Mumbai is home to some of the tallest buildings and poorest neighbourhoods in India, with prosperity and poverty side by side throughout its urban fabric. It is a city of marked contrasts: hawkers moving in and out of the Victorian arcades of South Mumbai; a river separating Dharavi’s household enterprises from the business district of Bandra Kurla Complex; beaches dotted with joggers and vendors; the international airport surrounded by Lego-like houses made of brick and tarpaulin, each with its own dish antenna anchored on the roof. Along its picturesque coastal setting by the Arabian Sea, heaps of garbage are deposited from the ocean every monsoon and strewn along the length of Marine Drive, a seaside promenade that forms part of the popular imagery of the city.
As Mumbai grapples with the challenges of climate crisis and the limited availability of constructible land, its citizens are also faced with an acute shortage of affordable housing. Mumbai has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world, with about 60 per cent of the city’s population living in temporary structures built on about 8 per cent of the total urban area. Today, more than 20 million people live in Mumbai, with this figure forecast to grow by around 5 per cent every year. There is an urgent need to address the city’s pressing issue of density, which currently stands at approximately 83,660 people per square mile.
In response to this, the government of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, has now turned towards redevelopment as part of a plan that has been in the pipeline since 2016. Maharashtra has announced a scheme to demolish the historic chawl tenement blocks located in the heart of Mumbai, which are to be replaced with multi-storey towers over the course of the coming eight years. This will be accompanied by the construction of an additional 17 towers for market sale, which will make available more than two million square feet of commercial space. What will be lost in this redevelopment is significant. The chawls are a distinctive element of Mumbai’s past, initially developed in the late 19th century to provide housing for mill workers during the city’s existence under British colonial rule. A housing typology that provides affordable single-room accommodation to tenants, chawls feature commonly shared access, toilet blocks and a communal courtyard. Today, they are home to families who pay a token monthly rent of Rs. 70 (roughly £0.70) to the Public Works Department (PWD) of Maharashtra. Although the chawls have been heavily neglected by the government – which owns the buildings – and they undoubtedly stand in urgent need of attention, the region’s plan is drastic.
The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MAHADA) has already begun to raze the first of 195 BDD chawls (those created by the Bombay Development Department, founded in 1920) that have been earmarked for demolition in South Mumbai. It is one of the biggest redevelopment projects in Asia, estimated to be worth more than Rs. 17,000 crore (roughly £16.65bn), and the government has promised that residents of the demolished chawls will be rehoused in the same area during construction. Authorities claim to have identified buildings built on former textile mill land to make residential arrangements for those affected by the project and, in case of scarcity of accommodation, the government has promised to provide a monthly rental sum of Rs. 22,000 (around £215) to families so that they can look for suitable options themselves. Eventually, each “eligible” family – those who have lived in the chawls and can produce registration papers from before 1 January 2021 – will be assigned a 500sqft apartment in one of the new tower blocks. “These chawls gave shelter to nearly four generations of migrant labour coming to Mumbai in search for a better life,” Jitendra Awhad, the housing minister of Maharashtra who spent his childhood in a chawl, told The Hindu in September 2021. “All of them may not have succeeded to fulfil their dreams, but these chawls offered them safety. We have planned the redevelopment to ensure that these families get their rightful homes[...] they will not have to go anywhere.”
The proposed razing of the chawls is designed to free up real estate in South Mumbai for the city to grow. The chawls are low-rise buildings in a prime area, and the government wants to replace them with buildings that will use the maximum allowable floor space index (FSI), with developers applying pressure to make these areas of the city available to investors. But the plan is likely to do little in addressing the city’s rising density and the need to provide accommodation for all its citizens. Equally, while the scheme has pledged to rehouse chawl residents from a total of 15,593 rooms within the same area, there are reasons to doubt that this will prove to be a long-term arrangement. Due to the high maintenance costs of the new self-owned apartments, this redevelopment will simply push the city’s service-class population out from central and southern parts of Mumbai, and create opportunities for wealthy investors instead.
The city of Mumbai grew up across seven islands, which served as a centre for trading operations carried out under Portuguese and, later, British colonial rule. By 1845, these islands had merged via piecemeal land reclamation into a single landmass that now constitutes the southern part of the city. In the 19th century, South Mumbai was an exclusive enclave for Western settler-colonialists who established a number of textile mills beyond its boundaries, attracting indigenous migrants from rural areas seeking employment in the new factories. While Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings created a strong architectural character in South Bombay, a parallel construction effort emerged amongst the workers drawn to Mumbai, who erected thatch-roofed huts on stretches of land reclaimed from the sea, which gradually developed to form a distinct typology of community housing, acquiring the name chawl (derived from “chaal” or “walk”).
In the wake of these structures, some of the earliest formally constructed chawls were commissioned by mill owners and designed to accommodate male workers in single tenements within the spacious compounds of the mills. Over time, however, as male workers began migrating with their families, these chawls became busy nodes in the city, weaving a network of roads, railway stations, hospitals and playgrounds around them. Initially segregated on grounds of class, caste and religion, each chawl represented a unique cultural identity. The trading community from Rajasthan and Gujarat amalgamated their tradition of crafts and visual art with the spaces they inhabited through wall murals and hangings, while migrants from the Konkan coast of Maharashtra brought with them expressive forms of folk and performing arts – theatre, dance and music. Gradually, the chawls evolved to become places of interaction and exchange where people collected for political movements and social causes, such as the Independence struggle; the demand for Bombay’s home region of Maharashtra to exist as a separate linguistic state; and the Dalit Panther movement against caste discrimination.
A key moment in the chawl typology’s development came when Bombay was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1896, which is estimated to have killed 29,000 people. In the aftermath of this epidemic, the British government introduced the City of Bombay Improvement Act, establishing the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BIT) to address the fact that an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of the city’s population was concentrated in a meagre 3 to 4 per cent of its land. Constituted in 1898, the BIT aimed to widen roads, restructure old buildings and create more open spaces in the city. Nevertheless, the housing crisis persisted, compelling the British government to establish the Bombay Development Department (BDD) in 1920, which undertook the building of publicly funded chawls. A development loan described as “By Bombay, For Bombay” was raised and a town duty of one rupee levied on each bale of cotton entering the city for the same purpose. This institutionalising of the chawl typology standardised its architecture, plugging it into the city’s larger system of services (water supply, drainage, sewerage and electricity). At present, there are a total of 207 BDD chawl complexes in South Mumbai. Under the MAHADA plan, nearly all will be lost.
The sociologist Patrick Geddes, who worked as a freelance town planner and taught sociology at the University of Bombay, remarked in the 1930s that Mumbai’s chawls were not meant for housing, but rather “warehousing” people, referring to these buildings as “Bolshevik barracks”. While Geddes’s comments may have captured an element of truth at the time – a 10x12ft room in a chawl could be occupied by more than 20 workers engaged in shift work – they are not an accurate representation of the realities today.
The chawls were typically constructed across four storeys, with each level containing 10 or 12 rooms, positioned evenly along the length of a 4ft-wide corridor. Today, each single room, or kholi, accommodates a family of four to five, with tenants customising their kholis by adding open kitchenettes, loft spaces for extra storage, or bunks. Main doors often double up as cabinet shutters, while beds and chairs are folded away to make space for the day’s activities. Corridors offer natural spill-out spaces and it is not unusual to find furniture and benches placed along them. Meanwhile, the large open spaces created between neighbouring chawls serve as courtyards, or wadis, where gatherings are held, festivals celebrated and tournaments organised. Children spend most of their time outdoors, huddled in groups for collective study or playing games.
The larger neighbourhoods of which the chawls are a part have distinct qualities of their own. Since the closure of the textile mills in the 1980s, many residents have established commercial ventures and set up temporary shops along the street-facing front of their buildings. Some choose to sell vegetables and fish, which are frequently bought by occupants of the various chawls, while others deal in homemade pickles and sweets. One particular street in Girgaon, South Mumbai, is lined with a series of shops that are dedicated to the wedding card trade, tying into a network of jobs distributed in and around the same area, including handmade paper-making, dyeing and printing. Thus emerges a hierarchy of spaces catering to the economic sustenance of the chawls’ residents. The wadi is used for performing shared tasks; the narrow lanes between chawls are packed with secondary enterprises; the nukkad, or junction of lanes, serves as a meeting place for residents; while the chowk, or square, that merges with the main vehicular street is the hub of activity. Meanwhile, interstitial spaces such as those found under the metal or timber staircases that provide access to the higher levels of the chawls, are often appropriated as booths for local tailors or hairdressers.
While the chawls historically provided partial answers to some of the practical and social issues facing Mumbai, their dilapidation has forced many families to leave their tenements. After the passage of the Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act in 1947, which froze rent irrespective of inflation and the rise in property values, investment in the chawls was drastically reduced, thereby preventing their upkeep. In response, some chawl residents opted to move into more spacious “cooperative societies” instead. Alongside this decline in the condition of the chawls, from the 1960s onwards developers began to view the area where Mumbai’s textile mills and chawls stood as prime real estate for the construction of offices and malls, luring their occupants northward with the offer of self-contained units in cooperatives.
“We never closed our doors,” says Rohit Shringare, a freelance photographer whose family left a chawl in South Mumbai in the 1980s for a cooperative society located far north of the city. “We could just smell what was cooking in each other’s homes and we bonded well with our neighbours who were like our extended family[...] In the cooperative, the only advantage is that we have more space, but everyone likes to keep their distance. The trust factor is missing.” In parallel to the development of the cooperatives, MAHADA undertook the building of affordable, low-rise apartment blocks in the city’s suburbs as part of a scheme to free up land for commercial undertakings. Within a decade, development in Mumbai was booming, a phenomenon which saw many of the cooperatives slip from the hands of the collective and into those of private builders, whose primary agenda was to exploit the permitted FSI and sell every square foot possible. Byelaws for the building of new low-cost housing complexes reduced the minimum area requirements for kitchens and toilets, as well as allowing balcony or corridor space – which had operated as community spaces in the chawls – to be enclosed and subsequently included in the private rentable space.
Today, people’s feelings about the chawls are mixed. “I live here with my two brothers; two families, ten people,” says Jayant, a chawl resident who spoke to Maura Finkelstein for her essay in the book The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life. “We are not happy with the unit area. It is congested. But we don’t want to shift because we have spent our whole childhood here. This building is protected by the government, owned by the government. We love the area; the local people, shops and markets. Everything is close by; schools, hospitals, Western and Central railway stations[...] We are living in the centre of Mumbai and this is to our satisfaction.” On the other hand, Finkelstein reports that Sushila, who relocated to an independent flat in Vikhroli in the 1970s, does not regret her decision to leave the chawls. But when asked what she missed most, Sushila replies with a sparkle in her eye. “Ganpati,” she says, referencing the Hindu deity Ganesha. “I miss the large statues of Ganpati each chawl brought to their pandals in the wadi. We would celebrate together for 10 days and go in large processions to immerse the idol in the sea.” Affordability is one of the factors of the chawl typology that the proposed redevelopment pays little attention to. The locality of Worli, for example, currently has the largest spread of BDD chawls in the city. Under the redevelopment plan, these will be replaced by 33 40-storey towers, each of which has six floors of parking. An additional set of 10 towers, 66-storey each, will be made available for market sale, in addition to the 1.3m sqft of highly valuable commercial space that will be created by the scheme. Chawl residents will receive 500sqft 2BHK (bedroom, hall and kitchen) apartments. The commercial flats, meanwhile, are 807 and 1,076sqft spaces.
There are numerous short-term problems with this rehousing scheme, not least the fact that disputes among family members have arisen with respect to the ownership of the new apartments (“In case of failure in resolving [these] disputes, the new flat will be registered in the name of the Director of BDD,” Vaishali Gadpale, chief public relations officer at MAHADA, told the press). Furthermore, the apartment units, though more spacious and self-owned, are designed for isolated living; a concept unfamiliar and unwelcome to most, many of whom would not have willingly given up their previous lifestyle. The new scheme will include buildings with private entrances and paid access to facilities such as gyms, crèches and clinics. But even overlooking these issues, the current proposal is not expected to allow residents to remain in the same area in the long run. There are high maintenance costs associated with self-owned units that few of the chawl residents will be able to bear, even if the government has pledged to provide financial assistance for the first 10 years. And while people will be registered as owners of their respective apartments, they will not have collective ownership of the land or the building. “The government isn’t doing anybody a favour by giving us free flats,” Anand Bhandare, a fourth-generation resident at a BDD chawl in Worli, told The Hindu. “Nobody demanded 40-storey towers for rehabilitation. Has anyone given a thought to how poor families will pay for maintenance? Why should we be dependent upon a corpus fund?”
Resisting changes to, or advocating for the fossilisation of, chawls is neither practical, nor viable. But dismissing the typology’s spatial merits, and replacing them with tower blocks is to effectively denounce a population upon whom the smooth functioning of the city depends for the supply of essential services and labour. “It is important to preserve something of the chawls; they are a critical part of history and also a very efficient type of habitable residential space in a city that needs density,” says Melissa Smith, an architect and urban planner based out of Ahmedabad. “At the same time, they can’t support the kind of density that Mumbai has without becoming more expensive, which would therefore require that they transform, and serve other sections of the population. What the chawls did well was minimise private space for affordability and provide shared access and other social spaces. We need to ask, how can we learn from this and transform the typology into something bigger, taller, denser? This involves questioning how much space people need, how alterable it can be, what can be shared, what infrastructure in the building needs to be maintained.”
The chawl was one answer to the mass housing crisis that Bombay faced when it was beginning to urbanise, and the typology went on to adapt to the needs of the community it served. More than 100 years later, the city faces a similar challenge, to which drastic redevelopment has been put forward as the solution. Yet little information has been provided as to how this is to work in any detail. While the MAHADA website lists all the contractors and design consultants assigned for each of the selected localities, it does not reveal any clear planning scheme or projected maintenance costs. This lack of transparency in the process removes the redevelopment from public scrutiny and deprives the future occupants of these buildings of the opportunity to voice their opinions. Moreover, the limited involvement of architects and the criteria for their selection (the tendering process took into account annual turnovers, as opposed to design sensibility and approach, stating that “[the] Applicant Firm/Consortium shall have to provide audited annual financial statements for the last three financial years to demonstrate an average annual turnover from Advisory Services of not less than Rs. 2 Crores” [around £195,855]) does not seem to have succeeded in bridging the gap between the government, builders and end-users. Many residents are only vaguely aware of the proposals already approved by the authorities and they fear that vital public spaces will be lost in the endeavour to make maximum profit from the available FSI. “Space does not create culture; it only promotes it,” Pankaj Joshi, principal director of Urban Centre Mumbai, told Alok Deshpande of The Hindu. “Ultimately, it is the people who create culture[...] so the focus should be on how they can remain here. We cannot say if the previous culture was better or the present[...] Only coexistence of different cultures and communities can make a city richer, not exclusion.”
There are precedents to which Mumbai might look, however, with India having already witnessed a number of experiments in low-cost, community housing projects with varying degrees of success. While they may not directly apply to Mumbai’s hyper dense situation, their approach towards social housing is worth noting and learning from. The Aranya Low- Cost Housing in Indore, for instance, was commissioned by the Indore Development Authority and co-funded by the World Bank and India’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation in 1983. Located 6km from the city centre, the scheme was developed by architect B.V. Doshi to house 60,000 people from the “economically weaker section” of the society within 6,500 dwellings over a net planning area of 85 hectares. Applying a bottom-up approach, residents were given access to serviced land and a framework for the accommodation unit, instead of a finished house.
Over the years that followed the construction of the project’s 80 sample homes (the remainder were never completed), the housing’s built fabric was able to grow comparatively organically, shaped by needs, aspirations and affordability. Guided by the hierarchy of spaces specified in Doshi’s masterplan, and a kit of designed elements (outdoor staircases, balconies, railings and verandas), Aranya’s social environment extended beyond the confines of a basic four walls and a roof. Inhabitants added steps, ledges, common landings and courtyards to allow them to engage in shared activities and introduce transitional space that also provide opportunities to pause and interact. “Housing is not inert,” Doshi notes. “It is a living entity.” Though very few units from the original scheme remain – most of them demolished as the city of Indore sprawled with privately constructed buildings – the scope for customisation that the project aimed to provide, and the choices it offered, assigned a sense of dignity and belongingness to its residents. It is these same traits that the chawl residents in Mumbai must also be given, in order to make the redevelopment more informed and participatory.
Equally, Aranya stands as a warning to Mumbai. Doshi’s scheme was, in large part, prevented from achieving its full potential as a result of declining governmental investment in housing and a growing reliance on private developers. Although the scheme received an Aga Khan award during its 1993-1995 cycle, for instance, the judges noted that it already represented “the remnants of an idea that has been eroded in the last five years”.
A more recently implemented project is Loving Community housing in Vastral, a low-lying, flood- prone area in Ahmedabad. Designed by Sealab in 2018, the scheme identified 55 dilapidated homes in a pre-existing community settlement that had originally been developed to house those suffering from leprosy. Constrained by a tight budget and narrow plot sizes, each house was redesigned to maximise natural light and ventilation, but also to consider the different aspirations and needs of residents, which were gleaned through interactive sessions hosted with the community. The homes were erected on raised plinths that were conceived as open spaces that could support work, gatherings and rest, and were built from the debris of demolished structures before being finished with smooth, red IPS. Restored and redeveloped incrementally, this project largely avoided the need for residents to find temporary accommodation in a different locality, and has effectively reused elements such as doors, windows and stone shelves from the previous homes. “Our profession is serving a small part of the population in the country,” the scheme’s principal architect Anand Sonecha has previously noted. “We should criticall look at architectural education to assure that schools are preparing students to also serve other segments of people in[...] society.”
Without an active debate amongst designers around the chawl redevelopment in Mumbai, fresh and practical ideas cannot be formulated to best suit the context of the city. Legally, everything has already been passed regarding the demolition of the chawls, but with enough pressure from Mumbai’s design community, positive changes could perhaps still be made during the eight-year implementation timeframe. While redevelopment can be used as an opportunity to address the plural identities housed within the city and its socio-economic complexities, it also runs the risk of erasing Mumbai’s unique built environments – spaces that require investment and architectural attention, but which have nevertheless proven themselves a resilient typology over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. “It isn’t an all or nothing question as to whether the BDD chawls should be saved,” says Smith, who cites the need for design and architecture to explore and visualise alternatives to the current proposal. “Architects need to be seen as mediators, and work together with other groups to build consensus”. END
“These chawls gave shelter to nearly four generations of migrant labour coming to Mumbai in search of a better life. They offered
“We are not happy with the unit area. It is congested. But we have spent our
whole childhood here.”
—Jayant, a chawl resident
“We need to ask, how can we learn from the chawls and transform them into something bigger, taller, denser?”
“Ultimately it is the people who create culture, so the focus should be on how they can remain here.”