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City of a million islands

The physical geography of Mumbai is in transition thanks to the closure of the textile mills. And this shift has deep and troubling societal implications, writes Sidharth Bhatia.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2013 01:43 IST
Sidharth Bhatia
Sidharth Bhatia

Mumbai’s newspapers routinely carry stories about sexual assault of women. Just last week, a senior citizen was held for allegedly molesting his young grand-daughter and an American working in the city was hit and robbed of her cellphone in a local train. Neighbours, relatives and friends are often named in such crimes. Any woman will confirm that Mumbai isn’t as safe for women as it is made out to be.

Even so, the rape of a young girl by five men on August 22 has jolted the city for its brutality and brazenness. That it took place in the evening in an area which has a few offices and shops makes it even more shocking. Sexual crimes in the privacy of homes are one thing; this was in a public place, with people going about their business outside.

But is it a public place? That is a question that needs to be addressed to begin to understand how Mumbai is changing. Its physical geography is in transition and this shift has deep societal implications. It will not enable us to understand why Mumbai’s men have become boorish or indeed why such a crime took place, but will certainly provide a framework to the city’s emerging social dynamic.

The scene of the crime was a derelict old textile mill, one of many that hummed for almost 150 years in the central parts of the city and created the wealth that laid the foundations of modern Bombay. In the 19th century, Bombay’s mills supplied cotton all over the world and brought untold riches to mill owners, many of whom invested in public buildings. To keep those mills running, generations of workers came from all over Maharashtra and neighbouring states and lived in cramped quarters in and around the mills.

By the 1980s, the textile industry was dying and a prolonged strike was the final body blow. The mills went silent and the workers were out of jobs. The mill owners soon realised that they were sitting on precious land and dreamt of making a killing. Labour laws, however, prevented mill land sale till the workers were compensated but within a few years, friendly governments found ingenious ways to allow conversion of mill land into residential and commercial development. Tall claims were made about providing housing and jobs for the workers but nothing came of it. One by one the mills were demolished and instead of creating public spaces — gardens, maidans or even libraries — luxury housing, swanky malls and swish offices came up. Today an apartment in the area could set a buyer back by several crores while the mill worker’s son is a peon in the advertising agency office. Whole communities have died out, either dispersed to far flung suburbs or now back in their villages after their places of work shut down and their homes were taken over by builders after payment of a lump sum compensation.

Shakti Mills was one of the few that still remains undeveloped, thanks to a legal dispute. Its shareholders are some of the biggest companies in India, biding their time till the issue is sorted out after which no doubt another luxury apartment block will come up. Across it is a major development project in the place of two office buildings. The lane leads to a dead-end. What would have been a populated stretch — mill workers and white collar professionals — is now virtually empty save for a furniture store or two, some tea-stalls and small industrial workshops. There is, however, no dearth of hangers-on: lumpen and criminal elements just sitting around, chatting and smoking and watching the few people entering and exiting. Beat policemen are nowhere to be found (which is now more or less true of the entire city.) In the absence of anyone guarding the six-acre weedy ruin that is Shakti Mills, they have become its custodians using it for their own nefarious activities. Anyone entering the space has to answer to them, which is what, according to accounts, seems to have happened when the young, enthusiastic photographer, accompanied by her male friend, went inside to take photographs.

Mumbai’s open public spaces, already few and far between are perpetually in danger of being taken over for one sham project or the other. The Shiv Sena had recently proposed to convert the Mahalaxmi Race Course into some kind of tourist resort, a euphemism for more development along with friendly builders. Public parks are now in the hands of corporate sponsors who place guards there to keep out undesirable elements, which could mean anyone who appears to be from the lower economic strata. For the ordinary citizen, the spaces where he or she can hang out are getting severely limited while gated communities provide every kind of luxury to those who can afford it.

On the same land where millions of workers sweated for decades, stand fabulous Xanadu-like properties where its residents can fulfill their wildest fantasies in clubs, theatres and swimming pools in their balconies. The middle-class, priced out of those heavily guarded enclaves, has to look for affordable housing further and further away.

Meanwhile, the lumpen, with little to lose and much to gain has moved into any unguarded space and established suzerainty. The law and order machinery, busy guarding VIPs is hardly available to the citizen. (Indeed, anyone taking photographs on the streets is routinely asked by policemen to stop doing so.) In any normal, law and order abiding society a young girl and a friend, doing about their work, should have been left alone; but Mumbai is no longer in that stage. It has become a city of a million islands and god help anyone who tries to move into territories that do not “belong” to them.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal

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