I’m still in the midst of processing last week here at the Lab. There was a lot to learn, with Meet in the Middle discussions at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum site tackling three major issues in Mumbai—skywalks, public-private investment, and planning for a dynamic environment—and off-site discussions and events ranging from documenting women’s history and “food memory” to learning through theater games how to intervene in situations of abuse. This, all mixed in with a good measure of fun, dancing, and enjoying the experience of exploring this all in the realms of public space.
The off-site location this week was vastly different from any others the Lab has visited so far and, in many ways, particularly powerful. An open area within the confines of a former mill workers’ colony, it is surrounded on all sides by abandoned and crumbling mills, chawls, and the still-empty new residential towers of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority, which await soon-to-be-relocated residents. Standing in the midst of it all is really like standing in the shadows of Mumbai’s past, and the debate about its future, as I wrote about earlier this week.
It was fascinating to see the space come alive. With fewer passersby than the off-site locations usually have, due to the more secluded location, it really became a local community space. Some said that it harkened back to an older time in Mumbai, when free movies were screened in public on plain white cloth, for instance—just because. I’m not sure if anything really comes free in Mumbai today.
It was the perfect location for Girnichi Chav—A Taste of the Mills—part of the Food for Thought program series that focused on understanding women’s history through food, specifically in the chawl system. We learned about an amazing women’s cooking co-op movement that started in the 1980s, when a law was passed forcing mill owners to grant women maternity leave, prompting mill owners to fire women and forgo the practice of hiring them. In the wake of this, many women started businesses cooking food in the chawls and selling it through the tiffin system in order to sustain themselves. They eventually began a co-op, which has grown to 150,000 women strong—over three times more than the mills themselves employ today. The system has also given many single women, women from broken marriages, and daughters of prostitutes economic liberty and emancipation. In light of the negative impact the closing of the mills has had on so many lives in Mumbai, it was heartening to witness an example of a shift from manufacturing to service industry that has actually had a positive impact on women’s lives.
Back at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, PUKAR took the opportunity to delve a little more deeply into the findings of their privacy study, conducting a live interview with two of their interview subjects from the study—two hijras, or male-to-female transgendered people—about their experiences of life in Mumbai’s public spaces. The session revealed a deep sense of discrimination within the public realm. As one of the interviewees put it: “If I go the way I am now [wearing men’s clothes], where I hide my identity, it’s easier. But if I want to express myself, the public is a forbidden space.”
Saskia Sassen popped into town this week as well, with perfect timing to speak on the Meet in the Middle panel about public-private partnerships and investment. Along with others on the panel, she argued that citizens should be constituent actors in PPPs in order to avoid “the extreme appropriation of what should, in principle, be public good, by private sectors” that is occurring ever more frequently.
Interestingly, the Meet in the Middle session that occurred the next day, which was intended to tackle the concept of planning for the “dynamic city” and include discussion about whether the tools are too static, naturally devolved into a conversation about the exact same investment politics that she had touched on. Mumbai, like many cities, is caught in the trap of developer-led development, but with even less power than many cities to raise public funds for infrastructure projects. The big question remains: how can the city mediate this to ensure the best for the public as a whole?
I look forward to wrapping up this question, and more, at the final session of Meet in the Middle at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum site (though it means I will have to miss an amazing evening eating fish and learning from the Kolis at Mahim Beach!), and hearing what all the Lab’s incredible program coordinators have to tell about what they’ve learned over the past several amazing weeks here in the city as the Lab begins to wind down once again.