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Bombay To Mumbai


Bombay to Mumbai past, present and future.

Royal reward
Until the seventeenth century Bombay was a small trading post under the Portuguese. By this time British colonial ascendancy in India was not yet established – the Dutch were particularly strong competitors.

Britain got its hands on Bombay as an indirect result of the Restoration of Charles II: it was one of the possessions given to Charles as a dowry when he married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662.

Bombay remained something of a backwater, eclipsed by Calcutta, until the early nineteenth century. It came to prominence once the ‘overland’ route from Europe through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea became popular in the 1840s. When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, Bombay became India’s chief port. It rose to become a major trading and financial centre, where raw cotton, opium, silk, ivory and inlay-work were traded.1

Bombay as Lancashire
At the beginning of this century the population of Bombay was about 800,000. During the First World War the British, desperate for supplies, encouraged Indian traders and financiers to set up factories in Bombay. Textiles became the core industry, drawing landless peasants from rural areas. Tens of thousands of workers were employed in textile mills modelled on those of Lancashire – stone structures in extensive compounds, with ornamental arches, stone chimneys and row upon row of weaving-sheds. The mill workers were the leaders of the Indian Labour Movement. They lived in chawls – low-rise single-room tenements.

The British also had a policy of buying up land. The colonial authorities would force owners to sell property for a derisory sum. They would then destroy all buildings, farms and forests, fill up low-lying areas and mark a few roads before selling this ‘developed land’ back to local people at high prices. To round off the scam they would then charge higher taxes for use of this ‘non-agricultural’ area. The people who had originally worked on this land were never adequately compensated for their lost livelihood – they were the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s tribal peoples displaced for dams and power projects.

Mushrooming slums

Mushrooming slums
After Independence on 15 August 1947 the city grew rapidly. From 1954 to 1970 the Government ran a ‘slum clearance’ programme: by 1961, slum settlements housed only 10 per cent of the population. But the rate of migration into the city outstripped the capacity of the authorities to house them, and in the last quarter-century the proportion of people living in slums has grown rapidly.

The population of Bombay is now around 13 million. The high price of land long ago took housing out of reach of the poor and is now not even within the grasp of many sections of the middle class. Today, 55 per cent of Bombay’s people live in shanties, slums and on pavements. A quarter of these are in dilapidated buildings. Collapse of buildings in the Fort area – the old colonial settlement – are frequent, often causing injury or death. Many slum-dwellers, like those of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, live cheek-by-jowl with the rich, presenting as stark a contrast between poverty and wealth as you will get anywhere in the world.

Extremist rule
Today the city is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an extreme Hindu communalist party, and its even more extreme partner the Shiv Sena. It was the work of Hindu extremists which led to the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1993, and the subsequent Hindu/Muslim riots in India, which led to thousands of deaths. The authorities have renamed the city Mumbai, its original Marathi name and this has been generally accepted throughout India.

Hotels, limousines - and the homeless; stark contrasts between rich and poor.

Brave new plague
Mumbai, like many Western cities, is de-industrializing. This is likely to mean a displacement of many of the five or six million traditionally employed in the industrial and self-employed sector. ‘We don’t need to kick anyone out,’ says Larry d’Souza, Secretary of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry. ‘Market forces will automatically do that.’

Market forces, coupled with pollution, congestion and the high price of land. And the imperative to upgrade technology, to dismiss workers, to recruit fresh, unorganized labour has already driven more and more companies further out into the ‘golden corridor’ of the neighbouring state of Gujarat. The consequences of this became clear in 1994, when the boom city of Surat – centre of diamond-polishing – suffered an outbreak of plague.

Garbage and gold
A report in January 1995, prepared with the co-operation of the World Bank, non-governmental organizations and the Government, presented a picture of pollution, inadequate landfills, hazardous industrial wastes, chemical-related disasters and rampant disease. Sewage in the city is not treated before discharge into the Arabian Sea. Two million people have no toilet facilities at all. Stomach and respiratory disorders are common; so too are TB, malaria, filaria and leprosy. Each day, despite the work of thousands of recyclers, Mumbai produces 5,000 tonnes of garbage.

Yet as well as having the highest proportion of slumdwellers, this is also the richest city in India. It provides a third of the tax revenue to the Indian Government. The ruins of the old mill buildings now occupy some of the most valuable real estate in the world.

Recycling rags - the city produces 5,000 tonnes of garbage each day.

The dark heart
Mumbai claims the largest slum in Asia – Dharavi, the dark heart of a wealthy city and home to about 700,000 people. From this barren, treeless place, of ramshackle buildings, shadowless sunlight, without grace or amenity, come some of India’s most beautiful artefacts – silver and gold jari-work (embroidery), jewellery, pottery, cloth and leather goods. Those who make them are paid the merest fraction of the price they fetch in the international market.

The liberalization programme of the national government pursued since 1991 foresees the transformation of the area adjacent to Dharavi – the Bandra-Kurla complex – into another Singapore or Hong Kong. Mumbai’s mythic juxtaposition of rich and poor looks set to continue into the twenty-first century.


1 Gillian Tindall’s City of Gold, The Biography of Bombay (Temple Smith 1982).

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New Internationalist issue 290 magazine cover This article is from the May 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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