Geography of Arguments

Geography of Arguments

Beginning with the mill-workers’ strike in 1982, a changing moment of great proportions starts for Mumbai. The 1990’s are the next moment (after 1900) in the history of the city that will redefine the core of its urban self-understanding. Three events-conditions are important to be mentioned here – firstly the closing down of the mills in what is now the very central district of the city, secondly the rise of the conservation and heritage movement in the city and finally the rise of a living neighbourhood like the Powai Hiranandani complex.

Clashes between an old economy based on repair and re-use, saving and conserving, suddenly changed over a period of one decade to an economy that believed in spending, consuming and use-and-throw philosophy. This resulted not in the total erasure of local and daily bazaars and shops but did see the rise of centralised shopping boxes like Big Bazaar. Economies that survived on the pavements – like watch-repairers, second-hand book sellers, cobblers, electronic goods-repairers did start disappearing from parts of the city. Often these were systematically removed under the name of having a clean city free of hawkers. ‘Clean City’ or beautification projects were often a guise to remove small-scale economies - a wipe out of a culture of urbanity too.
Hawkers are always removed under the name of reclaiming the pavement for the pedestrian, but when roads are widened by cutting down the pavement width or pedestrians are forced to walk extra to cross a road so that traffic does not have to stop often, the pedestrian then is surely not the preferred citizen!

The closing down of the mills, resulted in exposing certain changing labour and economic conditions and the resulting fissures in the relations between different economic classes in the city and the corresponding control and demands over spaces. Large chunks of land were now open for speculation and real estate options, even if not technically available all at once. This issue was a point when consciousness regarding the culture and history of the city, its politics and social geography, rose to high levels in many ways, and amongst many different players, actors and agents and occupants of the city. Simultaneous to this was the rise in interest in history of the city and conservation of ‘heritage’ structures. South Bombay/Mumbai attracted all the attention locally and globally, as the space where the city’s history was centred and the only quarter where buildings of ‘any worth’ existed for conservation. Challenges from multiple historical locations, and many histories did over a period of time push changes in the approach of the conservation architects and focus shifted soon from conservation of stand-alone buildings, to that of precincts, in many parts of the city. This shift raised many issues like the role and position of residents in such programmes, and the question of what constitutes living heritage. History and conservation became tropes to claiming the city and its parts and also led to a wave of ‘heritage walks’ for tourists and heritage or art fairs. The involvement of citizens and residents in issues concerning their neighbourhood was seen as an important democratic move. However, this also gave rise to the realisation that every neighbourhood had more than one interest or citizen group and politics amongst them could not be hidden. For example, in the case of the Oval Maidan, it was argued whether it should be seen as a city space or a neighbourhood space and who should make decisions of controlling it. The elite citizens living around Oval Maidan, wished to enclose the large public park in the name of security and safety and conservation, while thousands of Mumbai-ites used the park to play cricket, relax, meet friends, cruise or just walk across it to reach their place of work, on their way from Churchgate station.

High rises and increasing the FSI (Floor Space Index – FAR – the built-up proportion per unit of area) has always been proposed as an argument by profit hungry builders, property developers and politicians to solve the city’s ever-existing housing problems. However the costs involved in developing these buildings and then the expenses of living in them will always exclude most of those who actually need housing. In the failure of the SRA (Slum Redevelopment Authority – where a builder can develop a slum area by housing all the slum dwellers in buildings in return for an equal number of units for sale in the open market) it has been often documented how the new high-rise conditions do not take in consideration the living-cum-working typology of the slum. High-rises are nothing but real estate speculations.

The 1990’s also saw a very new brand of housing type developing in the area of Powai, a suburb in north Mumbai where one of the most important water-supplying lakes of the city is also located. A large amount of housing was being created in the city, but this was not really solving the existing housing problem of the city, only partially providing housing to some new migrants. The architecture of this housing was a particular species, borrowing elements from classical Graeco-Roman architecture templates to create a pastiche of an architectural style that made apartment high-rises look like fairytale castles in the air. The architecture indicates that the city was seeing a new kind of migrant who had aspirations and could afford a ‘castle in the air’, demanding a new kind of lifestyle in terms of taste and aesthetics.

© Promised City

These housing complexes were early precedents to forms of gated-communities that were later to become much more popular. Housing societies started to have interviews with prospective buyers or renters, and control the ethnicity, religion, economic status and eating habits (vegetarian mania) of the new entrant-residents. These new planned housing complexes and neighbourhoods became protected and coveted enclaves that worked on a principle of exclusion rather than inclusion. The 90’s clearly saw many jolts to the cosmopolitan ethos of Bombay... it was soon becoming Mumbai! A particular vegetarian community (who believe in the principle of non-violence as central to their religious faith) and always a rich trading community, developed a variety of soft-violence tactics in the areas of Walkeshwar and Chowpatty in south-west Mumbai to make sure no non-vegetarian eating joints survived in the area - a kind of vegetarian terrorism!

In 2003-2004, Mumbai First, an organisation of builders, industrialists, and former bureaucrats was formed. They, through an international consultancy company McKinsey initiated the Development Plan for Mumbai called Vision Mumbai. The state government adopted the plan, without any wider consultation. This development plan had no plan for housing the poor, but rather suggested that the land needed for development should come by reducing the slums to 10% only.

In December 2004 a massive slum-clearance is launched, and this violent and inhuman action is prepared for on war-footing, with private guards employed in certain locations to safe guard the land from being reclaimed by the displaced slum dweller who may return in some hope to re-establish home.

The city was set to change, on the one hand in 1990’s India became a liberalised economy, opening its doors to a global economy, and on the other the demolition of the Babri Masjid caused sharp religious fissures in the most cosmopolitan city of India. While citizens became global by eating at MacDonalds and drinking Coke, their neo-traditional attitude became a threat to the tolerant and understanding geography of the city. The Metropolis truly became one that was all about struggle and opportunism. Slum demolitions became quite violent in this decade with the whole middle class supporting the government on this. The imagination of the self-righteous middle class has grown more selfish with every new mall in the city. Mumbai which has some nice opportunities for public places is now a city where leisure and relaxation means going to the mall for hours of shopping or window-shopping or spending money on watching movies in a multiplex. Socialising now in many ways is about eating and shopping, not anymore the casual loitering on Marine Drive or Juhu Beach or Colaba Causeway or Bandra Bandstand.

India’s tallest high-rise apartment building coming up on the site of one of the former mill will house only 100 families! The apartments are 23 feet high and each family can take his car all the way to his apartment... and the building claims to be ‘Eco-Friendly’ and ‘Green’. It is ‘Green’ for those inside since the air, pollution and CO2 will be controlled while the citizen outside suffers this huge monstrosity and the ill-effects of such massive use of concrete and electricity to house just 100 families – who largely will be Non-Resident Indians and those who can afford many such other houses in the city of about 18 million!

Yet the city as a collective of strangers best performed itself on 26 July, 2005, the day of the flood deluge. The city probably for a day-and-a-half had no government or administration (including the police force) in full or any functioning order – but there was no report of loot, harassment, rape etc. In fact everybody in some way or the other experienced the generosity of complete strangers on roads. Citizens and shops that had their food stocks in place offered food, water, tea, fruits, biscuits to all and everyone - those stuck in their schools, work places, public transport, roads for over 14 hours now, trying to walk towards a home through the roads which were flooded in large parts.

This city is all about negotiations and that is what keeps the city alive and the most potential site to understand history and politics. Lives and ideas, cultures and struggles will cross its landscape. Every time a voice threatens to disturb the cosmography of the city, it produces from within it a number of counter-tactics to keep the existing cosmography from being destroyed, but for sure it allows change and challenges at all times. The city continues to challenge its own former maps and established designs, generating passions and anxieties, angst and emotions of love with every passing train that carries the city up and down and across every day. That is the promise of this city!

Kaiwan Mehta, Anuj Rao, Nuno Grancho, Peter Gorsshans & Sabrina Manzochi


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