For half a century, Padmaja Gokhale spent her evenings chatting with neighbours in Ganesh Krupa, a century-old chawl on Girgaum’s Khadilkar Road.
In preparation for her new, more isolated life in a high-rise building that will come up in a year’s time in the place of the chawl, she now uses her evenings to run errands.
“In a chawl, everyone keeps their doors open,” said Gokhale, 72, who moved three years ago with her family to a temporary home nearby after her chawl came down. “They watch out for one another. Life in a tower will be very different.”
The 22-storey tower will be the fourth on this street in the past five years to replace a chawl.
Girgaum’s air started filling with the sound of hammers and the hum of cement-mixers in 1999, after the state government allowed builders to redevelop the area’s crumbling buildings into high rises.
The builders had to house all the old tenants in new flats, but they could also construct and sell an equivalent number of flats at market rates. This allowed the builders not only to finance the rehabilitation of old residents but also to make a profit. In 2009, to attract more builders to the scheme, the government raised the free-sale component.
This policy attracted builders to the chawls on Khadilkar Road. Named after Krishnaji Khadilkar, a scholar and playwright who between 1908 and 1910 edited Kesari, a newspaper founded by Lokmanya Tilak, the road still exudes the middle-class ethos of its Marathi-speaking residents, many of who work in the government and public sector. The road is home to the Chikitsak Samuha Shirolkar high school, a century-old Marathi-medium school and the Swami Samarth Math, a temple patronised by the area’s Marathi-speaking residents; the Keshavji Naik Chawl, where Tilak started his public Ganesh festival, is around the corner.
But the towers have attracted other communities — mainly Gujaratis and Marwaris — who have brought their culture and purchasing power with them. Five years ago, along with the road’s first high-rise building came Girgaum’s second mall, towering over the street’s row of kirana stores and shops selling wedding cards.
Although not as ritzy as some other city malls, it quickly became popular with youngsters, while a Jain temple built at around the same time won favour with their parents.
Five years ago, Sumermal Jain, a businessman, moved with his family into one of the towers, the 10-storey Jayant Apartment. “My college friends visit me and we all go to the mall,” said his daughter Neha Jain, 20. “This area is very safe and it is great to hang out in.”
Some long-standing residents also see virtues in the changes around them. “The towers have much better facilities and are more hygienic than the chawls,” said Vasant Godbole, 71, a retired chartered accountant who now teaches Sanskrit to school children and is Jain’s neighbour. “Families have more privacy.”
As redevelopment picks up pace, residents old and new face the same civic problems — of congested roads, irregular water supply and a shortage of parking space. Pankaj Joshi, an urban planner who is the director of the Urban Design Research Institute, a non-profit trust in south Mumbai, points out that the area’s narrow lanes are not equipped to handle the influx. “Some towers stand just five to six feet apart,” he said. “Can a fire engine come into these spaces?”
But, like Padmaja Gokhale, Godbole is resigned to the changing physical landscape. “More towers will no doubt come up,” he said. “But the residents should try and preserve their social and cultural traditions.”