Century-old housing in Mumbai succumbs to metro project

Moved on by sprawling transport system, residents of ‘chawl’ reflect on life in tightly-packed but friendly apartments.

Chawls story
Kalpana Gawde and her husband watch TV in their home in Kranti Nagar chawl, before it is demolished to make way for the Mumbai metro. [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

Mumbai, India – When Sarubai Maruti Gawde got married at 15, she left her large home in rural Maharashtra, which had an expansive courtyard, and arrived in Mumbai. She was shocked that her new life would be constrained to a tiny rectangular space.

In her city home, there were apartments on either side of hers, rows of them where families customised their small spaces for every activity.

Over the years, Gawde, who is now 70, got accustomed to the way of living in Kranti Nagar, a squat and tightly packed apartment block, or “chawl”, which dates back more than 100 years.

In February this year, Gawde was made to move out of the space, along with 107 other families who had been living there for several decades.

Sitting on a plot of land measuring 1,233 square metres and comprising three three-storey buildings, Kranti Nagar was demolished after everyone had left to give way to Mumbai Metro in a city-wide redevelopment project. 

Kranti Nagar is part of an old development of houses in Mumbai during the colonial times, accommodating migrant workers and their families. 

Most chawls were constructed on the southern island of Mumbai. Because of the nature of their construction, with long corridors of adjacent houses, a common inner courtyard, and a constant movement of people, chawls enabled an easy transition from rural life to an urban one. 

Lokmanya Tilak, a leader of India’s freedom movement, started the Ganesh festival in a chawl, bringing people together in a nationalistic zeal to fight British imperialism.

A few years ago, research found that young women were unwilling to marry a man who is living in a chawl.

by Amita Bhide, professor

Today, a makeshift stage is erected in the open central space for weddings and other functions at various chawls. 

The traditional tenement buildings have featured in Marathi literature and theatre, and, home to working-class labourers, were the support base of Socialist parties in the 1950s.

“My husband had bought this house for 25,000 rupees. Initially, I found it difficult to talk to my neighbours,” said Gawde. “But when my husband began to sell flowers, people began to come home to buy them from us as offerings to God, and he would also go door-to-door to deliver them. That’s how I began to ease into my life here. All my children were born in this house.”

A week before the demolition, Gawde cooked as her daughter-in-law Kalpana piled clothes into large bundles.

A bed, both to sleep and sit on, was pushed against the wall. Above it, a shelf carved into the wall storing books. 

The space beneath the bed was full, and a TV sat on a shelf at its foot.

The kitchen, a plank made of marble topped with a stove, was just a few inches away from the living area. Pots and pans were hung on the wall above the stove. 

The shower, in a boxed corner of the apartment, doubled up as a sink to wash dishes and clothes. 

Kalpana used a tall stick kept by the door to turn the light switch on. A table fan, also on the wall, began to whir. 

A steep and narrow ladder above the shower led to a mezzanine space, with just enough height to just crawl into a mattress bed. 

For every 15 apartments, there is one toilet; three at the end of each row of homes. 

Chawls story
The 120-year-old Kranti Nagar chawl against the backdrop of multi-storey apartment complexes [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

There is also a common inner courtyard, space for children to play and festivities.

Every year on India’s Republic Day, January 26, the community gathered to raise the flag, sing the national anthem and celebrate with games. 

But this year, the tone was sombre, like a farewell party, with attendees tearfully sharing stories of their times living together. 

“We cried a lot, because we knew that it was the last party together and that all of us would be spread out in different directions. Even if we all get back together in the new houses that are developed for us, it won’t be the same,” said Kalpana, as she packed the family’s belongings, including items her mother-in-law entered with as a young bride.

Environmental consequences

The 108 families at Kranti Nagar chawl are not the only group affected by Mumbai’s eight-line metro. 

Spanning 235km, its construction has seen thousands of trees axed in spite of protests by residents and petitions in the Bombay High Court. 

A car depot across 34 hectares in Aarey Colony, Mumbai’s green belt, meant culling 2,700 trees. 

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), has, on the other hand, defended every step. According to one news report, the Colaba-Seepz Metro-III line alone has uprooted 2,744 people. 

The plot was acquired by MMRCL and residents were promised resettlement. The MMRCL website has a detailed question-and-answer page addressing residents’ concerns.

“We have been told that we will get a flat measuring 405sq feet, which is nearly four times the size of our house now. But that will take three years. They are giving us one year’s rent for temporary accommodation; we don’t know about the rent for the next two years,” said Ramdas, Kalpana’s husband.

He is also expecting an additional 25,000 rupees ($365) to help with moving costs.

Chawls story
Two women, who spent their childhood in Kranti Nagar chawl, do what they enjoy best – watching passersby together [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

The forced uprooting came at a difficult time for the family of five – Sarubai Maruti Gawde, Ramdas, Kalpana and their two children. 

His son was preparing for an exam, and his study was interrupted by the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to his friends as well as the physical upheaval. 

But Ramdas continued to maintain the florist business that he inherited from his father. He carried on buying 15kg of flowers from a wholesale market early in the morning, making garlands until about 2pm, and then heading to the shop to sell them in one of Mumbai’s largest flower markets, in the Dadar neighbourhood.

When Al Jazeera requested a comment from Sanjay Karhade, MMRCL’s spokesman, he directed Al Jazeera to the company’s PR agency. But by the time of publishing, there was no response despite repeated attempts. 

Amita Bhide, professor and dean of the school of habitat studies, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, has been researching housing and related policies in Mumbai for two decades.

She said that the city’s changing landscape related to the population’s changing aspirations, in terms of social mobility.

“A few years ago, research found that young women were unwilling to marry a man who is living in a chawl,” said Bhide, adding that landlords have no incentive to renovate the structures either, since rents are low, because of an amendment to the Rent Control Act of 1999. 

Only a handful of chawls have been maintained as heritage structures. 

In spite of their dense architecture, they are viewed by developers as suboptimal. 

Besides, most Mumbai chawls are in prime locations. 

“This sentiment of developers, combined with an understanding of public infrastructure from the market lens, has led to a new definition of development,” said Bhide.

‘We never realised the idea of privacy when we lived here’

Meeta Bagalkar, 55, spent her childhood in another chawl, but came to live in Kranti Nagar after getting married. 

A few years ago, she and her husband moved out to live in an apartment complex in a northern Mumbai suburb.

Recently, she returned to Kranti Nagar, along with her sister-in-law Ketki Prabhu, who had spent her childhood in the chawl until she moved out following her marriage. 

Together, the two sisters-in-law sorted their belongings, which took them down memory lane. 

“We never realised the idea of privacy when we lived here; it was only when we moved out that we realised that there is such a thing as privacy,” said Bagalkar.

Century-old housing structures to make way for Mumbai's upcoming metro lines
Notices put up by MMRCL detail the metro project and the plan to demolish the Kranti Nagar chawl [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

As crows fought to be heard in the presence of drilling machines nearby, Gawde acknowledged the lack of privacy but reflected on what she would miss the most – a sense of security.

People would wake up at 4:30am to fill water in their large drums and their doors stayed open until midnight. 

The ability to live like “one big family”, she said, also meant that there would be fights, but they would eventually be resolved. 

This type of living, she feared, might be lost, even if they are resettled in the same location, in a new apartment complex.

Century-old housing structures to make way for Mumbai's upcoming metro lines
Scenes from the balcony of Kranti Nagar chawl, which were spaces for people to meet, celebrate festivals together, as well as resolve neighbourly disputes [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera