Lieutenant-Commander KRU Todd of the Royal Indian Navy first got wind that prehistoric man had lived in Mumbai when he examined the gravel of the Back Bay on the city’s southern tip nearly 80 years ago. An amateur archaeologist, Todd presented a paper to the Prehistoric Society, East Anglia, in 1932 laying out details of rough tools and flakes that seemed to be approximately 300,000 years old. To marshal his case, though, he had to conduct digs in Kandivali, more than 30km north of the neighbourhood in which he found his initial clues. That’s because much of the material for the top filling of Back Bay reclamation scheme of the 1920s, which created 439 acres of new land between Churchgate and Colaba, had been carted in from Padan Hill in Kandivali.
When Todd was scooping up ancient stone hand-axes, cleavers and scrapers in the city’s northern reaches in the first part of the last century, the creeks between seven malarial islands had already been filled in to form the Mumbai peninsula that’s now recognisable on contemporary maps. It’s a process that had started in the middle of the 16th century, when a Portuguese financier named Simao Botelho suggested that the authorities grant submerged land in perpetuity to anyone hard-working enough to drain and reclaim it. Today, roughly 40% of Mumbai city and 20% of the suburbs consists of reclamations but soil and land remain the city’s central preoccupation—a fact that was starkly obvious all through 2008.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
In the unlikely event that Raj Thackeray and his nativist associates in the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena should take the trouble to read Todd’s papers on prehistoric man, they would probably use his findings to bolster their contention that the sons of the soil have a claim to the city that’s even more ancient than they first imagined. It’s probably too much to hope that these bhumiputras see the irony implicit in the notion that, like the enterprising migrants who have settled here, Mumbai’s very soil has its origins elsewhere.
While the MNS’s corrosive assertions about roots—and their vicious attacks on north Indians—have received wide play, another debate about a piece of Mumbai history has gone almost unnoticed by the national press, even though it has profound significance for the city’s future. In September 2007, Mumbai’s elected representatives in the municipal corporation took less than a minute to pass a so-called redevelopment proposal to lease the 139-year-old Crawford Market at Rs1,001 a year for 60 years to a firm named East West. The company was given the right to demolish portions of the historic complex to build three towers with a total area of 65,690 sq. m. of floor space. In exchange, the municipality will get 40% of that space.
Civic activists pointed out that the plan will destroy the architectural integrity of the market, which has been accorded the highest level of protection under Maharashtra’s heritage protection regulations. But it’s mainly the integrity of Mumbai’s elected officials that’s been called into question. According to the calculations of Right to Information activist Sailesh Gandhi, East West would make a profit of Rs1,155 crore on an investment of Rs105 crore. Under pressure, the corporation voted in March on a demand that the redevelopment proposal should be reconsidered. Civic activists lined up in the lobby to urge representatives to do the right thing. When the motion was tabled, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena voted against reconsidering the proposal and the Congress stayed neutral. The plan now has to be approved by the heritage committee, but its opinion is not binding on the municipal commissioner, who can pass the proposal if he presents valid reasons.
1 February: Raj Thackeray questions Amitabh Bachchan’s decision to start a school for girls in Uttar Pradesh. Rajanish Kakade / AP
Since then, two other decisions on real estate have been welcomed by construction companies, but greeted with horror by people who care about Mumbai. In September, the Supreme Court set aside restrictions imposed by the Bombay high court in 2006 on the reconstruction of approximately 19,000 so-called cessed buildings in southern Mumbai. The residents of these buildings pay a cess to the state housing board to ensure that repairs are carried out, because their landlords have refused to look after their upkeep. Though the state government has offered construction firms liberal incentives to rehouse the residents of these structures, the majority of which were built before September 1940, the Bombay high court had ruled that mandatory open spaces around the buildings had to be maintained. With the Supreme Court lifting these requirements, the residents of skyscrapers that will sprout through southern Mumbai will literally be able to shake the hands of people in neighbouring buildings.
As if this wasn’t alarming enough, the municipal corporation at the end of November decided to allow residents of the city’s 30 fishing settlements and 189 gaothans—villages that have improbably held out against the concrete tsunami of urbanisation—to demolish their homes and build taller homes. It seems that the authorities haven’t bothered to study whether the infrastructure of these already-congested neighbourhoods can actually support the increased populations that will move into the new buildings.
The events of the past year follow the inexplicable decision in 2006 to allow piecemeal building projects on 600 acres of mill land in central Mumbai and the plan to redevelop the Dharavi slum area even though the government-appointed consultant to the project isn’t sure quite how many families live there and need to be rehoused.
In most other cities, this kind of chaos would probably have prompted irate residents to flood into the streets in protest. But in Mumbai, this seems like business as usual. After all, real estate corruption has been around for centuries (though not perhaps from prehistoric times).
In fact, one notorious episode involved the area in south Mumbai where Lieutenant-Commander KRU Todd scratched around for clues about the city’s origins. In 1926, the Backbay enquiry committee discovered evidence of financial irregularities in the reclamation scheme and noted that the government’s permission had been obtained through an incomplete presentation. That committee was headed by K.F. Nariman, after whom another stretch of land with the whiff of scandal to it would be named decades later.
Naresh Fernandes is the editor-in-chief of TimeOut.