Thursday, November 14, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Forever Bombay

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai, Volume 10 Issue 6, November 8-21 2013.

Forever Bombay

At a vantage point above the Kala Ghoda parking lot, I watch the world whiz past. My gaze sweeps the panorama from right to left- the Jehangir, the Rampart Row, Rhythm House, and the undulating modernism of the BSE tower. Then, I turn my back to it all. Arrayed before me are several fornicator’s chairs, some occupied. They all face away from the street, towards the pointed stone arcade and the murmur of fans and nodding heads beyond. I lower myself into a chair that creaks with age but offers comfort. I turn its specially designed extendable arm and hoist one lazy foot over. To my left, a lady in an orange cotton saree lies dead to the world; on my right a college kid has his nose stuck in a textbook on economics. Soon the buzz of traffic lulls me into somnolence and I am gone. The pleasures offered by the David Sassoon Library are manifold, but perhaps the least known is their indulgence of sleeping members on their terrace.

When I wake, I find bodies all around me, expressions of repose softening their features. I move inside, walk past floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, old teak tables covered with textbooks, handwritten notes and reams of stapled, photocopied study stuff. This other indulgence the library offers is, in fact, a mandate. The Library doubles as a Reading Room accommodating students from nearby colleges (the Elphinstone is right next door) to study in the relative quiet imposed here. Students form the bulk of its transitory memberships, and the upper hall is often full to capacity. We have this image of school kids studying under street-lamps, or on the steps of the Asiatic, but here is the real deal- for the library keeps its doors open from 9 to 9 every day of the year. Old desks and reading lamps are available as are numerous plug-points, de rigueur for today's laptop and mobile fuelled world. 

This small colonial building houses so much history. Built with the munificence of one of Bombay's city fathers David Sassoon (a library booklet from 1931 calls him a merchant prince), this building was erected in 1870 for the erstwhile Bombay Mechanics Institute, an association of young professionals from the Royal Mint and the Government Dockyard. While their activities wound down by the 1930s, the legacy of mechanical excellence in Bombay is enshrined on the library’s mid-landing in a marble bust of James Berkley, Chief Engineer GIP Railways whose courage and risk-taking led to the first train line to cross the Bhor Ghat. Descending the grand staircase, I circumambulate the larger than life statue of David Sassoon by the English sculptor T. Woolner. I am fixated on his hands raised in prayer; the slim detailed fingers in marble remind me of Albrecht Durer’s 1508 drawing of praying hands. The polygonal Malad stone, the Venetian arcades, the sharply neo-gothic rooflines, the interiors of timber and the commemorative art all stand mute to the building’s dwindling relevance to the city. This is only emphasised as I walk past a notice that says ‘Happy Senior Citizens Day!’ The David Sassoon Library is symptomatic of several of Bombay’s public buildings that stay forgotten for most of the year, and are only occasionally made the most of, like a Parsee Gara during a wedding. Here too, the library’s pocket park is de-mummified annually during the Kala Ghoda Festival and mothballed when it is over.

Standing at the entrance on a mosaic of Minton tiles, I am struck that this should not be the case. The library’s essential resource- its books in English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati date from the 1790s and form an archive to be treasured and accessed, especially its scientific books procured as a memorial to Berkley. Like the Asiatic and the Bhau Daji this library quintessentially represents the city, and deserves every first copy of every book published in Mumbai. Today, the library relies on its own dwindling resources and the efforts of its bibliophile managing committee. I cannot but ask everyone reading this- if you love books, buildings and Bombay, become a member now. Read, study, sleep, or take in the garden, but embrace this patch of land that is forever Bombay.

I step outside and cross the road. I turn away from the city once again and meet the eyes of Sassoon, now in the roundel above the entrance portal. He is, just as Kolatkar describes, “a prisoner... wearing a collar... forced to watch the slow disintegration of a city I cared about more than any other.” Like Mumbai, here is a place pining for its potential to be released and shared.

All the photos here are by Smita Dalvi. My thanks.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fifth Estate

Here is a long essay on the conundrum that is Mumbai's housing that was published in The Indian Quarterly; 
Volume I | Issue 4 | July-September 2013

The Fifth Estate
Mumbai’s developers are increasingly holding the city to ransom as its people desperately grapple with the dearth of affordable housing

I pass an hour in the local train listening to a man on his cell phone confess that he has no ready money for investment. What he does have is “property” that he will sell only when he gets the right price. On a second cell phone he is already making deals for the next property to buy. “Give and take” is his oft-invoked mantra. This is bijness. There was a time when one came to Mumbai to do business. Today, Mumbai nagariya is the bijness.

Mumbai has always attracted real estate deals. What is so different today? The change is in the mind-set. In a city where green-field land is virtually gone, all land is now perceived as available for (re)development, even if already built upon. Once you accept this premise, the whole city is a very large pot of gold, which like Kuber’s ghada can constantly be replenished.

The built city, the one we always held as a social contract to be permanent, a city we could take for granted, is now temporal, almost tentative, a commodity. The home is now the new unit of exchange. Once, it was accepted wisdom that occupation of space, whether through outright ownership, long-term rental or even common-law territoriality was the stable base upon which Mumbaikars built a life. Their home was the costliest thing they possessed, but this was the one thing they could never afford to sell. To sell was a downgrade, a displacement to the northern boondocks, away from the downtown soul of south Mumbai. Now there is another option: an upgrade, with the promise of more square footage and some rokda. Now the very house you live in can be monetized, even as you live in it. This has brought a venal sense of entitlement for a homeowner to lust for every last rupee that can be squeezed out of a deal.

Consider Vallabhbag, Ghatkopar, a suburban neighbourhood largely inhabited by Gujaratis. Built in the late 70s, this is not a gated community but built along lanes ending in cul-de-sacs. Very urbane, with pocket parks, very upper middle class. Each building is uniformly four storeys high, in reasonably good condition. Today, individual building societies are sourcing out developers to hand over their buildings to take them down and re-erect new apartments, with added areas granted through the municipal munificence of Floor Space Index (FSI) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Homeowners negotiate for sops (space and cash) as quid pro quo for excess square footage that the developer can sell for profit. Aspirations are created where once none existed. Charles Correa in a recent interview said: “Sometimes aspirations of people can be quite ugly”. Aspirations here, having reached a tipping point become the norm. All change is justified. 

More housing in Mumbai sounds like a good idea, but in some localities like Altamont Road, Walkeshwar or Malabar Hill the price of real estate has risen exponentially. The most expensive real estate deal in the city, in June 2012, was for a 28th floor flat in Tahnee Heights on NapeanSea Road, which exchanged hands at the rate of Rs. 830/- per square inch! According to a recent survey by Liases Foras Real Estate Rating and Research, more than 60% of new housing units cost over a crore of rupees each. Housing affordable to the middle class now amounts to only 2% of the available stock. What this means is that at today’s rates even areas as far-flung as Jogeshwari West (13,987/sq ft), Powai (17,717/sq ft) or Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai (14341/sq ft) can provide, at most, a modest 500 square foot, super built-up apartment for a crore (figures from, Jan-Mar 2013). No wonder then, no developer wants to construct anything in a size other than for the luxury segment. The rising cost of upper-end estate is unsustainable.  More than 35,000 housing units in the city are left unsold. Despite this, there is no fall in retail prices—proof if any that while the city can no longer provide homes to live in, it is still a haven for speculation.

The developer has become the fifth estate of the city. The grab bag of goodies is growing. This has been made possible by changes in the Development Control Rules of Greater Mumbai (Clauses 33(7) and 33(9), for the most part) that allow for reconstruction of buildings irrespective of their condition. Kamu Iyer, one of Mumbai’s most respected senior architects, always lived in Gold Finch near Five Gardens, designed by his teacher G.B. Mhatre in the late 1930s. Buildings like these in Parel, Matunga, and Wadala defined the domestic fabric of Art Deco Mumbai. Iyer’s own celebrated monograph on Mhatre helped generate awareness for these residential buildings worthy of heritage preservation. Gold Finch is one of the best examples of Mhatre’s mature work. Now, it is up for redevelopment, in amalgamation with an adjacent plot. The new building will loom 16 storeys above the four-storey harmony of the once salubrious R.P. Masani Road, calling attention to its nouveau riche occupants.

“Gated spaces are not new to Bombay,” says Iyer. “Kalbadevi, for example, had many community-based wadis, providing homes for all economic levels. Redevelopment today will lead to both gentrification and stratification of former mixed neighbourhoods, reducing considerably the public realm.” With single plots granted permission to rebuild, planning norms and urban sustainability are impatiently brushed aside for the “greater common good”. It is not unusual to see single buildings springing out of otherwise harmonious localities like mutant incisors. These extrusions affect the relation between building and street, and constrict light and ventilation, especially on the lower floors. New housing, exclusively for the affluent, directly affects available infrastructure like water supply and parking.

In Mumbai today, the builder lobby is all-influential. Since the mid-80s, they have negotiated operational space within the development rules, and these “understandings” have become more and more concretised. No wonder then, a former Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) chief was viewed with so much resentment for tightening the screws on new building projects and reducing concessional FSI on such mythic devices as flower beds. His recent departure was the reason that, according to newspaper reports, most of the afflicted members of the lobby allegedly took off to Dubai to celebrate his leaving.

A survey of Housing Typologies by the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) in 2007,2007 identified 21 distinct types, reflecting Mumbai’s diversity. These included chawls, slums, slum resettlements, site and service schemes, slum rehabilitation projects, housing at the urban edges, townships in the suburbs and redeveloped dilapidated structures. Many of these are self-help housing, consolidating older inner city areas and developing newer localities, mostly without state support. One such housing site laid out grid-wise on a garbage dump has become Shivaji Nagar, Deonar. Each grid has narrow alleys with five or six hundred units on a plot of around 120 square feet. Unlike organic slums, Shivaji Nagar was created by re-housing families uprooted from other parts of the city. Today it is a thriving locality, with several communities making their niche in Mumbai’s emerging middle class. Its alleys are paved, and repaved before every election. Electricity is legal, bought from Reliance; water comes to every house through overgroundover ground pipes that run for hundreds of feet. There is no squalor.

Every family in Shivaji Nagar is on the path to a pucca house. This is possible because land costs are not factored in and these are houses built outside the credit economy, in rokda, as it were, as and when the householder accumulates enough to upgrade. The prescient homeowner in Shivaji Nagar looks to the future: in (re)building, he creates an upper floor for giving out on rent. For every home rebuilt, at least two families get housed. Nowhere in the upper city does this 100% model of increasing housing stock exist. The poor renting from the poor seems like a win-win situation. Despite this, as Rakhi Mehra of micro Homes Solution has written, institutions like the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) have policies that block out those who need affordable housing the most by making a 15-year residency proof for families and a monthly household income above `5,000 as qualifying guidelines.

In Shivaji Nagar, every family partners with local contractors, who are as busy with work today as developers like the Lodhas or IndiaBulls in the other Mumbai. Pankaj Gupta is one such contractor who has learnt his craft through a decade of experience and apprenticeship. He has the process of house construction down to such a degree of efficiency that project management consultants could take notes from him. He can build a two-storey Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) house from demolition to handing over keys in five weeks flat. Gupta is well respected, for as he says, in Shivaji Nagar trust is the only currency. His work guarantees follow-up repairs and general maintenance even after the family has moved in. He has to; he lives in the neighbourhood too.

Gupta is only one of hundreds of contractors who build solid, lasting homes outside the pale of the mother city. This upgradation is happening in many other wards as well. Mumbai’s slums have a history at least half as long as the city itself. Few slums are new, and their inhabitants, through years of toil, have lifted themselves up in the world. The contractors’ creations are quite unique, for they work in deep collaboration with homeowners, constructing the most blatant displays of aspiration. New homes proudly show off shiny ceramic tile facades, idiosyncratic aesthetics, designed interiors, well-appointed kitchens and toilets. Some homes even have false ceilings with decorative mouldings and small chandeliers, just like in the movies. All this, on plots the size of postage stamps.

And yet, Shivaji Nagar and other similar localities like  Dharavi, Wadala and Bhandup live in the valley of the shadow of demolition. The BMC can be both benign and arbitrary. In Shivaji Nagar, no construction is permitted higher than fourteen feet. Any violation and sledgehammers may swing. Even though many houses routinely flout this restriction, demolition is not a norm. There is a policy to live and let live, which is why an inhabitant can pledge his life-savings for a pucca home. Contactors and officials understand each other. Pankaj Gupta had just completed building his own home and office in March 2012 when the BMC demolished its upper floor. “Bees saal mein pehli baar hua (It’s happened for the first time in 20 years),” he says stoically. It has hurt him, but the reason is politics, not personal.

Mumbai now is vertically cleaved into a binary of high-end luxury housing and hands-on, user-generated housing. Outside of the slums, there is no culture of building for oneself, discounting single-family anomalies such as Antilla. The model for cooperative middle-class housing—the mainstay of the 1970s that allowed families with modest incomes to build apartments—has almost gone. The state that once patronised cooperatives by providing subsidized land has now become a trader and auctioneer of land. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), the state organisation responsible for generating housing stock, finds it easier to outsource to developers, at terms that benefit them. This sedentary mindset has permeated the rising middle classes: no one wants to do for oneself what they can get done for a price.

While the middle class is inexorably being squeezed out of the reckoning, slums remain the sites of true affordability and self-help. Badmouthed as eyesores and bastions of filth, civic bodies have mandated to make the city slum-free by 2015. The way to these Elysian fields is, naturally, to be forged by builders regulated by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), who are to re-house the so-called unauthorised but “eligible” slum dwellers in free units of 300 or so square feet each on 20-storey skyscrapers clumped together, while freeing a large portion of the occupied site for sale at market rates. Dharavi can now happily be renamed Bandra–Kurla South.

With policies allowing unilateral interventions by lobbies intent only on making capital, the collegial soul of Mumbai is being inexorably ripped out. Mumbaikars are now wilful accomplices to their agenda, bought over by ephemeral but colour-saturated carrots. When the pupils of your eyes can reflect only rupee symbols, you are reduced to a caricature of a citizen. Individual rights become everything, while urban responsibility is NIMBY—someone else’s concern. Mumbai seems headed down a one-way road to transformation for its own sake.

This city has had a history of reclamations—some that defined its urbanity, like those in the 1930s and 40s, and some contentious like those in the 1970s—but Mumbai has never been more a site for reclamation than it is today. Even as you read this, the land that is sought to be reclaimed is the ground beneath your feet.