Bhendi Bazaar is the kind of place Mumbaikars have heard about but rarely been to, unless they are street food buffs or collectors of memorabilia. Every Sunday, socialites, interior decorators and kitsch connoisseurs converge at Chor Bazaar, the “thieves’ market” that lies cheek by jowl with Bhendi Bazaar. During Ramzan, the bazaar’s streets are packed with foodies chomping on kebabs and nihari.
One of the city’s old neighbourhoods, Bhendi Bazaar, now the canvas of a forthcoming gangster film called Bhindi Bazaar Inc. by Ankush Bhatt, is home to thousands of Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Shia Muslims. Eighty per cent of the nearly 20,000 residents are of Bohra faith. Most residents live in rickety old buildings, many of which are propped up by wooden poles—and, well, sheer willpower. A typical tenement is 100 sq. ft in size; entire families live in them. Each floor has one or two common toilets.
All this is about to change. Bohra mohalla, another name for Bhendi Bazaar, is gearing up for a massive facelift. If all goes according to plan, by the end of this decade the ramshackle ghetto will have been transformed. The decrepit structures will be replaced by skyscrapers. Each resident will get a minimum of 350 sq. ft of living space with tiling, lights, appliances and en suite toilets. The stereotypical Oriental bazaar look will give way to shopping centres. There will be parks, water bodies, walking tracks and garbage recycling systems. The makeover will come for free; neither the residents nor the city will pay for it.
In focus: (clockwise from top right) The main junction at Bhendi Bazaar; Bohra women in rida; a curio store in Chor Bazaar; and an old building in the area. Photographs by Abhijit Hatlekar /Mint
The plan has been conceived as part of the Maharashtra government’s Cluster Redevelopment Scheme under which developers get additional floor space index (FSI) if they agree to rebuild structures over 50 years old. Estimates suggest there are 16,000 such buildings in Mumbai, of which nearly one-third are 100 years old. What makes the proposal unique—and somewhat controversial—is that instead of redeveloping just one old building, a developer can potentially raze an entire neighbourhood, provided at least 70% of the local residents and landlords agree. Many activists have criticized this scheme as a bonanza for builders. The government says the end result will be good for residents.
Last month, the first two precincts were given permission under this policy—the Chira Bazaar area and Bhendi Bazaar. The former encompasses over 200 acres and has hundreds of buildings, shops and other establishments, making the process complicated. Bhendi Bazaar has a little more than 16 acres, with about 250 buildings. It is taking off first. Residents have been queuing to join in.
In the nearly 100-year-old Batul Manzil there is excitement. In her 200-plus sq. ft home, Sajida Kabira, in her 60s, remembers how she came to Bhendi Bazaar as a young bride 41 years ago. “Our building was terrible; gutter water flowed all the time on the landing and every day we worried about the building falling on us while we slept. Over the years, the government has repaired it, but it is still awful,” she says, pointing to cracks in the structure. Her neighbour Munira Jawadwala is blunt: “These repairs are like applying lipstick and make-up to a face. Only you know how bad the reality is.” Looking reverentially at a framed photo on the wall, Kabira says, “It is all due to our Aqa Maula.”
Aqa Maula is the name Bohras have for Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the community’s 100-year-old spiritual leader. It is his trust—Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust—that has undertaken to revamp Bhendi Bazaar. “The key word here is upliftment—this is not a profiteering venture,” says Abbas Master, CEO of the trust. “We have all the signatures we want and the work can begin soon. Where other builders may want 80% of the land for their own commercial exploitation, we will give 80% to the local community and commercially develop the rest to sell in the open market.” The project may take up to seven-eight years, and cost Rs4,000 crore, according to the trust.
Till their new homes are ready, the residents will be moved to transit flats 3km away. Fifty families have already shifted to buildings where fans, geysers, washing machines and, yes, indoor toilets have been provided. Once construction is complete and all the Bhendi Bazaar residents have moved into their new homes in the high-rises, the trust proposes to erect four towers of over 45 storeys, each of which will be sold at market price—an estimated Rs50,000 per ft now. A 1,000 sq. ft apartment in the new towers could thus go for Rs5 crore or more. Master says this is how the Rs4,000 crore needed to subsidize the project will be generated.
It seems the deal is a bargain for the residents, but urban planners have their reservations. “In any top-down approach an appreciation of the complex social fabric of a neighbourhood that develops over decades is rarely taken into consideration. You can never get all the nuances of life in such inner city areas,” says Mustansir Dalvi, who teaches at the Sir JJ College of Architecture. He grew up across the road from Bhendi Bazaar in Dongri, a similarly dense neighbourhood, and fears the new “cleaned-up” development will be a gated community. “There is something to be said about the virtues of a dirty city,” he says.
The look and feel of the bazaar will disappear and in its place will come an anodyne cluster of high-rises no different from anywhere else. Master admits there has been a lot of thinking about how best to maintain the unique characteristics— architectural flourishes, community feeling and shop frontages—of Bhendi Bazaar, but this has to be balanced with the needs of residents.
The street-level retail activity of restaurants and shops selling everything from fans to auto spare parts to ready-made ridas (the colourful burqas worn by Bohra women), which give the bazaar its character, will probably shift to higher floors.
The loss of character is not the only concern. Builders are likely to control vast areas of public land. Is this going to be the future of urban regeneration for a city like Mumbai, where several areas are old and crumbling? Could this become another freebie for the already powerful builder lobby? Chor Bazaar in a glitzy mall—it doesn’t match up.
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