Built by the British for mill workers, the chawls of Mumbai are an interesting signpost in the metro’s development landscape.

They are usually two-storied houses with tiled roofs, dingy staircases and cramped rooms. Yet, Mumbai’s chawls, the quaint, rickety, wooden structures populating swathes of central Mumbai, are a relic of a not-so-distant past, and add context to the city’s development, having had a considerable presence in its earlier landscape.

Today, however, the 100-year-old structures, referred to as kholi by local Maharashtrians, are up against the city’s insatiable appetite for space. Being located in what has become prime property in Mumbai, several chawls are being demolished to make way for shiny, modern, high-rise buildings.

These chawls were built in the early 1900s by the British to accommodate mill workers as part of a housing scheme. One of the oldest is the BDD (Bombay Development Department) chawl in Worli, Central Mumbai. Typically packed with former mill workers, the flats consist of 10 by 10 sq. ft. rooms. But, with the pressure to cope with rising costs and the spectre of unemployment continuing to haunt most occupants, they succumb to the lure of the lucre from eager builders who, in turn, demolish the structures and “re-develop” them.

For vacating their premises, chawl residents are given 350 sq. ft. apartments, not necessarily close-by. However, in a somewhat tragic turn, several of these flats are re-sold by the former chawl residents who then move to distant suburbs. “How can a lower middle class family afford to pay a monthly maintenance or rent of Rs. 2,000-3,000 per month for the flats?’’ asks a 20-year-old resident.

There are others, however, who are clearly ecstatic about moving to a new house in a high-rise building and for them, it is quite simply, a dream come true. One such is 55-year-old Anil, who has a khadi towel wrapped around his waist and a white vest on his shoulders.

He offers prayers to a tulsi plant on the balcony of his chawl and had earlier refused to be photographed in western clothes. “It is true that we will be moving out of our homes to live in a high-rise building later this year. But, then,” he wistfully adds, “although we will be staying in a new building, this chawl too is very comfortable and has so many memories attached to it. We are the third generation residents and are so used to this property.’’

The chawls have become the backdrop for many a Bollywood movie, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Piya ka Ghar, Vastav to name a few. Hindi TV soap operas too have used life in the chawls as a recurring theme. Sadly though, given the pace at which the chawls are rapidly disappearing, future generations may be able to relate to these quaint structures only on celluloid or print.