A swanky makeover for weathered chawls of Mumbai

Developers are excited and occupants are largely worried about the execution of the Maharashtra government’s proposal to redevelop the historic Bombay Development Department chawls, spread over 92 acres of prime real estate. Alok Deshpande reports on the ambitious plan and the varied concerns

Updated - September 25, 2021 06:05 pm IST

Published - September 25, 2021 04:00 am IST

A view of the BDD chawls in Worli. The BDD chawl redevelopment project started on August 1 after the Maharashtra government performed a ‘bhoomi poojan’.

A view of the BDD chawls in Worli. The BDD chawl redevelopment project started on August 1 after the Maharashtra government performed a ‘bhoomi poojan’.

In 1933, friends and relatives gathered at chawl number 14 of the Bombay Development Department (BDD) at Delisle Road to celebrate Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday. The event was organised by Comrade R.B. More, one of the important forces behind the Chavdar Tale Satyagraha, a protest against the practice of disallowing the so-called ‘untouchables’ from using water from a public tank. At the programme, balladeer M.K. Kamble sang a paean to honour Ambedkar, mentioning him as ‘Babasaheb’ for the first time. With this event, the Red Chawl, as it was known then, strode into the history books.

Constructed between 1920 and 1925, BDD chawls , standing in the heart of Mumbai, have been witness to many such historical events. They have seen the rapid development of Bombay and then Mumbai as a prosperous island city. They have watched Bombay, found suitable by the British rulers for setting up textile mills, become the financial capital of independent India. The inhabitants of these chawls — poor and lower-middle class Marathi migrant labour and their families — have been spectators as well as participants in not only the city’s industrial growth, but also the freedom struggle, the Left-led labour movement, the Dalit Panther movement, and the Shiv Sena’s growth.


But today, almost 100 years after they were built, the chawls are the last citadel of the Marathi population, which is shrinking in every corner of the city. Of the total 16,553 rooms in these chawls, 15,593 are on State government land and the rest are on the Bombay Port Trust land in Sewri.

On August 1, the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government performed a ‘bhoomi pujan’ greenlighting what many in the government believe is going to be one of the biggest redevelopment projects in Asia, worth more than ₹16,000 crore. (This amount does not include the commercial market sale of the space that this project will create.) The project involves razing a number of chawls — old, weathered and historic structures — and rebuilding them. The new, imposing structures will house commercial and residential tenants, who will be given ownership of their new apartments.

A total of 207 chawls are located at Sewri, Naigaon, N.M. Joshi Road (Delisle Road) and Worli in south Mumbai. The redevelopment project plans to demolish and rebuild 195 of these chawls. The families of the 15,593 rooms will get apartments of 500 sq ft each. While residents and stall owners have been promised in-situ rehabilitation within eight years, around 17 towers will be built for market sale and more than 20 lakh sq ft of commercial space will be made available in the heart of Mumbai. The Maharashtra government has appointed the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) as the nodal and planning agency for this mammoth project which could transform the landscape of south and central Mumbai.

Need for housing

“In the later part of the 19th century, it was evident that as mills started running, labour was streaming into the city. The British government decided that it had to provide housing to these workers. It encouraged private landlords to build chawls. The government also began to contemplate building houses. So, Bombay City Improvement Trust (BIT) or BDD chawls was the State push to create housing,” says Pankaj Joshi, Principal Director, Urban Centre Mumbai, which works on urban planning, research, design, advocacy and community outreach.


While the need for housing for single, male migrant labour is the widely accepted reason behind the housing push by the British rulers, documents suggest that the requirement especially arose after the 1896 epidemic. The bubonic plague, which broke out in Bombay, killed more than 29,000 people. In February 1898, the British Parliament discussed the plague. Records say that 30%-40% of the population was concentrated in barely 3%-4% of land. On February 14, 1898, Lord Sandhurst presented the City of Bombay Improvement Bill in the British Parliament. The aim of this Bill was to build new roads, repair old roads, restructure old buildings or rebuild them, and create more open space. Once it was passed, the BIT was formed on November 9, 1898.

“From 1898 to 1920, the BIT demolished 24,428 buildings and built 21,387 new ones, which came to be known as BIT chawls,” notes Chalitale Tower , a book published by the MHADA on Bombay’s chawls. But the BIT was largely focused on building and widening roads, land reclamation, etc. As a result, it ran out of funds and the city continued to face problems of housing.

BDD chawl redevelopment | Beneficiaries to be charged only stamp duty of ₹1,000

Sir George Lloyd was appointed Bombay Governor in 1918. He sensed the need for housing and decided that the houses would be built by the government. He raised money through a developmental loan which was described as ‘By Bombay, For Bombay’. A town duty of ₹1 was levied on each bale of cotton entering the city. The BDD was formed in 1920 for the purpose of housing. It constructed 217 chawls at Worli, Naigaon, N.M. Joshi Road and Sewri.

Chawls are ground-plus-three-storied structures spread over 92.70 acres. Each chawl has 80 rooms measuring 160 sq ft each. Typically, a building has 10 rooms on either side of the corridor and each room has a ‘nahani’ and a kitchen area with a loft above. Two toilet blocks — one for women and one for men — with three lavatories are provided at the end of the corridor along with a spiral staircase as a fire escape. The entrance to the building is at the end of the ground floor, while stairs run through the middle of the length of the building. “Historical records show that these chawls were constructed in black stone. It was difficult to drill a nail into the walls,” says Vaishali Gadpale, Chief Public Relations Officer, MHADA.


Gadpale points out that over time, the quality of external infrastructure such as water supply pipes,and sewerage and storm water drainage deteriorated. Now, the Public Works Department (PWD) of Maharashtra maintains and safeguards the chawls. The residents of the chawls are tenants who pay a monthly rent of ₹70 to the PWD. The receipt carries the name of the leaseholder.

“These chawls and their tiny rooms gave shelter to nearly three to four generations of migrant labour coming to Mumbai in search of a better life. All of them may not have succeeded in life, but these chawls offered them safety. We have planned the redevelopment to ensure that these families get their rightful homes in-situ. They will not have to go anywhere. We are committed to that,” promised Maharashtra’s Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad, who spent his childhood in a chawl in the Tardeo area of Mumbai.

Plans for redevelopment

It was not only the MVA government that conducted a ‘bhoomi pujan’ of the project on August 1; the previous Bharatiya Janata Party–led government, headed by Devendra Fadnavis, performed an identical ceremony five years ago.

On December 27, 2016, the then Maharashtra government issued a modification to Regulation 33(9) of Development Control Regulations, which deals with the reconstruction or redevelopment of cessed buildings/urban renewal schemes on extensive areas in Mumbai city. It read, “For reconstruction or redevelopment of cluster(s) of buildings under Urban Renewal Scheme(s) in the island city of Mumbai undertaken by the Planning Authority, the FSI shall be 4.00 or the FSI required for rehabilitation of existing tenants / occupiers certified by competent authority appointed by the government for this purpose.”

Also read | Remnants of another era

Prashant Dhatrak, Executive Engineer, City, MHADA, says: “We will be rehabilitating the residents of 15,593 rooms in Naigaon, N.M. Joshi Road, and Worli, of which 374 are non-residential. Each eligible family will be getting a flat of 500 sq ft, stall owners will get the existing size stalls, and slum-dwellers will get a 269 sq ft flat which we propose to increase to 300 sq ft.”

Worli, which is the largest among the three land samples, has 121 chawls spread over 54.70 acres and 9,689 rooms. Of these rooms, 9,394 are residential, while the rest are non-residential. A consortium of Capacite Infraprojects, Tata Projects and CITIC Construction will execute this redevelopment project worth ₹11,744.26 crore. A total of 33 towers will accommodate the eligible beneficiaries with each structure being 40 storeys tall, including a a six-storey parking facility. On the commercial side, 3,224 rooms (flats available for comemrcial sale) with 807 sq ft of carpet area and 1,772 rooms with 1,076 sq ft of carpet area will be available for market sale in 10 towers of 66 storeys. In addition, 13,64,368 sq ft of commercial space will be available.

A view of the BDD chawls in Worli. The BDD chawl redevelopment project started on August 1 after the Maharashtra government performed a ‘bhoomi poojan’.

A view of the BDD chawls in Worli. The BDD chawl redevelopment project started on August 1 after the Maharashtra government performed a ‘bhoomi poojan’.

Naigaon has 42 chawls with 3,344 rooms spread across 15.93 acres. Of these, 3,289 are residential and 55 are non-residential. Larsen & Toubro is the contractor for the project worth ₹2,937.76 crore. A total of 20 towers will accommodate the beneficiaries. Each will be 22 storeys tall with three floors of basement parking. The project will give 1,408 rooms with 860 sq ft of carpet area and 448 rooms with 1,076 sq ft of carpet area for market sale in four towers of 60 storeys. It will also have one commercial tower with 2,57,256 sq ft area.

The N.M. Joshi road in Lower Parel has 32 chawls spread over an area of around 13.49 acres with 2,560 rooms. A consortium of Shapoorji Pallonji & Co and SD Corporation are the contractors for the redevelopment project, estimated at ₹2,438.99 crore. A total of 14 towers, each 22 storeys tall, will accommodate the residents. For market sale, the project will give 728 rooms of 807 sq ft of carpet area and 540 rooms with 1,022 sq ft of carpet area. A commercial tower with 2,86,707 sq ft of area will be available as well.

“These chawls have been in existence for almost 100 years and residents have an emotional bond with their homes. They have open spaces, gardens, clinics, playgrounds, schools, community centres and religious centres which have been functioning for years,” says Dhatrak. The redevelopment plan promises to replicate all of this with additional open spaces.

Aaditya Thackeray, the State’s Environment Minister, who represents the Worli Assembly constituency, and Awhad have also promised to accommodate the families of policemen in the redevelopment project, who have been staying there for years. The demand for this has been pending for many years.

The MHADA has identified towers built on textile mill lands to make residential arrangements for the residents of BDD chawls once the demolition begins. It has identified approximately 3,200 rooms. In case more houses are required, the government agency will provide ₹22,000 as monthly rental to those families which will not be given a flat so that they can make arrangements themselves.

The space and rooms available for commercial use will be sold at the market rate, MHADA officials say.

Identifying the beneficiaries

In Worli, the task is to identify eligible flat owners. Residents have demanded an agreement guaranteeing a flat before moving to transit camps. “A permanent residential agreement gives a clear picture about future houses, amenities to be offered, etc. This is offered during any slum redevelopment project in Mumbai or any other reconstruction project. This is a legal protection to tenants which we must get,” says Raju Waghmare, President, Akhil BDD Chawl Rahivashi Mahasangh, an umbrella body of residents of these chawls. He is also the State Congress spokesperson.

Also read | What chawls can teach us


Waghmare, who returned to India after studying in the U.S., has lived in Naigaon BDD chawl for years since his birth. His son is a fourth-generation resident of the chawl. He points out the “bizarre” condition put forward by the previous State government seeking documentary evidence of residence in the chawl from before 1996. “We pay rent to the PWD, which means they have all the receipts and papers from all these years. What is the logic of 1996,” he asks, pointing out that almost 30% of the current residents purchased flats in chawls post-1996. “They wouldn’t be able to produce papers from before 1996, making them ineligible for rehabilitation in the new towers,” he says.

The present government has withdrawn that condition and has raised the eligibility deadline to January 1, 2021. This means that those who lived or have registration papers from before January 1 will be eligible for rehabilitation in the new towers. It has also proposed that the PWD check the authenticity of documents.

Disputes within family members are now arising with the announcement of the redevelopment project. Brothers who had parted ways in search of better living or because of little space now have to decide who will own the new house. A police officer with the Worli police station says the number of disputes regarding tenancy rights on BDD chawl rooms has significantly increased.


The MHADA, which cannot stall the redevelopment plan simply because there are family disputes, has now proposed that in case of disagreements between family members over ownership and failure to sort out such differences, the new flat will be registered in the name of the Director of the BDD. Once the family settles its differences, the flat will be transferred to the mutually agreed person’s name.

As of now, the MHADA’s plan is to have a transit agreement with eligible residents to move them to alternate accommodations and then have a lottery whereby tenants get their final flat number in a designated tower. Based on that, the permanent agreement will be signed. The State Cabinet recently announced that it will charge only ₹1,000 as stamp duty from the qualified residents when they get their flats.

One of the concerns of shifting families from lower-income groups to high-rise buildings is the inability to pay for maintenance once the construction is completed. The MHADA has announced that it will pay for upkeep for 10 years after construction is completed.

A shot in the arm for real estate

While residents worry about maintenance charges, the real estate industry is pleased. The project is likely to open up new avenues for development in the region. Anuj Puri, Chairman, ANAROCK Property Consultants, an independent real estate services company, says: “The acute shortage of land in the core parts of Mumbai has compelled the city to expand northwards into the adjoining districts of Navi Mumbai, Thane and Raigad and the peripheral suburban locations along the central and western rail network. Redevelopment of this scale in south Mumbai will free up land which will provide a fillip to the real estate sector in the city.”

Ashok Mohanani, President, NAREDCO Maharashtra, says, “It is anticipated that property prices will drop with the completion of the BDD redevelopment project. Areas such as Worli, which are a luxury destination for investors and residents, have a price ranging from upwards of ₹50,000 per sq ft of carpet area. Post-BDD development, prices are likely to come down to ₹30,000-40,000 per sq ft of carpet area to accommodate the growth in the sector. This development can redefine the housing market of south-central Mumbai in the coming years.”

Culture of chawls

However, many fear that redevelopment will end the unique culture of chawls. Sachin Rohekar, a journalist who spent more than three decades in the BDD chawl at N.M. Joshi, recalls how 12 family members used to live in a single room. “Textile mills were growing, and workers were given accommodation here. The first wave of migrants was from the Konkan region. Those from the Ghats (western Maharashtra) came later without their families and they lived in chawls around the BDD. The dabbawala service was started for them,” he says.

Rohekar remembers how ‘desi’ games like kabaddi and kho-kho used to be played with huge fanfare. “Boys from the BDD used to play in the national and State kabaddi teams,” he says. People from the chawls would also react to every social and political event, he adds.

Anand Bhandare, a fourth-generation resident of BDD chawl in Worli, says these structures are few of the last remaining areas in Mumbai with a concentrated Marathi population. “We always tend to glorify social integration, but the reality is that even these structures have caste-wise chawls. Our part celebrates Ambedkar’s birth anniversary with fanfare, the others don’t. Redevelopment might change this,” he says. Bhandare says the State government isn’t doing anyone a favour by giving free flats to the residents. “Nobody demanded 40-storey towers for rehabilitation. Has anyone given a thought to how poor families will pay for maintenance? Why should we depend on the government by demanding a corpus fund? In addition, the open spaces may significantly reduce (after redevelopment),” he says.

Culture survives only if the community endures, says Joshi. “Space does not create culture; it only promotes it. Ultimately it is the people who create culture. So, the focus should be on how people can remain here. We cannot say that the previous culture was better or that the present one is better. Only coexistence of different cultures and communities can make a city richer, not exclusion,” he says.

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