Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bombay, or what’s left of it

This was an occasional piece written for the Mumbai Reader 10 (2010, UDRI, compiled by Pankaj Joshi and Isaac Matthew) published last year. Given the speed and unpredictability of change in Bombay's urban space currently, I am posting it on this blog to see whether it still holds good.

Bombay, or what’s left of it

It all depends on the way you look at it. Our city is too diverse and too variegated for one single future. It is the sum of its parts and each part, in turn, is the sum of its parts, and so on, ad infinitum. Nowhere is this expressed better than in Mumbai’s inner city- Bombay.

What are the limits to the inner city? Everything south of the mill lands? Everything south of the Mithi? Neighbourhoods and precincts in our city are undefined, subtle, constructed out of mutual agreements rather than constructed of discreet boundaries. For definition instead, we have generic Wards. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Wards in Mumbai are the archetype of the Inner City, of the Bombay of public memory, identified not by colours on a map, but by paths, places and domains, resonating with neighbourhood names –Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar, Tardeo, and landmarks- Panjrapol, Gaiwadi, the Cotton Exchange. The urban character, its fabric, its people and its apparent chaos and filth all make it what it is. With the current penchant of making-over all that is old in the city, one wonders what of this will sustain, even a decade from now. For far too long decisions about change are made by foregrounding visual blight as a tool of damnation- garbage, decrepitude, rundown areas, leaking house-gullies, open wiring; all these and more are reason enough for wholesale change. Eyes, of course, are the easiest to fool.

Current models of redevelopment assume the helplessness of the residents of the Inner City to better themselves; that these hapless denizens require the benevolence of their ‘betters’-developers and legislators alike. It is assumed that tenants and landlords coexist in an extended no man’s land, thanks to the vagaries of the Bombay Rents, Hotel, and Lodging House Rates Control Act, 1947. Interestingly, it is the Rent Act itself that, over the last sixty years has helped preserve and sustain the egalitarian character of the Inner City. Owners, landlords, tenants, sub-tenants, leave and licensees, common-law occupants, parasites, saprophytes, the homeless and their relatives, friends and pets all make the broad spectrum of life that fill these streets and enrich our city. The enforced clampdown of rents and sales for decades prevented sudden gentrification of these valuable areas, preventing the polychromy of shared existence to be faded down to the monotone ‘Owner’.

Over the rest of Mumbai, as its peripheries ballooned northwards and general affluence rose steadily since the early eighties, the idea of owning a piece of the property pie eclipsed the idea of rented property in the minds of its inhabitants as the only ‘safe’ model for living. Today, home and material estate have got mixed up in a bind, severely strained by the limited space of a city bounded on three sides by water. This has led to a siege mindset, where the real survivors are Owners, and people who need to rent ‘transients’. Little wonder then, that speculators have had an open field over the last thirty years.

Today, when even the possibilities of northward expansion seem to be exhausted, the city is turning on itself, trying to survive by devouring its own children. Every area in the city, salt pan or mangrove, green field or brown, lived in or decrepit, outer or inner is fair game. In the hyperdense inner city of the C and D wards, land is the key commodity for speculation, of forcing a value on paper, of commodifying a human need for profit. This paper value multiplies without restraint simply by assigning a perceived agency to it, either by speculation or even legislation. The recent modifications to the Town Planning Act, the eponymous clauses 33/7and 33/9 legislate the densification the already dense.

These Santa Clauses for the speculators posit redevelopment of inner city areas as if they are tabula rasa. The recent proposal for the area we now know as Bhendi Bazaar is a case in point where several hundred structures are proposed to be consumed into thirty or forty high rises. The inevitable result of this would mean the erstwhile tenants would be under severe pressure to move away, those who can afford the many zeros per square foot would move in leading to wholesale  and instant gentrification and demographic change. Modifications in the existing fabric, creating filth-free gated communities, with gated mindsets will lead to a substantial reduction of communal wealth that is the street, the plaza, the playground. What politically correct, un-cosmopolitan, pristine and monolith will replace the grungy surprises, the get-your-hands-dirty delights of the much loved and much visited Chor Bazaar?

Property/ Value
Physical land in our inner city is acutely finite, so how can it be sub-divided, ad infinitum? Historically, landed property defined feudalism. Owning land or real estate generated income for the owner without the owner having to do the actual work of the estate. Landed property was a key element of the feudal pecking order, and freed the owner for other tasks such as living the high life.

In the early years after America shucked off the British yoke, its economy was largely agrarian. Land ownership led to social divide, exploitation and slave ownership. Thomas Paine, in Agrarian Justice (1795) defined two kinds of property- one, Natural property, ‘which comes from the creator, such as earth, air, water’ and the other ‘artificial or acquired property, the invention of men.’ Paine felt that equality in the latter was impossible; but equality in the former was necessary. ‘Every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property or its equivalent. …the condition of persons born after civilization should not be worse than that of those born before. The earth in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.’ Thomas Paine stressed that individual property should be manifest only in the value of improvement, and not in the actual ownership of land. ‘Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a ground rent (I know no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds.’ In 1850, Frédéric Bastiat, in his book Economic Harmonies, defined property not as a physical object, but rather as a relationship between people with respect to an object. What one owned was not the object in itself but the value of the object. As such, Bastiat believed that the increasing proportion of communal wealth to private property would result in grater and agreeable egalitarianism.

These lessons from the past are still relevant and can be put to effect in seeking solutions to redevelop of the inner city of Bombay. Some of these prescriptions may appear counter intuitive, but thinking outside the box is the only option available in recent times. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (from the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) must therefore be invoked: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.’ To paraphrase Kant crudely- ‘Do unto others as you would have everybody do unto everybody’. Using his sage advice, here are a few, perhaps counter-intuitive ways of seeing a possible future for Community living in the Inner City.

Define the Limits of the inner city        
Our city has to overcome the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the Development Control Rules. Colaba and Virar cannot be developed by the same standards. It is the wholesale application of the DC rules that wreaks the maximum damage on the well defined fabric of many of the older areas in the city. Controls need to be stated, most certainly, but from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, making local conditions a priority rather than monetising every thing into units of FSI. Define neighbourhoods, even streets, as units for development. The inner city is a sum of parts, a mosaic of subcultures, and palimpsest of historical accretion. To achieve this, an institutional setup needs to be envisaged where residents and administrators combine into a unified, democratically run association of inner city management.

Create a model for Participation, not Ownership
Every permanent resident should be considered a part-owner or shareholder in a neighbourhood. Individual ownership, tenancy and occupation should be limited to ‘built property’, not the land on which the property is built. The inner city is old, and worn down. A massive restructuring of infrastructure is necessary. In order to achieve this, developers will need to be called in to technically and financially assist reconstruction. Each developer should therefore be compensated by a right to avail an equivalent area of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) outside the inner city for proposals of buildings with unit areas not less than 1000 sft. This would imply that the developer can build and profit from housing for middle and upper middle income holders, adding to housing supply, while not further congesting the inner city.

Free the Ground Plane for Public Use
The Ground Plane shall be excluded from individual holdings completely and be administered and developed by an association of inner city management. Amenities for the benefit of local users shall be created, and accessed by pedestrian movement alone. Vehicular accesses could edge neighbourhoods and enter them only at specific points, and as cul-de-sacs. The areas under buildings can be used as they are used now-for social interaction, community activity, rituals, even production with mutual understanding between neighbours. Vertical living, currently being much touted as the only solution to the congested city, can therefore be re-examined critically. Residential and office spaces can then be taken off the ground, increasing individual safety and privacy.

Preserve Urban Memory- the fabric of the inner city
We live in a city of history, of onion layers of memory. These layers allow us to take the city for granted. That is as it should be, for knowledge leads to ‘ownership’ that ensures a sense of well being in the city. Any rebuilding must preserve erstwhile (names and) footprints, and the street character layout, complementing the essentially pedestrian nature of inner city streets. Any sensitive reconstruction must display an appreciation of heritage and its effective conservation; most importantly preserve egalitarian nature of the inner city. There is a city beyond that the eyes can see. It is intangible and it is vast. It is as Whitman describes himself, full of contradictions: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

World over, inner cities age and ripen with the respect and care of its inhabitants. Our inner cities are older than most, yet most alike in form and character. They define Bombay, or what’s left of it. Let us leave some parts of the city free from the jackboot stomp of the speculator and accept that its residents are capable of determining its place in the new order. Unrealistic individual aspiration leads to a clamour for perceived rights, without accounting for responsibilities that come with it. If each one does not return to the city rather than merely take, we all stand diminished. We are, in a sense our own worst enemy. 

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