Urban villages in Mumbai are perceived both by their presence as well as their absence.
Where physical remnants of an earlier time are still observable, they represent a layer of built heritage in our city, and can be listed for conservation.
Khotachiwadi and a few ‘villages’ like Bandra’s Pali or Sherly and Marol have a pre-urban character that lingers, enough to capture our urban imagination. But several villages are unseen, subsumed into the palimpsest that is the city at large and forced to accept an identity attributed to them. This is true for the many koliwadas and gaothans that make up the better part of urban villages in the central and western parts of the city like Gorai and Manori, as also those in the Thane and Raigad districts, and in Navi Mumbai, totalling nearly 300-odd ‘villages’ in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.
The Dharavi koliwada, for example, predates the settlement by several decades, and yet is undifferentiated from the larger slum, causing grief to its legal inhabitants and denying them agency over their own futures. Villages like Khandeshwar and Kamothe in Navi Mumbai are discerned by unbridled and unplanned high-rises emerging out of an otherwise planned city.
These habitations define an era before the rise of Bombay as we know it. They existed when there was no city, only islands, marshes, mangroves, fishing, toddy-tapping and rice fields. Being in the boondocks of political influence, they flourished, unaffected by surrounding political waywardness, but also did not progress culturally or economically. Until, of course, the Portuguese saw the benefit of a safe harbour. Mumbai’s history thereafter is one overlay over another, where its original inhabitants had no say and had to take whatever identity or nomenclature was thrust upon them. They continued to exist as the city rose all around them.
These urban villages remain as an afterimage in a rapidly changing urban milieu. They persist not so much for their physical presence but for their social networks. These are the places in the city whose denizens have lived for the longest time in the same place, in the same home. There is a clear and present inter-relationship between neighbourhood churches and temples, corner shops, overlooking balconies, protruding porches and deep, shading eaves that define their presence of its inhabitants. Houses have seen generations that go back to the 19th century and earlier.
Today, they face the pressures of change in the form of new traffic formations, road-widening, the infiltration of infrastructure and of course, the relentless pressure of real estate. These villages are also location-rich, inevitably rubbing shoulders either with the more tony neighbourhoods of the city or the larger slums in the city. Gentrification is always round the corner, as is change due to influxes of migration. Add aspiration to this mix and the conundrum is complete.
In a variegated, multifarious city, a rough conglomeration of what the architect Christopher Alexander calls ‘a mosaic of sub-cultures’, urban villages in Mumbai are well down the slippery slope to oblivion. This is the result of monolithic, one-size-fits-all Development Control rules and building by-laws.
The State has consistently failed to recognise diversity, let alone encourage it, and a slum is as much a candidate for redevelopment as is an inner-city cessed building or a koliwada. Each has value only as potential for yielding floor space index and transfer of development rights for the benefit of the builder/speculator. There is a clear power-differential weighed against the older localities that sustain quotidian city life.
It would not be unfair to say that contemporary Mumbai has failed to appreciate the value of the ‘ghetto’ as a place that nourishes and nurtures a sub-culture, but in a public realm that does not keep out the city at large, unlike a gated pile of luxury condos. The community, however small, takes pride in its local associations and practices and seamlessly ties into the larger processes of metropolitan life.
It is the inhabitants themselves, who need to deal with the binaries of preservation and change, but they do need the help of the state, in this case the municipal wards under whose jurisdictions they fall.
First, this city needs laws to actively discourage householders from speculating their own homes. This may sound counter-intuitive, but this aspiration to monetise the real estate value of the very ground beneath one’s feet is the main cause for unchecked change in this city.
More than benefiting the inhabitant it simply transforms homes that were once the bulwark of communities onto a labyrinth of exchange and speculation, rising in perceived value, seeking the highest bidder, or remaining unoccupied until it does.
This city has already far too many unsold and unoccupied properties waiting for the right crorepati to make an investment. When it comes to land in Mumbai, the homeowner is his own worst enemy.
Urban villages in the city need careful mapping, especially in defining edges and their connections to the surroundings.
Issues of tenancy, fraught as they are in Mumbai as a whole, should not come in the way of establishing the provenance of those who are living there. Those with voting rights in a particular area should all be able to set up and participate in local area governance in association with local ward officers.
While issues of maintenance, hygiene and garbage clearance are primary, these local bodies should also be able to build consensus on large-scale changes that will pressure them. Attempts by the inhabitants of gaothans in Juhu and Vile Parle to form panchayats to deal with local issues are a case in point that other villages can take forward.
Urban villages should be governed by local bye laws, well defined and accepted by the corporation that governs Mumbai.
Undifferentiated from the rest of the city, urban villages are fragile. Enhancing their legislative identity and uniqueness will bring a sense of pride in its inhabitants to preserve their neighbourhoods.
Points to ponder
* Urban villages need careful mapping. Tenancy issues should not come in the way of establishing the provenance of inhabitants
* Those with voting rights in a particular area should all be able to set up and participate in local area governance in association with local ward officers
* Local bodies should be able to build consensus on large-scale changes that will pressure them. Urban villages should be governed by local bye laws, well defined and accepted by the corporation
* Mumbai needs laws to discourage householders from speculating their own homes. The aspiration to monetise the real estate value of the ground beneath one’s feet is the main cause for unchecked change in the city
About the author
Mustansir Dalvi is an architect and Professor of Architecture in Mumbai. He is also a poet, translator, an urban theorist and historian who, in his writings observes and comments on urban change in Mumbai, especially in its current post-planning avatar.
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited for a factual error post publication.