As part of a one-year research fellowship, at the Kamla Raheja Vidhyanidhi Institute for Architecture, I studied processes of urban development and land acquisition in Mumbai, through the academic year 2006-07. The turn of the century in Mumbai came with its desire for newness—urban renewal, redevelopment, gentrification and the realization of a global city—Mumbai began its process of “Shangaification”. As part of my research project, I began tracing the developmental linkages of a Shopping Mall and Residential Condominium building in an inner city neighborhood of Central Mumbai. The case of the Shopping Mall is particularly interesting and one that raises very important questions for urban practitioners working within neoliberal societies.
In 1984 the State Government of Maharashtra, introduced the Cess Policy that entitled an additional 2.00 FSI (Floor Space Index or Floor Area Ration [FAR]) for the redevelopment of old dilapidated buildings in the Island City of Mumbai. Cessed properties are old residential or mixed-use buildings that are owned by “landlords” and occupied by tenants who often do not have the required finance capital for self-redevelopment. The policy encourages private developers to redevelop old buildings, while rehabilitating old tenants on the same plot of land and selling the additional units at market rate to offset development costs. While this policy was introduced in the best interest of communities living in the inner city neighborhoods of Mumbai, to ensure these neighborhoods could be revitalized with negligible gentrification, it was being used as a means to “illegally” acquire FSIs up to 7 and 8 times (and in some cases even higher) more than what was legally permissible. Uses that did not previously exist or tenants who were not involved were brought in to present false cases that could exploit the loopholes of the said policy. Such was the case of the City Center Shopping Mall and Orchid Enclave Residential building.
The City Center Mall was built on a site where roughly 100 tenants with mostly commercial uses—i.e. auto-repair stores, hardware stores, and other miscellaneous retail and commerce—rented or owned space. Visually (or aesthetically) these buildings (mostly ground plus two or three storey, see above) looked dilapidated, with crumbling infrastructure, very little light or ventilation, and prone to all kinds of public health concerns. However, the cess policy does not permit the redevelopment of commercial properties, hence to work around that technicality, these units were considered as “live-work” units, permitting the redevelopment and subsequent rehabilitation of individual tenants on the same plot of land. The next step towards building the Mall was to get rid of the tenants! Architectural drawings (see below) presented to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) delineated names of individual tenants to retail spaces within the Mall to present the case for rehabilitation. However once the project was approved and built, the Mall had no hardware stores or auto-repair centers (obviously!). Apparently, each of the 100 odd tenants leased their space to a finance management company for the next 100 years, systematically cleaning the traces of a whole community of ‘entrepreneurs’ from the heart of the city.
The images above show an absolutely obnoxious “invasion” of affordable and accessible spaces in the city transforming them into enclaves of wealth and order—an informality perpetuated by the powerful and elite classes of our society. These may look legal and formal enough to appease our desires for a ‘world class’ city, but are they Just? That can be debated; however, debating legality and illegality of land acquisition is a moot point—what is a more pressing question is “access”—do we have equal access over opportunities for security of housing, jobs and a safe livelihood? Namrata’s recent post, speaks to this very clearly problem of access and security (amongst various other things) within rapidly growing cities. Here ‘informal/ illegal/ occupied’ spaces serve as forms of affordable housing—we could either address them with massive evictions, coercive and uncivilized State policies, lucidly discussed in Tucker’s recent post, or begin understanding the problem of access in more structural and systemic ways as Namrata begins to layout through her posts.
Silvia Soonets (as Tucker correctly points out) begins to question a very crucial problem encountered by architects who are often crippled by their readings of the physical built environment and therefore enter the problem of ‘romanticizing’ conditions of abject poverty. However, I think the problem is less of “invasion” (as Soonets writes about it) and more a lack of our understanding and ability to disengage from the physicality of the built environment to an understanding of processes. Therefore, discussions around urban poverty are often framed as justifications or objections against forms of informal living. Rather, what is needed is a shift of discourse towards ‘processes’ and systems that need intervention, than a discussion around the formalization of informal housing; or a discussion around housing types, be it rental, transitional (as modeled in some parts of the United States where housing for previously homeless persons or families is coupled with supportive services like employment generation, rehabilitation, mental health facilities etc.) or affordable housing.
The case of the City Center Mall topped with the 42 storied Orchid Enclave, (elite residential condominiums with swimming pools, spas, a gym and tennis courts), speaks of an extreme system failure where the poor are seen as informal invaders and the rich are seen as the rightful, earning members of our neoliberal society. My previous post on the occupy movement precisely spoke of the shift of the discourse around poverty from being a problem of the poor, to becoming a problem of extreme inequality in wealth distribution and therefore inequality in public access. There are many forms of ‘informalities’, as the title of this post goes, informal policies to impede public access, informal forms of achieving temporary access within urban spaces, informal (and often inhuman) planning mechanisms to evict the urban poor from cities and informal ways of protesting historic repression within our societies. Hence, it would be a terrible mistake to confuse informal settlements with occupy-encampments, even though they address almost similar questions of “access”; they are formalized around very different politics. It would also be a terrible mistake to close your reading of informal settlements with words like squalor, invasions or unlawful acquisitions—because it speaks of our ignorance of history, time and processual and ancestral poverty. And in the most humblest manner, admitting to absolute ignorance to conditions of life in Caracas, I would like to caution Ms. Soonets against it.