On December 29, 2017, a fire broke out in central Mumbai’s Kamala Mills compound in Lower Parel, at an upscale restaurant 1Above. Fourteen people lost their lives. Barely three months back, on September 29, 23 people were killed in a stampede at the Elphinstone bridge in Mumbai.
There is a certain pattern to recent incidents like the fire at Kamala Mills or the Elphinstone bridge stampede – rendering them not as isolated events, but very much central to the politics of Mumbai’s real estate development and tension in its built-up environment.
Built-ups are not simply the concrete material they are made up of. They stand testimony to a city’s glorious past, the present mess it is grappling with, and a hope that an ecosystem compliant for a shared future will emerge through it. Physically and spatially, they are particularly indicative of some deep conflicts in land and land use, zoning violations, overlapping and conflicting governance of civic authorities, identity politics – right to the city level.
From 1920 to 1960, the mill workers’ union was led by the CPI, which had successfully called for strikes in 1928-29 against the colonial administration. Post the 1960s, the Shiv Sena took control over the union under the banner of the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena.
On January 18, 1982, 2.5 lakh workers under the leadership of union leader Datta Samant had called for a city-wide strike against the Bombay Millowners’ Association. The protesters in the Great Bombay Textile Strike demanded bonus and increased wages. It resulted in 58 mills being shut down, and 1.5 lakh workers were left jobless.
Most of the mills had already turned into sick units and could not compete against the technologically-advanced power-loom sector. Many of these jobless mill workers, already resentful towards the mill owners, joined the cadres of the Shiv Sena, whose ideology was principally based on the nativist, chauvinist ‘Marathi Manoos’ rhetoric.
The resentment and anger against the mill owners turned into violence against the Muslims, communists and South Indians under the Sena leadership in the mills’ neighbourhoods. In 1970-80, the violence born out of such ‘nativist’ politics gripped the daily social life of the city – and in many ways, it determined who had a right to the city.
An important legislation that helped builders and developers convert their mills into malls was the amendment of the Development Control (DC) Rule 58. The rule was initially passed by state legislation in 1991, splitting the mill land equally in thirds between the mill owner, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (half of which would be used for the mill workers’ housing and the other half for open/recreational spaces), and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
However, in 2001, the DC Rule was amended, to state that only ‘open spaces’ would be re-distributed. Therefore, the built-ups were retained by the mill owners. Out of 600 acres of land occupied by textile mills, only 100 acres of ‘open spaces’ were available for re-distribution.
The impact of this legislation can clearly be seen in topography of built-ups in Girgaon and Bhendi Bazaar – areas which are home to resettlement colonies for mill workers. They are like vertical skyscrapers emerging right in between horizontally sprawled out G+1, G+2 unplanned chawls and slums.
Other than the amendments in Development Control rules in 2001, the ‘Compensatory Fungible Floor Space Index’ under the DC rules cleared the way for developers and builders. If the owner of the land voluntarily surrendered the land to the government to house the poor or to resettle those affected by large infrastructure projects, they were eligible to receive additional transferable development rights (TDR) which granted them additional floor space index to develop property elsewhere. The exploitation of TDR by the developers led to serious space constraints in the suburbs.
High Street Phoenix, one of the largest shopping complexes in India, is just one example which shows how the mills, which operated noisily in the old mill district, are now the sites of completely-transformed spaces which house luxurious hotels, restaurant and bars, multiplexes, expensive offices and shopping complexes.
In 2005, the Phoenix Mills celebrated its 100th anniversary. Set up in 1905 to manufacture cotton textiles, it ran day in and day out until 1982-83, when the Great Bombay Textile Strike was called. Phoenix Mills, like many mills during that time, was affected by the strike and by the high operational costs of the mills inside Mumbai. The management decided to redevelop the mills into a mall to take advantage of the high commercial value of the land.
Now called the High Street Phoenix, the mill land is one of the largest malls in India with a 5-star hotel, a multiplex, commercial space and a residential tower. All that’s left of the mill is a chimney, which belonged to the mill’s boiler room, located adjacent to the McDonald’s restaurant. Today, the chimney, which once was a symbol of Nehruvian socialism, is vivid and colourful amidst the redeveloped mill area. Neo-liberalism is not just a thought replacing Nehruvian socialist vision – it is an experience to be lived and felt constantly.
Like the Phoenix Mills’ management, many mill owners and real-estate developers saw the opportunity to build commercial complexes after the mills collapsed. Large pieces of land available from mill districts were converted into malls, shopping complexes, bars and restaurants, in central Mumbai.
In the heart of central Mumbai, upon the marshes, the Bandra Kurla Complex was planned to cater to the boom in the real estate industry and to meet the demands of large multinational corporations, which wanted spaces for their office in central Mumbai. Today, the industries-led economic capital of Mumbai has been replaced with a real estate, finance and IT/ITES, and services-led economy.
The urban mess seen through the built-up landscape of built-ups in Mumbai is an outcome of multiple but inter-connected factors. These include the leeway enjoyed by developers through bypassing legislations, unaccounted land use, zoning violations, nativist politics of the Sena, etc.
The ‘built-up’ politics is integral to understanding recent tragedies like the Kamala Mills fire and the Elphinstone bridge stampede. Such events should be looked at as a warning sign to understand what lies ahead if the urban mess arising from the built-up environment is not sensitively and urgently addressed.
The author is an independent researcher and fellow with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. The views and opinions expressed are personal.