A ROOF SOMEWHERE

THE DESIRE AND STRUGGLE FOR A HOME IN MUMBAI

The first question to trouble your mind when you arrive in a new city – for a short visit or a long halt – is usually “But where can I stay?” This is more true of Mumbai than any other metropolis in India. For Mumbai is the second-most densely populated urban area in the world – its density is estimatedly 30,900 people per square kilometre.

Housing has always been hard to find in Bombay/Bambai/Mumbai. The struggle to make a life and find a roof over your head here has best been epitomised by various songs in Hindi cinema, whose permanent home has been Mumbai.

In the late 1950’s, poet Sahir Ludhianvi eloquently captured the plight of the city’s disenfranchised (even as he mocked Allama Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha’) in these lines: ‘Rahane ko Ghar Nahi hai, Sara Jahan Hamara/ Kholi bhi Chhin gayi hain, Bench Bhi Chhin gayi hain/ Sadko pe ghumate hain, ab karavaan hamara/ Jitani bhi buildinge theen, Sethon ne baanth li hain/ Footpath Bambai ke hain Aashiyaan Hamara (We have no house to stay in, but the whole world is ours/ Our room has been seized, so has our bench/ Now we roam on the streets/ Existing buildings have been taken over by the wealthy/The footpaths of Bombay are our perfect home)’ [Phir Subah Hogi,1958]

In the 1970s, lyricist Gulzar brought to life the same dilemmas when a lower middle-class couple go house hunting in the city. As they roam construction sites, the protagonists sing: ‘Do diwaane shahar me, raat mein yaa dopahar mein/Abudana dhoondhate hain, ek ashiana dhoondhate hain/ In bhoolbhoolaiyaan galiyon mein, apna bhi koi ek ghar hoga/Ambar pe khulegee khidki, ya khidki pe khula ambar hoga (Two silly souls about town, come night or afternoon/Look for a place to call their own, to find an abode for themselves/ In this maze of streets, we too will one day have a house/Will the window open to the sky? Or the sky stare in from the window?)’[Gharonda, 1977]

We want the labour of the poor – for whose hands will build and maintain this metropolis, if not theirs – but we want to deny them the legality of a house of their own.

From the time it was a clump of islands, Mumbai has always kept its doors open to everyone. Even though in recent times, this has caused discontent in some quarters, most Mumbaikars agree that the migrant is Mumbai’s leitmotif and its greatest strength. Unfortunately, not all who come to this city are easily favoured with a roof over their heads and to even acquire a 350-sq.feet legal apartment in the city is an immense struggle. Some in this city spend their lives in its pursuit. Others feel forced to make do with whatever they get.

This may not be easily apparent to a newcomer for if you do a quick google search of ‘Housing in Mumbai’, you will be inundated with listings of all the top housing companies. Their glossy images of luxurious apartment complexes with promised world-class amenities including swimming pools, club houses, gymnasiums and even elevators for your cars might lull you into believing that the house of your dreams is just a home loan away. A hefty home loan away! Yet, more than half of Mumbai’s population lives in the slums, occupying less than 10 per cent of the city’s land. Still others remain homeless, forced to make the streets their home and obliged to move around due to the monsoons or the police.

Slums are often perceived by those who don’t live there as illegal ‘encroachments’ on legitimate government/private lands. In this regard, the larger context of the city rescinding on its responsibility to provide its poorest housing is often ignored. We want the labour of the poor – for whose hands will build and maintain this metropolis, if not theirs – but we want to deny them the legality of a house of their own. In any case, the biggest slums in the city have been built on waste land and swamp land which was filled in and built upon by the poor using their meagre resources. In addition, one must point out that there is enough documented evidence to show the usurping of public/government land by private builders for private profit. But we don’t call that ‘encroachment’, we call that development.

Middle-class gated communities close their doors to anyone and everyone who is not quite like them. They discriminate on the basis of gender, profession, religion, caste, marriage status and even food habits (veg or non-veg housing societies, anyone?).

Increasingly, slums are being demolished under the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) to accommodate the growing need (and greed) of builders. Though SRA promises to settle everyone down in an apartment with an attached toilet, by situating them far away from the places they currently occupy, it often ends up disrupting the livelihood and community of a poor person. Besides, the inferior quality of construction of the new slum redevelopment apartment blocks and their dodgy maintenance don’t make housing under SRA a particularly preferred dream.

Middle-class gated communities close their doors to anyone and everyone who is not quite like them. They discriminate on the basis of gender, profession, religion, caste, marriage status and even food habits (veg or non-veg housing societies, anyone?). If the people looking for a home are not like them, they don’t seem to deserve a home at all. It’s not as if the middle-class Mumbai citizen has it easy either and doesn’t struggle to acquire his/her own house. As real estate gets priced according to what the richest in the city have, an average urban middle-class professional earning something upwards of Rs 60k a month cannot possibly afford to own a house – unless she/he save for years on end to make the down-payment (and be eligible for a loan) on the home of their dreams.

This issue of Footnotes, presented as a blog, brings to you the stories of these struggles for home in Mumbai. Apart from enumerating the problems faced, these stories will tell you that in spite of all the odds, people survive, thrive and build homes in this city, attempting in some way or the other to recreate their own perfect Ashiana’s.

— The Footnotes Team 2015-16

Cover photo by Vishal Langthasa.

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