unfolds. Divided into two sections – on agrarian Bombay until 1860 and industrial Bombay until the present, respectively – the book seeks to situate Bombay’s urban history in the historical transition from “feudalism to capitalism”. The large format, coffee-table book ambitiously claims to chronicle from “1660 to Present Times” in nine chapters.

However the real heart of the study is from around 1790 to 1940, or about 150 years (Chapters 4 to 8) which span the rise of Bombay from an archipelago of agricultural-fishing islands to one of Asia’s largest industrial metropolises. The first three chapters chronicle the British acquisition of Bombay from the Portugese, and early efforts by British governors to protect and fortify their settlement, and extend their legal sovereignty over the city and its inhabitants. In the new courts instituted by the British in the 18th century, a modern form of legal hegemony over land transactions was sought through instituting a “rule of property” by which the colonial state would supersede earlier Indian and Portugese tenures, neutralize the power of landlords and tenants, and establish Government as the ultimate “lords of the land”.

Dossal foregrounds the difficulties faced by the British in extending this rule in early colonial Bombay. The obstacles to rationalizing earlier tenures and creating a market for land based on private property, was a “painful reminder of their limited and contested domain” (xxx). For the British, asserting control over territory required tackling the “maze of tenures and titles” (11) left behind by earlier empires through “scientific surveying” which would clarify land ownership and uses, and thereby rationalize the basis of revenue collection. The Portugese forms of agricultural land tenure such as fazendari, toka and foras, as well as older inams, customary and usufruct rights in land vested by erstwhile dynastic rulers formed a mosaic of fedual inheritances and obligations. It required significant political and administrative effort to remove this burden of precedent and establish a new legal and economic basis for land administration in British Bombay.

Unlike the near-heroic accounts provided in studies of colonialism such as Dossal’s first book and Matthew Edney’s Mapping An Empire (1990), the settlement of urban lands in colonial Bombay was by no means smooth or easy. Eliciting land use, rental and taxation data from revenue surveys, and cadastral maps to register properties and transactions, was frustrated on the ground by numerous practical problems in determining the “ground truth” of land uses.

Payments earlier made in kind or customary dues were replaced by cash payments, but centralizing revenue collection in the state required breaking the back of the hereditary revenue farmers appointed by the Portugese, the vereadores and mattaras (54). The lack of a comprehensive revenue survey to measure and demarcate boundaries was repeatedly felt throughout the 18th century as lands held by the Company were alienated, encroached and “invaded” by Indians (53-54). Classifying uses and tenures, monitoring exchange and mortgage of land and property, and collecting taxes proved frustrating without reference to a comprehensive survey which recorded all transactions and laws to codify the state’s monopoly over all private property.

Dossal’s study of the three major cadastral (property or revenue) surveys of Bombay conducted by the British under Thomas Dickinson (1811-1827), George Laughton (1865-1872) and during World War I (1915-1918) serve as “illuminating prisms which reveal the transformation of feudal lands into private property, the growing dominance of a capitalist land market, and greater state intervention” (xxxii).

The undertaking of such a revenue survey of Bombay’s lands had to wait until the consolidation of British power in western India following the Anglo-Maratha Wars. Dickinson took over the work of the revenue survey in 1811 after the failure of earlier efforts due to rioting by bhandaris against increases in the toddy tax (abkaree) – which was second only to land revenue in its returns for the Bombay Government (73). Dickinson’s “scientific” mapping of Bombay’s lands, topography and properties had an avowed political objective – to “assert the State’s rights to all lands in Bombay” (79, 97) and recover lost rents and rights, and establish titles by conversion of multiple tenures into freehold or “fee simple” private property.

Completed over sixteen years, and containing registers, cadastral maps, rent rolls and reports on localities, Dickinson’s survey created the first accurate “base map” of British Bombay, permanently altering the the terms of tenancy and occupation in the city after 1827. Resumption of land under such agricultural tenures such as toka and foras and increases in ground rent, reclamation from the sea of new landed estates which were parcelled and leased out, and acquisition of land for “public purposes” such as railway construction and infrastructure proceeded apace through the mid-nineteenth century, despite protests by cultivators, established tenants, and “litigious and cantankerous individuals” (130).

All transfers and mortgages of land, and registration and conveyances of property, were now legally centralized simultaneously as private property rights were accorded legal status in 1839, marking “the legal transition from feudal to capitalist Bombay” (109). “The moot question which remained and which would continue to pit the inhabitants against the state was what was accepted as ‘legal’ and ‘authorized’ and what was deemed as ‘encroachment’.” (83) Disputes over land use and tenancy continued as the city expanded rapidly northwards with the development of new docks, mills, roads and railways to support the burgeoning cotton trade and textile industry from the 1850s.

The reclamation and developments of late 19th and early 20th century Bombay were instrumental in consolidating colonial state sovereignty over the emerging market in urban lands. In conjunction with the Great Indian Trigonometrical Survey, a second survey of the city under G.A. Laughton was undertaken from 1865-1872, producing an updated set of maps and a new land register which more accurately demarcated the boundaries of plots, helping defend against rampant encroachments and constantly changing “facts on the ground” (134). New laws were passed in 1865 for assessment of rates to be paid by landowners, as well as the terms of leases issued on newly developed areas in the rapidly industrializing city.

The removal of the Fort walls and redevelopment of the Fort and Esplanade as the central business district known as “Frere Town” in the 1870s, is extensively documented by Dossal. The crisis caused by the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1896 led to the creation of the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BIT) and Development Department (BDD) which over the subsequent forty years restructured the city’s geography through the construction of new arterial roads and the layout of suburban estates given on long-leases for housing workers and the new middle-class. The last major survey of urban lands in Bombay was undertaken during World War I – the “New Cadastral Survey” of 1915-1918 which today remains the index for all properties in the city which bear a “CS” number (176-177).

The empirical depth of Dossal’s research into this micro-history of urban lands is pioneering, and the diversity of materials she employs is impressive. While most of the first and final two chapters are based on known books and secondary sources, the middle five chapters are based on heretofore undiscovered records in the Bombay Collector and Land Records Office, and reports in the Maharashtra State Archives which few historians have considered so carefully.

Much as in Dossal’s earlier work on the engineering of colonial Bombay, the British state and officialdom are represented as the primary agents of change on the urban landscape. Her rigid chronological framework sticks close to the colonial archive, and Indian inhabitants of Bombay, both elite and subaltern, only find voice through their manifold encounters, negotiations and confrontations with the colonial state. Dossal prefers extended quotation and appendices to the effort to read sources against the grain. But her archival research presents a rich fund of petitions, legal disputes, and testimonies from Indians which interrupt and frustrate the work of British surveyors, collectors, and planners.

Indeed the most vivid moments of the narrative are found in the forms of resistance offered by the city’s Indian subjects who engaged in “surreptitious land sales, encroachments on government lands, and a refusal to pay taxes. These modes of dealing with the government were strategies devised by the people to carve out domains of space and action for themselves” (xxxii). These strategies ranged from outright defiance to working the system (58-60).

They include the rich widow Navibai Ludha, who fought a successful legal battle to retain ownership of her husband’s land and obtain approval to construct a new commercial building on the Esplanade in Frere Town (138-140); the Konkani merchant Mohammed Ameen Roghay’s petition against sanitarian Henry Conybeare’s drainage scheme which abutted on his private properties in the Native Town (118-120); the dispute over the valuation and compensation for the Shamsett brothers’ estate in Colaba (85-88).

Numerous petitions cited by Dossal protest at the incursion by the state on “customary” rights and obligations in land, as the “rule of custom” became a common rhetorical strategy by Indians to resist the “rule of property”. All of these episodes uncovered by Dossal’s archival work point to a vibrant subaltern resistance to the legal violence of the colonial state in the creation of a capitalist land market.

The book seeks to trace these “geographies of revolt” (160) beyond Independence “to present times”. However, the ninth, concluding chapter is a dizzying tour through the politics of land in contemporary Mumbai, out of context with the previous narrative. This final section fast-forwards through the crucial decades from the fifties to the eighties, when the scale and form of Bombay’s urbanization dramatically increased through the annexation of Salsette and Trombay into today’s Greater Bombay.

Through the sixties the state governments of Bombay then Maharashtra responded with a host of new policies and institutions to segregate land uses, regulate construction and direct growth. Dossal entirely leaves out this institutional history of the growth and governance of Greater Bombay and its hinterland (226-228). From the late sixties, the municipal Development Plan (DP) and Development Control Rules (DC) has become the grid through which all land uses in Bombay city and its vast suburbs have been zoned and governed. Inexplicably, the DP finds no mention in the book.

Similarly, the omission of any mention of the creation of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region or the development of New Bombay in the seventies – indeed almost all planning history since the creation of Maharashtra in 1960 – leaves the reader with the impression that the brave and ambitious proposals advanced by late colonial architects and planners remained unrealized in postcolonial Mumbai. Though Dossal highlights the advocacy of Claude Batley and the Indian Institute of Architects for a new “nationalist architecture” (192-194) and a master plan in the interwar period (209-11), we find no evidence of how these were implemented by the new state after Independence.

Leaving out these crucial decades of postcolonial change, the final chapter selects issues and events from the past two decades – the repeal of the Urban Land Ceiling (ULCRA) and Rent Acts, the Port Trust, Salt Pan, and Mill Lands, redevelopment of slums, chawls, and settlements like Dharavi – which have been examined in greater detail by other researchers and activists.

While allowing for ample room for diverse images such as maps, extracts from archival sources, and reproductions of artefacts, the editors have not done justice to the book’s large-scale format (and high price tag). The book is richly illustrated, though the quality of images and particularly maps reproduced is uneven. Most have been photographed, not scanned, with poor lighting, and appear pixellated at large sizes, and are mostly illegible at smaller sizes. The spatial and textual fragments are presented as stand-alone artefacts, rather than directly supporting the narrative as sources or evidence. Sometimes images are inconsistent or unconnected with the text, and captions are missing dates and supplementary information.

While most of the book is black and white, the colour plates included in the fold seem wasted on stock images of colonial Bombay. Give the centrality of maps and surveys to Dossal’s narrative, this section could have been more usefully devoted to reproducing these in colour, at higher scale and in greater cartographic detail. Instead these pages are crowded with sepia-tinted prints of Gothic architecture and “tribes and castes” which are now well-circulated as heritage publications, postcards, and prints in Mumbai.

Though the production does not rival that of the landmark of this genre by Sharda Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Bombay: The Cities Within (1995) – nor does Dossal’s prose style equal the fluency of city historians such as Chandavarkar or Masselos – Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai 1660 to Present Times is a worthy addition to the growing bookshelf of scholarly and popular writings on Bombay. It represents a bold cross-over by a disciplinary academic into the space of public history opened up by architects, environmentalists and heritage conservationists in Mumbai. Dossal’s history challenges the nostalgic simplification of history as “heritage” with a complex and fascinating narrative around the micro-politics of urban land use in colonial Bombay.

While the “coffee-table” format often smothers the scholarship, Dossal’s highly original archival work – all reproduced in detailed appendices to each chapter and extensive footnotes – will open numerous doors to urban historians, heritage enthusiasts and scholars of Bombay and western India.


  • Rajnayaran Chandavarkar, History, Culture and the Indian City (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • Mariam Dossal, Imperial Designs and Indian Realities: The Planning of Bombay City, 1845-1875 (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  • Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Bombay: The Cities Within (Bombay: India Book House, 1995).
  • Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  • Jim Masselos, The City in Action : Bombay Struggles for Power (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007).