In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Mumbai Mills.
Over the past few months, the front pages of Mumbai’s newspapers have been dominated by advertisements for high-end gated communities that promise potential buyers access to leafy parks and wide roads, cycling tracks, and broad sidewalks.
The colorful visuals of these real-estate projects fill me with more than a twinge of regret. After all, these allegedly luxurious amenities are things that ordinary people in most other cities take for granted. And, if Mumbai’s business community hadn’t gone to court to block a city plan to build them, these facilities would, in fact, have been available to all Mumbai’s residents, not just a privileged few.
This story of lost opportunities is unfolding in a neighborhood that was known by its former residents as Girangaon—the Village of Mills. Three decades ago, Mumbai’s economy was powered by its textile mills, 54 of which spread out over 600 acres in the heart of the city. In 1991, the mills were Mumbai’s largest formal-sector employer: 80,000 workers and their families lived in Girangaon. But that year, as mill owners claimed that their enterprises were becoming increasingly unprofitable, the government decided to allow them to sell off the land on which their factories stood.
There was, however, a condition. When these enormous swathes of land were sold, one third would have to be surrendered so that the government could build public housing. Another third would go to construct public amenities. But the mill owners weren’t losing out: they were allowed to heap the development rights for the entire plot on the third that they retained.
The government’s decision was a mixed blessing. It threw tens of thousands of people out of work and forced them to leave a neighborhood some had lived in for three generations. But it offered the congested city of Mumbai, which now has a population of 12 million, an unbelievable opportunity to house its poor in dignity and to breathe a little. The state appointed Charles Correa, one of India’s most prominent urban designers, to draw up a comprehensive plan to knit the 54 parcels of land together, with new roads and parks and perhaps a trolley-car line.
But the mill owners decided that this division was unacceptable. In 2001, the authorities were prevailed upon to reduce the amount of land the textile factories would have to surrender, cutting it back to just 8 percent of the area envisaged in the original plan. Though activists challenged this change, it was upheld by India’s Supreme Court in 2001.
This has allowed the once working-class district to become the prime location for Mumbai’s most expensive office complexes and residential developments. Girangaon is now a gigantic construction site, with projects such as Lodha Venezia, offering “two acres of Venetian waterscapes,” and Blu, with a one-kilometer “private walking track . . . with lush landscaping all around to make walking an immensely fulfilling experience.” But the width of the streets leading to these complexes hasn’t been increased, so Mumbai’s famed traffic jams have only got stickier.
The emergence of these high-security enclaves is inexplicable in a city with almost no street crime. Their exclusive amenities, promoted in their ads, are at odds with the spirit of a city that used to pride itself on being inclusive. Most of all, gated communities sit awkwardly in a city whose most famous symbol is the Gateway of India—an archway by the sea that proclaims that everyone, no matter how tired or huddled, is welcome.