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Who owns Mumbai? There are patterns but no clear answers

Girangaon or the old textile mill area in central Mumbai is a text book case of gradual but certain gentrification which began about 20 years ago.

mumbai Updated: Aug 24, 2016 13:00 IST
Smruti Koppikar

View of BKC from Wockhardt terrace, BKC, Bandra in Mumbai. (Vidya Subramanian/Hindustan Times)

Urban thinkers and planners took the academic term “gentrification” out of symposium halls and made it a commonly used word in their critiques of cities or city areas. As new neo-liberal socio-economic order took root, wealthy people arrived in old areas leading to a boom in the hyper-local economy, manifold rise in rents and property values, and changes in the area’s character and culture while the older and often poorer residents and establishments found themselves marginalised and eventually displaced.

Girangaon or the old textile mill area in central Mumbai is a text book case of gradual but certain gentrification which began about 20 years ago with the new stylish inhabitants preferring to call it Upper Worli instead of Lower Parel. Gentrification is visible in other areas of Mumbai like Girgaum prompting parochial politicians like the Thackeray cousins to make capital out of it.

But it is time to move beyond the term, because it does not capture the massive changes in cities brought about by real estate, suggested Saskia Sassen, renowned sociologist, urban thinker, and Columbia University professor in her latest essay on cities in The Conversation. “From mid-2014 to mid-2015 alone, more than a trillion dollars were invested in real estate in only about 100 cities across North America, Europe and Asia. Worldwide, real estate makes up 60% of the value of all global assets…wealth is clearly being concentrated into a select group of urban areas,” she wrote.

On the basis of her study of the world’s top 100 cities ranked by property investment, Sassen identified trends: a rapid increase in investment in urban land in the last few years, these cities comprised a staggering 76% of the world’s property investment. Large corporates made these investments often through shell companies, the purpose was not utility such as individual residents buying homes but to create ownership of land or store money or sometimes hide money. Indian cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru fell somewhere in the middle of the list of cities.

What does this corporatisation of land do to the city? Sassen observed, “We are witnessing a deep history in the making: a systematic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in some of our major cities. Whether it’s national or foreign, large-scale corporate investment absorbs much of the public tissue of streets and squares, and street-level commerce. It shrinks the texture and scale of spaces that are accessible to the public, and ultimately changes the very character of the city. If we’re to safeguard equity, democracy and rights in urban areas, we must first ask ourselves: who owns the city?”

Who owns the city is a tantalising question to ask about Mumbai. There is a great deal of history and folklore – about how land parcels were sold or leased to Parsis or merchants even as the city was taking shape in the British era. But there isn’t one set of reliable official data which gives us a comprehensive picture of land ownership in the city in the present day. Anecdotally, the process of corporate investment in urban land comes to life as you cruise down Parel or Bandra Kurla Complex where it is near-complete. It will be visible in Dharavi if the planned large-scale corporate-led redevelopment comes to pass.

Based on a data set of the Slum Redevelopment Authority in 2014-15, government agencies appear to own and control the largest land parcels such as the port trust. And only nine private individuals and trusts own almost a fifth of the city’s habitable land. But this does not even begin to capture the post-gentrification times. Sassen’s exploration asks us to go beyond this to study recent corporate investment in and ownership of land. No authority or agency in Mumbai would be in a hurry to generate this data set.