The Invisible In-Betweens

About halfway through Slumdog Millionaire, there is a pause in a frenetic montage. Over a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling metropolis, the protagonist observes, quite simply, “Bombay had turned into Mumbai.” As the camera descends into the streets of the city, he continues, “Everywhere was building, building, building.”

When India began its free-market reforms in 1991, and serious money began pumping through the Bombay Stock Exchange, it threw into sharp relief the people who subsidized this new economy with their cheap, unorganized labor, but were denied its benefits. The city changed its colonial name in 1995, and Mumbai came to be defined by narratives of gross inequality. Construction boomed, but settlements of migrant workers also blossomed. Time and again, battle lines have been drawn between these laborers and the developers and city officials who want to construct apartment buildings, office blocks, or high-speed rail lines on the valuable real estate that the workers have occupied. Over the past two decades, news reports, films, books, and, indeed, architecture schools have become justifiably preoccupied with images of Mumbai’s extremes—the excesses of the very rich and the squalor of the very poor. It takes a rare photographic eye like Georg Aerni’s to penetrate the stifling stillness between the two. In the shoeboxes of affordable housing that he documents so vividly, people who are supposedly well on their way to the middle class lead their lives in a chasm of silence.

The contrast between Mumbai’s haves and have-nots is readily evident because the factions have learned to live in cheek-by-jowl symbiosis. Two years ago, India’s richest man completed a billion-dollar, 27-story private residence, designed by Perkins +Will, for his family of five. It is unclear what Mukesh Ambani expected the reactions to his new home to be, but he was reportedly miffed when every major news item contrasted his opulence with the city’s slums. The New York Times chose to seek the opinion of a cook who worked in a nearby apartment and earned $90 a month. Ambani has yet to move into his ivory tower.

By now, everyone has an idea of what a stereotypical Mumbai slum looks like (even though parts of Dharavi, the country’s largest informal settlement, can surprise visitors by looking like any tidy little town in India). The dwellings are pieced together from scrap metal, wooden crates, and tarpaulins, and the streets overflow with sewage. The residents are contributing members of society who build roads, carry bricks, or manage waste. But as the growing city presses in from the outside, it produces appalling statistics—an estimated 62 percent of Mumbai’s 12.5 million people live in slums, on the pavement, or beneath overpasses. Something must be done to improve living conditions, but also to manage the legitimization of squatters. The local government’s efforts are, at worst, aggressive and, at best, ludicrous—Dharavi was denied new public toilets because officials reasoned that sanitary conditions would encourage more migrants to settle there. In an interview for the documentary Urbanized, Sheela Patel, a leading activist, scoffed, “As if people come here to shit.” Conversations about Mumbai have a way of descending into scatology.

But what happens at the fringes of this phenomenon? How do people come to settle in low-income neighborhoods, and what are their lives like when they leave? In her recent book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a startlingly clear-eyed report of life in Mumbai’s under-city, Katherine Boo describes how the slum of Annawadi was founded in 1991, by “a band of laborers trucked in from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. The work complete, they decided to stay…. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brush-land across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.” The state-run airport was privatized in 2006, so the threat of demolition hangs over the heads of the people in Annawadi. One family in Boo’s book manages to make a down payment on a plot in Vasai, a town to the north of Mumbai’s farthest suburbs, but never comes to own the land. Their only hope is that the city’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority will resettle them in a one-room tenement several miles away.

Bombay was founded on seven small islands off India’s west coast, which were joined to each other and to the mainland through a series of reclamation projects that began in 1782. The richest and most desirable parts of town are in the south and along the western seaboard, where you’ll find the old Victorian train station, the stock exchange, the universities, the luxury hotels, and the homes of Bollywood film stars. Hemmed in as much by a wall of exorbitant real estate as by the sea, the city’s surpluses have been squeezed into a long line of suburbs to the north, and to the east, across Thane Creek, where they spill into a planned sister city on the mainland called Navi Mumbai, or New Mumbai.

A building boom, which stretched from the early 1990s to the global recession in 2009, turned some Navi Mumbai neighborhoods into upper-middle-class citadels—especially those with easy public transport into the upwardly mobile parts of Mumbai. Sandwiched between the entrepreneurial technocrats and the city of dreams is the no-man’s-land where those who have just risen above the poverty line and arrived in the great Indian middle class are shunted. If migrants can prove that they have lived in their homes continually since 1995, then a law passed that year recognizes them as the legitimate owners of that land.

If they are resettled by eminent domain, they must receive permanent habitation in return. To them, this is what government-mandated urbanity looks like: 225-square-foot apartments that are stacked on top of each other, and surrounded by more stacks of apartments. Water connections are hard to get (what are the street-corner taps for?) and the supply of electricity is wrapped in red tape. Likely thanks to some corrupt bureaucrat who pocketed the cost of weatherproof paint, the mold that stains the walls of the buildings hardly has time to fade in the hot, humid sunshine before the relentless yearly monsoons return.

Many big cities have unofficial anthems. Mumbai’s song of choice is a tune from the 1956 Hindi film C.I.D., in which the comedian sidekick cavorts down a hip seaside promenade called Marine Drive. “You can buy anything here, but you can’t buy a heart,” he sings. “There is no sign of anything you can call a human being. Move aside, have a care, this is Bombay, my love.” It seems a strange song for a city whose main tourist draw is its colorful multitudes, but the anonymity it promises is highly attractive to young people seeking to leave the limitations of caste and creed behind in still-orthodox rural areas. When one enters an Indian village, Jane Jacobs’s concept of “eyes on the street” translates into an unshakable sensation of being watched. Many Indians who seek new beginnings were born into that feeling, and find security in the fact that it is as strong in the uppity reaches of Mumbai’s Pali Hill as it is in the lanes of Dharavi—it proves the presence of an established, well-knit community that can instantly identify outsiders. The terrifying thing about walking at certain times of day among resettlement blocks in Mankhurd, or in some transitional neighborhoods in Navi Mumbai, is the absence of eyes burning into the back of your head.

Not all slum rehabilitation projects are failures. In 2001, Indian Railways authorities began to demolish huts that sat alongside train tracks. Mumbai’s development depends on its overworked public transport system, and the demolition was part of a long-term, World Bank–funded project to expand the system and make it more efficient. Luckily, in this case, the World Bank was able to enforce its own resettlement guidelines, and three civil-society groups, including Sheela Patel’s Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, became involved in the rapid rehabilitation. The agencies worked with the hut-dwellers to establish several participatory strategies, ensuring that the 60,000 people displaced stayed in charge of the process of moving their lives to Mankhurd, and of keeping the delicate social and religious balances of their community intact.

Nonetheless, several significant challenges remained. Slums were originally formed because steady sources of income were available; now, people had to find work that was accessible from their new homes. Simple things like where to buy rice, sugar, or kerosene at affordable prices became struggles. To complicate matters, public projects in Mumbai usually lumber along at a leisurely pace—a mile-long overpass in nearby Kurla took over four years to complete. The Mankhurd social-housing complex was built in a year, with many attendant compromises. The design of the poorly maintained structures has since come under criticism.

Insights into how to build affordable housing fast and well might be close at hand. Contractors have streamlined their design and construction processes, building up to three small, sturdy homes a month in the adjoining settlement of Shivaji Nagar, as well as in other parts of Mumbai. Students at Mumbai’s venerable Sir J.J. College of Architecture are studying these strategies as part of a new research initiative called URBZ, which was founded by the anthropologist Rahul Srivastava, the professor Geeta Mehta, and the urban planner Matias Echanove. The methods that small-fish builders developed to survive in Mumbai’s cutthroat construction industry will no doubt need some tweaking if they’re to serve the greater social good in the low-income high-rises that the city would like to see in place of Dharavi. But there is hope.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Bombay had a comparable growth spurt, thanks to a boom in manufacturing and, particularly, in textiles (the city profited from the decline in American cotton production during the Civil War). The new industries pulled in tens of thousands of prospective mill workers, and private builders scrambled to house them. A housing typology unique to the city evolved out of this crisis: three- or four-story stacks of one- and two-room tenements, called chawls. Families who were forced to share amenities like toilets and water developed an extraordinary way of life, with their housing operating more like an anthill than an apartment building. It was in the chawls that the big, communal celebrations marking the births of the gods Ganesha and Krishna took the form they have now—festivals in which the entire city participates. The chawls that survive today, packed with working-class families, retain the same strong ties, and the same vibrant, raucous culture. For those willing to look closely enough, there is much sense—and, indeed, great beauty—to be found in the lives of those who are neither slumdogs nor millionaires.

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