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Island city: Mumbai then and now

Twenty years after the riots, Mumbai’s landscape is unrecognizable. Enclaves of exclusion challenge the city’s idea of itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolis
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First Published: Fri, Dec 07 2012. 07 50 PM IST
Mumbai is defined more rigidly than before by religion and class. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Mumbai is defined more rigidly than before by religion and class. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Updated: Mon, Dec 10 2012. 05 11 PM IST
One recent evening, a barber named Shaikh Mansoor took time off from cutting hair in his tiny shop in Bharat Nagar, on the edge of Mumbai’s Bandra East neighbourhood, to point to the precise spot where three of his neighbours had been shot dead by policemen from the local chowki 20 years ago.
Mansoor was 14 on the morning of 7 December 1992, when chaos swept through his swampy slum. Located on a spit protruding into the mouth of the Mithi river, the Muslim-dominated settlement had only one road running through it—and that road had been blocked when a group of about 50 young men torched a BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) bus to protest against the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya the previous afternoon.
As the vehicle went up in flames, policemen shot at the protesters with pistols, muskets and sten guns. A little while later, hundreds of people surrounded the police outpost at the edge of the slum, hurling stones and tube lights that left holes in the corrugated asbestos roof. The four policemen on duty attempted to fight their way out, killing three men and wounding 54. “The guns sounded like thunder,” Mansoor recalls. The clashes in Bharat Nagar were only one flame in an inferno of violence that was already consuming vast portions of Mumbai. Over the next two months, approximately 900 people would be killed in two phases of riots across the city.
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A view of the rapidly transforming Mumbai skyline from Byculla Bridge. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Twenty years after the riots, Bharat Nagar is unrecognizable. The police chowki has moved into a solid building down the road and Mansoor’s barber shop stands right next to the plot it vacated. The once-flimsy shanties have been replaced by brick structures, and the tidal pools have dried up: the Mithi river is now held back by thick concrete walls. But, as Mansoor noted, the changes in his slum colony are nowhere as dramatic as the transformations across the street—a six-lane street that didn’t even exist at the time of the riots. The glass-fronted National Stock Exchange now looms over Bharat Nagar, while the US consulate and a branch of the Michelin-starred London restaurant Yauatcha are a short walk away. They are among dozens of sleek buildings that have sprung up on the 370 hectares reclaimed from the Mithi river since the riots as part of the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) development.
The BKC isn’t the only reclamation project undertaken in the city since the riots. To the north in Malad, the Mindspace office complex has been constructed atop a 19.2 hectare garbage dump. Several other smaller plots, some of questionable legality, have also been created by tipping vast amounts of debris into mangrove forests along the coast. Of course, the wresting of land from water isn’t a particularly novel phenomenon in Mumbai. Reclamations have been proceeding for more than 250 years, as the creeks between the seven islands that once comprised Mumbai have been filled in with palm fronds and quarried hills. Today, roughly 40% of Mumbai city and 20% of the Greater Mumbai district stand on reclaimed land.
Alongside these recent reclamations, however, Mumbai is experiencing a more unsettling process: the emergence of new islands, whose edges are being defined more rigidly by religion and class. As it turns out, the riots and the retaliatory bomb blasts that followed coincided with the beginnings of India’s policy of economic liberalization. Both events unleashed forces that have profoundly reorganized Mumbai’s landscape. They have created enclaves of privilege and exclusion that challenge Mumbai’s very idea of itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolis.
In the aftermath of the riots, significant numbers of Muslims—whose community members formed the majority of the dead during the violence—began to seek out safer neighbourhoods and to create new havens. The largest of the Muslim islands to emerge was the township of Mumbra, about 40km from downtown Mumbai. In 1992, it was largely rural, popular with rock climbers for its nursery rocks, boulders that were technically difficult to scale but so low that you wouldn’t get hurt if you fell. Among the town’s largest businesses was sand dredging in the Thane creek nearby. The census the previous year put Mumbra’s population at 44,217.
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Mohammed Ali, a teacher at an Urdu-medium school in Kausa, Mumbra. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Twenty years later, Mumbra has expanded into a mini-city of an estimated 800,000 people—more than 80% of them Muslim. Mohammed Ali, who has taught in an Urdu-medium municipal school in Mumbra’s Kausa section for 36 years, has to deal with the consequences of this population explosion every workday. When he started teaching in 1976, the school had 600 students. Today, it has 6,000. Though the school has two shifts, each of its 60 rooms packs in three divisions of students. “They’re crammed in like cattle,” Ali says.
Mumbra proved attractive for members of the riot-scarred minority community because it had a long presence of Konkani Muslims who owned land there, says P.K. Shajahan, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss), who has written a book about three Muslim neighbourhoods in the city. Since Mumbra is in Thane district, it lacks the stricter regulatory environment of Mumbai and building codes are followed mainly in the breach. Thousands of flats were constructed rapidly.
Though the threat of physical violence has receded over the years, middle-class Mumbai Muslims continue to gravitate towards Mumbra to avoid the discrimination they routinely face in finding homes in many parts of the city. Prejudice against Muslims is so prevalent, even actor Shabana Azmi complained a couple of years ago that she and her husband Javed Akhtar could not buy a home of their choice. Though moving to Mumbra helps Muslims sidestep this bias, other problems remain. For instance, Shajahan says power cuts that last up to 6 hours a day are routine here, even though Hindu-dominated Kalwa and Diva nearby face daily outages of only 2 hours.
Most of all, Mumbra residents say they have no defence against their neighbourhood being stereotyped as a safe house for terrorists. Over the past decade, the police claim to have arrested several terrorists in Mumbra. The most notorious case involved the killing of a 19-year-old college student named Ishrat Jahan Shamim Raza by the Gujarat police in 2004. They claimed she was on a mission to assassinate Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. However, a magistrate’s report later said senior police officers had staged the killing to win promotions.
Other Mumbai neighbourhoods have turned into Muslim enclaves because almost everyone else moved out. That was the case in Bandra Plot, Jogeshwari (East), the site of some of the most bitter violence in 1993. Among the incidents blamed for sparking the second phase of riots was the attack on a Hindu family which lived in a squat, single-storey building there popularly known as Radhabai Chawl. Six members of the Bane family died in the fire that ensued.
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Ismail Sharif of the Aagaz Youth Development Centre in Radhabai Chawl. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The building now houses a youth centre that conducts computer classes and helps members understand how government bureaucracies work so that they can obtain ration cards, PAN (permanent account number) cards and passports more easily. It would seem like a perfect symbol of reconciliation. But the centre’s administrator, 29-year-old Ismail Sharif, admits that appearances are deceptive. During the riots, all of the approximately 20 families which lived in the lane in which the Aagaz Youth Development Centre is located were Hindu. Now, only two or three remain.
The mistrust between communities is also embodied in the word residents of Jogeshwari’s Hindu-dominated areas use to describe the boundaries of neighbourhoods like Bandra Plot: They routinely refer to it as the “border”. In Bandra Plot, too, residents note that their neighbourhood has been stigmatized. They claim that applicants from Jogeshwari East’s 400060 postal code are routinely refused bank loans and credit cards. “It’s so bad, we can’t even get post-paid mobile phone connections,” says Sharif.
Shajahan worries about how young Muslims will be affected by this “socio-spatial relegation” to the margins, as he describes it. “Space and identity have combined to become a deadly zone of exclusion,” he says. “They are disconnected from larger social processes—not for any fault of their own.”
The two decades since the riots have also seen a mind-boggling jump in the number of Mumbaikars living in slums. The 1991 census estimated that 23.5% of the city’s 9.9 million people lived in slums. Today, that figure stands at 52.5% of Mumbai’s population of 12.4 million. The informalization of Mumbai’s housing situation is, in part, a consequence of the crumbling of Mumbai’s formal sector, in which employment dropped by 15% from 1991-2007. As casual work, contract jobs and self-employment have become the order of the day, few working-class Mumbaikars can hope to raise the money to move into usuriously priced—and scarce—formal housing.
With more people living in slums, growing numbers of affluent Mumbaikars are seeking refuge in gated communities, anomalies in a metropolis that once held openness to be an ideal (even if it never quite achieved it). The front pages of Mumbai’s newspapers are dominated by advertisements for self-contained, access-restricted enclaves that promise to sequester residents from the chaotic metropolis around. The ads often note that residents will be protected not only by high walls but also by closed-circuit TV cameras, smart-card entry systems and, occasionally, biometric devices. Though these complexes are completely dependent on municipal services for water and garbage removal, many have names that attempt to suggest that they are autonomous territories. They include Kohinoor City, Marathon Nexzone, Sumit Greendale and Rustomjee Global City, among them.
Among the most high-profile complexes is a 29-acre development under construction in Wadala. Its advertisements unselfconsciously gloat about its exclusive attractions, such as “private roads” and “temperature-controlled lobbies”. It will also have “separate service lifts (to) ensure that the service staff remains largely invisible”. Underscoring its mission to keep Mumbai at bay, it is called Island City Center.
Potential customers are given video presentations explaining what they can expect. Like the brochures of similar developments, the publicity material for Island City Center reiterates that precarious state in which Mumbai finds itself—“vehicles are increasing, the population is expanding, the city’s resources are thinning”. But this “integrated enclave” with “branded residences” and shops, a place with golf putting greens, cricket nets and flats with motorized curtains, will be “a far cry from the city outside”.
After the presentation, a polite sales representative shows aspiring clients floor plans for apartments in one of the buildings, an 84-storey tower that will be a companion to an 83-storey skyscraper next door. Though it’s easy to imagine getting used to a place “where business is discussed over a game of billiards and fine wine”, the Rs.6 crore starting price for a three-bedroom flat would take several lifetimes of freelance journalism to cobble together.
Like most of Mumbai’s gated communities, the Island City Center is being built on a site that once contained a factory. Among the main facilitators of the city’s dizzying metamorphosis over the past two decades were the Development Control Regulations announced by the Maharashtra government in 1991, which, among other provisions, allowed owners of textile mills to sell portions of their land. At their peak in the late 1970s, the mills had 250,000 workers and were the city’s largest employer.
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Two decades after riots tore apart many Mumbai neighbourhoods, including eastern Bandra, the stark contrasts of areas like the Bandra Kurla Complex indicate how economics has divided the city line. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Since most of the mills were clustered together on a 243-hectare sprawl in the congested Parel neighbourhood, the state had hoped to implement an integrated development plan for the area, creating wide new roads and using a portion of these plots for public housing and parks. But the mill owners challenged the plan in court, and in 2006, were allowed to develop their plots piecemeal. Ironically, many of the amenities that the developers of the gated communities are offering their clients would have been available to anyone visiting Parel if the mill owners had gone along with the state’s plan, framed by architect Charles Correa.
The mushrooming of gated communities has been accompanied by another atypical Mumbai phenomenon: residents abandoning the city’s public transport system to travel by car or motorbike. This cocooning away into individual vehicles has been encouraged by massive state investment in road projects and flyovers, most notably the flashy Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Mass transit options have been neglected, even though 87% of peak-hour travellers take the train and bus.
At the time of the riots, Mumbai had only two flyovers. Today, it has approximately 55, with more under construction. Over that period, only a handful of public transport projects were completed, notably the extension, in stages, of the railway line from Mankhurd to Panvel. But the sorely needed 11.4km metro project linking Versova to Ghatkopar is still under way six years after the foundation stone was laid, as is the Mumbai Monorail, which was expected to have been inaugurated in April last year. Not surprisingly, the number of private vehicles in Mumbai has more than doubled since 1991, from 940,000 to 1.87 million. That increase was only to be expected. As transport experts often joke, “Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.”
The transport projects have had an unforeseen side effect. Over the past decade, thousands of people living on pavements and by the railway tracks have been relocated to facilitate these infrastructural initiatives. About 60,000 of these project-affected persons, as they’re officially classified, have been shifted into around 100 buildings in the north-eastern area of Mankhurd. The buildings, seven to 14 storeys high, stand in the municipal ward with Mumbai’s worst human development indicators: average life expectancy is 39 (compared to a citywide average of 56.8); and the ward’s population density is 66,881 per sq. km (compared with 27.366).
Though they received their homes for free, some residents aren’t exactly overjoyed. Their 225 sq. ft flats are too small for multigenerational families, they say, and the lifts frequently break down, inconveniencing old people and children on higher floors. But mainly, as a construction labourer named Shiv Kumar complained, “Mankhurd is too far from most sources of work.” Many of the area’s daily wage earners and domestic workers say their earnings are too low to allow them to commute to jobs in other places. The transport projects have inadvertently strengthened the walls of another enclave—this one, a zone of poverty.
Today, Mumbai’s enclaves are not merely physical. The last two decades have also seen the ghettoization of the middle-class Mumbai mind. Their lack of empathy for their less fortunate neighbours was apparent in their response to the cloudburst of 26 July 2005, when the city received an astonishing 994mm of rain in a single day. The floods that resulted left 447 people dead. Many middle-class residents blamed the catastrophe on the growth of slums such as Bharat Nagar, which, they claimed, had narrowed the Mithi river, a vital drainage channel. In reality, greater damage had been caused by the extension of a runway at the airport, which altered the river’s course, even as reclamations undertaken for projects such as the Bandra-Kurla Complex had shrunk the marshy areas essential for rainwater to drain.
In the wake of such an enormous disaster, residents of most other cities would have taken to the streets to demand immediate action from its politicians and administrators. Mumbai was satisfied to pass around SMS messages that criticized the government’s misdeeds, but did little to effect real change. Three years later, text messages were still the weapon of choice when Pakistani terrorists attacked the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and prominent city hotels. “Yes, we need to be scared about the people who came in on the boat but we need to be even more worried about the people who came in on our votes,” claimed one especially motile message, highlighting anger at the failure of elected officials to provide clear direction during the 60-hour crisis in 2008.
This time, middle-class Mumbai actually found the energy to mount a public display of its anger. On 3 December 2008, an estimated 20,000 people made their way to the Gateway of India and promised not to rest until the administration completely overhauled the security system. Some banners at the rally urged Mumbaikars to stop paying their taxes to protest against the government’s failure to protect the city. Others encouraged citizens to refrain from voting during the next election.
Then, just as quickly, the rage burnt itself out. The protesters failed to negotiate effectively with the political system and their rhetoric at the rally explained why. Mumbai’s middle classes have become so enamoured of the pay-as-you-go approach, they’ve come to view democracy as a consumer scheme. They’re so eager to demand their rights, they’ve completely forgotten about their fundamental duties. They’re unable to understand that transforming politics will take much more than withholding their money: It will take energetically engaging with the system—and their poorer neighbours.
The re-islanding of Mumbai does not bode well for its future. After all, cities can flourish only if its residents can find common ground to make common cause.
Naresh Fernandes is author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age.
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First Published: Fri, Dec 07 2012. 07 50 PM IST
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