Mumbai between two pandemics
It is predicted that about 41.85% of Mumbai’s population will be living on less than 3.15% of the total land of the city in the coming years
Mumbai: On a summer afternoon in 1916, a professor of commerce in Allahabad University named Alexander Burnett-Hurst entered a chawl situated outside Bombay’s Fort walls. He passed down a dark passage, so narrow it was barely able to fit two persons and groped his way to the doorway of a one of the rooms. Not a ray of light penetrated it forcing Hurst to strike a match. Faces of mill and dock workers stared back at him. Outside the lone window in the one-room tenement hung a basket privy — there were no sewers in this part of town, and these baskets emptied all the waste into open drains that ran along gullies 0.5 to 1.5 metres wide. Hurst was tasked to inspect the living conditions of workers in the city and submit a report to the British government. The report was eventually published in 1925 and was titled ‘Labour and Housing in Bombay: A study in the economic conditions of the wage earning classes in Bombay’.
The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed fast-paced changes in colonial India. In Bombay, the British government had woken up to the dire housing situation after the bubonic plague of 1896 wiped out at least 12 million around the country, a majority of them in Bombay. In 1898, the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was formed, which introduced building design regulations and standards that shaped the city over the next few decades. When Hurst carried out his inspections, between 1916 and 1919, several measures were already in place: the Town Planning Act of Bombay had been introduced in 1915; the first cooperative housing society had come together to build homes in Gamdevi; and Western city planners agreed that maintaining a 63.5-degree angle between two buildings was the most optimum measure for light and ventilation.
A century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight back on these twin requirements for a healthy living environment. Yet, Mumbai is denser and the living conditions particularly for the working class, remains precarious. As of 2018, 41.85% of Mumbai’s population was housed on 9% of land area in the city. Over 1,500 Slum Rehabilitation projects are already in various stages of approval and construction. If this trend continues, it is predicted that about 41.85% of the city’s population will be living on less than 3.15% of the total land of the city in the coming years.
These are some of the findings of researchers who, between 2017 and 2019, undertook an inspection of different types of housing in the city. Led by Shreyank Khemalapure, an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Architecture, and the lead researcher at Sameep Padora’s firm, sP+a, visited houses built as early as 1901 under street schemes introduced by the BIT as well as tall skyscraper apartment complexes in Tardeo and Bandra, and even a township in Mahul built as a rehabilitation settlement for thousands of project affected persons. What has emerged is a two-week long exhibition of 18 graphical case studies which asks the same question Burnett-Hurst sought to answer a hundred years ago: How does Mumbai house its residents?
“In the exhibition we benchmark two points in the timeline of Mumbai. The first, where after the bubonic plague, new sets of laws are written to enable better light and ventilation for the residents of the city. The second, a 2018 report by Doctors For You [a non-government organisation based in Delhi], which attributed the ill-health of residents of three Mumbai colonies to the lack of light and ventilation on account of poor planning and design of their buildings. The city seems to have come full circle,” Padora said.
While Hurst referenced town planning codes of Glasgow and London, the sP+a researchers had local references: The Bombay Town Planning Act (1957), the first Development Plan of Bombay (which came into effect in 1967 and introduced the Floor Space Index regulation for the first time in the city), the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance and Redevelopment) Act of 1971, the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act which remained in force till 2007, the Development Control Regulations (DCR) of 1991, and even the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) scheme, to name a few. The researchers studied the changing codes and regulations and the city that arose as a result of them.
Building codes are important tools. They regulate coverage area, height, architectural design and even aspects of construction. They impart order to development. Yet, the story of Mumbai isn’t one of orderly expansion. The city’s spread has been flagrant over land reclaimed from swamp and sea, on newer suburbs and since the early 1990s, spiralling upwards in apartment complexes or squashed into apartments constructed for rehabilitating slum residents.
One of the case studies on display is an under-construction affordable housing project in Chembur coming up on 70,500 sqm of land, where the area of each single-room apartment is between 225 and 280 sqft. The window in each living room opens into a duct. There are 7,128 such apartments being built in this fashion. Apart from that, a block of eight 17-storeyed buildings, each three metres apart, is also being built to rehabilitate the informal settlement dwellers that lived on this land, which would imply little to no sunlight in the lower floors. A regulation exception relaxes tenement density available for public housing and high density housing projects. Put simply, affordable housing projects now have more houses on a floor, more floors in a building, and less distance between the buildings, all within a single project.
By contrast, the building codes that guided the Agripada housing scheme at the start of the 20th century allowed light to enter the homes. The 63.- degree angle between two adjacent buildings meant that even the ground floor would receive adequate ventilation, and was at an appropriate distance from the next building. This ensured the good health of each resident.
“While the original impetus of the Bombay Improvement Trust’s planners was to create sanitary conditions of living, the current impetus of developers seems to be the effective utilisation of relaxations in regulations, such as the appropriate use of Transfer of Development Rights or floor space index or podiums. There is little generosity in such an approach. The norm that’s set is to ensure that minimum conditions of regulations are met,” Khemalapure said.
Decoding Mumbai will be on view from June 11 to June 25, 11am to 7pm, at If.Be, Calicut Road, Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai