DISPATCH FROM MUMBAI

Our Digital Citizenship HIGHRISE project  — about the digital lives of highrise residents around the world (see here) is growing more relevant by the day.

This week, on the world stage, the digital is colliding with the vertical in a story that is grabbing front-page headlines in India. HIGHRISE team members, Paramita Nath, and Prof Deborah Cowen, recently headed a research trip on digital citizenship in Mumbai, and here’s a dispatch, with Paramita’s images and Deb’s words.

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MUMBAI — At eleven am on the 11th of November 2013, Mumbai’s municipal government prepared for yet another mass eviction of its citizens. Hundreds of police barricaded the streets, followed by hundreds more from the demolition team. Oversize military-style paddy wagons and massive bulldozers rolled into the area, met by residents and a sea of reporters from all of India’s major news outlets. Residents were arrested, along with a number of politicians who had joined them in their fight.

Already garnering front-page coverage across India for weeks, what made this incident standout from the long string of violent evictions in this city was the social standing of residents. Campa Cola is not a slum settlement but a largely middle class apartment complex in a gentrifying neighbourhood of the city.

A surprising target for demolition, the story of the Campa Cola complex is increasingly common. Recently revealed is the astonishing fact that almost half of all constructions in Mumbai of the last decade are illegal. The exact figure, obtained by activists through India’s recent Right to Information Act (RTI), is staggering. More then 56,300 buildings in Bombay hold this same status, and so could face a similar fate.

RTI is one impressive new technology in the struggle over urban land in a country where corruption is common and authority often arbitrary. But it is not the only new tool – social media has also become a powerful weapon. The youth of Campa Cola led an elaborate campaign on facebook, twitter, and ‘whatsapp’ that catapulted their saga to the center of national public debate. These well connected residents and their tech savvy kids mobilized the support of a wide cross section of Indian society. Through their Facebook page, people from as far away as Dubai, Iran, Australia, the US and the UK also signed their petition and supported their campaign. Official support from all the major political parties followed.

And yet, despite all this, a standoff that lasted for hours started as the dense morning smog lifted from the Worli neighbourhood, and the slow work of taking homes apart eventually began.

If the figures of Mumbai’s illegal buildings are surprising, the story becomes even more staggering in the rapidly spreading suburbs that surround the city. In areas like Mira Road to the north, more then eighty percent of buildings are ‘illegal’ and a whole economy is emerging around the demolition and reconstruction of apartment towers that are often only a few years old. Ironically, these suburbs are increasingly home to people displaced from the city through forced evictions tied to urban renewal schemes, by skyrocketing real estate prices that are now firmly inserted into globalized land markets, and historically – because of the riots. Displaced from the downtown, residents are often then displaced from their new vertical suburban homes, only to find themselves temporarily re-housed in buildings that are also ‘illegal’. Highrise residents have become pawns in an elaborate economy of illegality.

Far from exceptional, Campa Cola’s illegal status has become something of a norm in the new Mumbai. A feature of real estate capital run wild, of staggering rents through international financial speculation, of deepening economic and political polarization, and of deep seated corruption in a city where a powerful ‘builder-authority nexus’ acts as judge, jury and execution in the making of urban space.

Bold proposals from municipal and state authorities and their corporate partners, taking funds and directives from the World Bank, aim for total transformation of the city’s built form and social geography. With lofty visions of transforming ‘Mumbai into Shanghai’, the city’s concept plan proposes massive across-the-board hikes in density to accommodate an imagined population of 44 million by 2052. Increasingly, slum settlements are transformed into vertical spaces through schemes that put highrise ‘slum rehabilitation projects’ in their place, regularizing their legal status. This makes the Campa Cola case even more curious.

The official explanation for the planned demolition of the Campa Cola towers’ illegality is ‘Floor Space Index violation’ (known simply as ‘FSI violation’)– meaning that they exceed the allowed density for the site. The municipality sentenced everything above the fifth floor for destruction. For some of the buildings this would mean demolition of a handful of floors, while other towers will see as many as 12 and 15 stories shaved off the top. All this is underway, ironically, as authorities engineer plans for a newly and intensely vertical urban form.

Residents learned the details of their buildings’ illegal status in 2005 – more then twenty-five years after its construction. They have been living in the complex since that time, making the suddenness of the situation absurd and the timing questionable.

Why this building and why now? Until recently, the municipality was happy to collect taxes and look the other way. But residents point out that things changed when a developer purchased an adjacent lot. This neighboring site, never legally severed from theirs, has no density allowance by virtue of the overdevelopment of Campa Cola. The developer next door stands to gain the density to be recycled through demolition. Inheriting FSI is as good as the gift of gold. The language of ‘land grab’ circulates widely in Bombay these days.

After elaborate protest and legal challenge, the fate of the complex was unclear after the Supreme Court issued a stay delaying decisions for seven months. Renewed eviction notices were recently delivered to the residents with a deadline of May 31 to vacate the premises. The Supreme Court declined a further stay on evictions, but residents have been granted one more chance to make their case before the Supreme Court on June 3rd.

The ironies of ‘illegality’ are bitter. Despite lip service and a proliferation of policy, little is done to shelter Mumbaikers from a string of recent building collapses – most of which have been illegal, or to house the many millions who live on streets and in slums.

Without a doubt, the violence committed against people living in poverty in the struggle over urban space is far more brutal – actual rather then potential – and often lethal. Slum settlements of many thousands have been raized repeatedly without any significant media attention or parallel consideration by the courts – but so too have suburban towers that house a growing share of the city’s population, including large numbers of the new suburban poor. There are no guarantees that the intervention that could come on behalf of the Campa Cola residents would in any way benefit poor people in similar situations without valiant political organizing. Nevertheless, the Campa Cola conflict and the epidemic of ‘illegality’ crafts important precedent for this megalopolis, where the vulgar use of law and land for profit sculpts the future shape of the city.

Deborah Cowen is Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Planning at the University of Toronto. Paramita Nath is an independent documentary filmmaker. They are both part of the HIGHRISE project.


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