As described in my previous post, the Open-Mumbai exhibition demonstrated a plethora of possibilities of greening the city and programming unused or seemingly neglected areas of the city for ‘public use’. However, what the exhibition also did was develop a series of land-use maps based on the Development Plan zoning regulations that (1) presented a context and need for open spaces in the city, and (2) identified possible sites for redevelopment and revitalization, to rehabilitate people and/ or program while providing new green spaces in the city. Amongst these was also a map that identified various informal housing settlements—fishing villages, old gaothans (urban village settlements) and designated slum precincts—all under a blanket title of “slums” to be redeveloped based on Slum Redevelopment Policies.
As I walked along the gallery, I was accompanied by a family who came from a fishing village along the north-west coast of Mumbai: Juhu, Moragoan. This was the family of an environmental and social activist living in Moragaon, who has fought for the rights of Kohlis (fishing community) for years in Mumbai. They patiently walked along the gallery examining each board and its information carefully. While I was leaving the exhibition, I saw them all huddled around one particular map board, it was the one with the informal settlements all marked up. Along with the activist was another Kohli from a neighboring village—Malwani located between Malaad and Kandivili along the North-west coast of the city.
Incidentally, they were being escorted by a close friend, a young anthropologist doing her PhD at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, back in Mumbai completing her field study for her dissertation on mapping fishing villages. Her work is concentrated on the Malwani fishing village in Mumbai, where she spent days sorting fish with kohli women while mapping new stories of work, living and celebrations amidst these coastal communities. She was there escorting these two Kohli’s, one from Malwani and the other from Muragaon, as part of her field work recording their reactions and dilemmas to Das’s new imagination of their city. She was engaged in a deep deliberation on the meaning and importance of these maps. As I approached her, she pulled me into their discussion as a ‘city planner’. There we were two people from the community, an anthropologist and a planner trying to decipher the meaning of these maps.
While the Muragaon village was mapped as a slum on the map, the Malwani village was not mapped at all—“what does that mean”, they asked us? We as professionals working in the development field tried to explain, “it is just a representation, these are not proposals, or made with government consent or for government consumption. They are merely placed at the start of the exhibition to introduce the context, density and complexity of the city, before we enter the gallery and its world of possibilities”. And in fact it was that. The maps of Mumbai, placed at the start of the exhibition were based on DP guidelines, and superimposed with snippets of other information that Das’s office had. In the past Das and his team worked on developing a ‘community park’ along the Juhu Moragoan village, by occupying their fish-drying land and converting it into a patch of manicured green space for the use of neighboring property owners. Based on this history, the team had mapped-drawings of the Moragoan village, and hence included it into the map. However, they had yet not engaged in a thorough mapping of all coastal villages in the city and therefore did not have Malwani on the map.
The map of informalities became an interesting site for understanding contestation in the city. While one kohli was concerned about being identified as a “slum” in the city, and what that really, means? Are they going to re-house us? What will it look like? Will it affect our livelihood that is tied to the land we live on and the waves and sand that brush along our walls? The other kolhi was concerned about not being mapped at all! Are we not eligible for the promise of development? And amidst these dilemmas lay a bigger question, “who is P K Das?” and “why has he put this show up?” The anthropologist, my friend, said thoughtfully with words that come so lucidly to her, “it’s like a rhetorical question—who is P K Das?” the question makes you wonder, think and contemplate. Who is he and what does he mean?
And the map is a real site. A site that the poor are often encountered by. While we as citizens of a congested, chaotic and often dysfunctional city aspire for order, public health and the amenities that the promise of development comes with, we often find ourselves as part of the “problem”. The challenge is how do we reconcile with these so-called ‘truths’ and representations of ‘truths’. Here, development as a process becomes a more hopeful and dynamic site to look at, than development as a product. Hence, my greatest critique of Open-Mumbai was ignoring the importance of processes and ways in which open spaces could come into being, and exhausting the possibilities and products of alternate environments, we could invest in as a city.
While the exhibition with its egalitarian platform of satellite maps, bilingual boards, and weekly open forums, invited various difficult questions and contestations, Das rarely found it within his capacity to deliver satisfactory responses. His energies were invested in the product and selling it as surely and as often, as was possible, making all other concerns a matter of time and memory. While the exhibition was instantly felicitated by the ‘bourgeois environmentalists’ and their aspirations for a “clean and green Mumbai”, it was also a huge success within the neoliberal state and its efforts towards a world-class city model. All else seemed trivial. Albeit, it was this strength of the exhibition to reach out to both, the elite-middle classes and the city officials, that makes it a very interesting space for further analysis.