August 4, 2022
  • August 4, 2022

The history of Mumbai and its slums

By on July 24, 2022 0

At the end of the 19th century, Mumbai’s encounter with the industrial revolution led to the emergence of a kind of habitat unsuitable for man because it lacked civic services such as water and drainage and called “slum”. This followed a somewhat similar trajectory to England’s industrial centers like Liverpool and Manchester. It was only after the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1896 in Bombay that the colonial rulers were forced to acknowledge the issue of housing and sanitary conditions. In response to the plague, the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was established in 1898 and the Bombay Development Department (BDD) in 1920 to build low cost housing for the countless workers who worked in factories, ports and involved in the construction of railways. Now we know that was too late to intervene and created a legacy of backlogs and housing shortages that continues to this day. Historians lament that the BIT and BDD worsened the housing crisis because, through their interventions, they dislodged more people than they provided with housing.

After independence, we mainly followed the approach of the colonial rulers when it came to issues concerning slums or even urban development. Slum clearance was the official approach of governments exemplified by the title of the central law – Slum Clearance Act, 1956. It was mainly to deny and not recognize the existence of slums and to implement this called slum clearance programs. It was not until the early 1970s that there was some shift from slum clearance to a more humane and rational approach to slum upgrading and upgrading. Maharashtra became one of the first states to enact state-specific slum legislation in the form of the Maharashtra Slums (Upgrading and Clearance) Act 1971. In addition to carrying out a city-wide slum census, trips were undertaken and photo passes were issued to slum dwellers, officially acknowledging their existence.

Along with this period also saw the deepening of political party representatives, especially locally elected corporators or ‘nagar sevaks‘ in poor neighborhoods. They appeared as “every day” via the media and almost all political parties have their “slum cells” or slum wings through which they reach residents. In this regard, Shiv Sena has managed to establish itself and make its presence felt in these neighborhoods and in the city through a grid-like network of ‘shakhas‘. It is widely acknowledged that the Shiv Sena had its first experience in office when it formed the government in alliance with the BJP in 1995 on an election promise to provide “free houses” to 4 million slum dwellers in creating an exclusive Slum Upgrading Authority (SRA).

The provision of housing through the removal of slums and their redevelopment by involving private developers had serious implications for the residents of these settlements as well as for the city as a whole. There has been no turning back and “re-development” has taken precedence over all other possibilities for the supply of social housing. Since 1995, when slum upgrading was introduced as a modus operandi to provide housing for slum dwellers, no political party has been able to look past it. Redevelopment as an ideology succeeded in an all-party consensus.

Mumbai Chawls | Credit: Getty Images

Besides the spatial landscape, the redevelopment also transformed the political and social landscape of the city, transforming housing from a social good into an economic good. It has led to the emergence of a speculative market for development rights known as TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). The last few months have seen outlandish scams by developers undertaking slum redevelopment. Staggering figures of thousands of crores of rupees in loans taken out from banks, ostensibly to redevelop slums, but then diverted for other purposes seem to be the modus operandi. Slum dwellers have always been indispensable and slums have also turned into a tradable currency.

There has been an inconvenient truth about slums, which is; that they are the visible marker of the inequality that marks our cities and the result of a specific trajectory of urban development that has continued even in postcolonial times. Since independence and even before that, there has always been a large gap in housing produced in the formal sector. This left a large number of city dwellers with little chance of stumbling upon housing produced in the arena of the sector. Thus, slums are more than anything else symptomatic of the abandonment of state agencies tasked with creating formal housing stocks in Mumbai and elsewhere. The slum is about what architect Jai Sen has described as the involuntary city, one that has never been part of official master plans but has always been implicit in them. The slum is the embarrassing alter ego of the planned city, the city without which it cannot survive but also cannot admit or recognize itself.

More than an undesirable urban form, the slum is also a negotiation with daily survival or an attempt to settle in the city. Emphasis should also be on slums as a concept or category. Slums have long stigmatized the specific urban form and its inhabitants. Viewing a settlement as a slum justifies recourse to the exercise of discretion by the state and its agencies. For a long time, slums have been synonymous with poverty, desperation and illegality. This must change for any meaningful understanding and engagement.

The story of Mumbai and its slums is not only despair but also hope, it is a dream but also a nightmare, it is as much an answer as a question. The slum poses a challenge not only to the paradigm of urban development, but above all to the promise of citizenship and democracy.

(The opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook India.)