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Mumbai's Splintering Urbanism: Poor and Rich Division from the socio-spatial Perspective


Mumbai–previously known as Bombay 1995– a city that comprises past culture with future possibilities. As one of the most famous cities in India, its main lines lay in the differences that made the recent image of Mumbai. Mumbai is differentiated by the way it can be framed by more than one cultural notion or definition. Besides, what makes Mumbai hard to read, is that the person thinks of the ideas related to his perspective, resulting in generating a definition of cultural and natural attributes and different intentions related to the city.

Moreover, Mumbai is distinguished by the existence of sharp dualities such as poor and rich parties, the existence of West cities beside traditional cities, and the existence of temporary materials besides reinforced concrete with steel. Mumbai has more than one type of dualities; the poor and the rich, the past that conjoins India and Britain, and even about the residents, they are divided into two categories: the first that tries to move out of Mumbai, and the second that insists on not leaving even in tough situations. Suketu Mehta– an author born in India– wrote that “in Mumbai, the first world lives beside the third with few clashes sometimes.”10

When moving back to the beginning of the formation of Mumbai – when it was seven islands–, it was intended to be created for trade as a link between India and Britain and not as a large town. It had grown as an enterprise which led to the shortcomings of not having a well-studied master plan of the city. On the other hand, that led to accepting several opinions which helped in deeming further contemporary ideas. In a general view, Mumbai had by 1950 a colonial urban diagram. After 1960, the most noticeable changing factor was the vast migration from the hinterlands to the city, and that changes Mumbai's physical and social characteristics as the two social groups – the migrants and the indigenous habitants– settled down together which led to the start creating the concept of the dichotomy.

In a socio-spatial manner, mentioning previous initiatives and interventions helps in absorbing disparate parts of the built environment and makes it resilient for future possibilities. Regarding segregation, Mumbai has a place that resembles this dichotomy which is the Bazar in the Victorian arcades in the historic city center. It combines the strict Victorian core and the randomness of the second sector. Mumbai’s long history had several events that affected and deepened this segregation along with other factors. The research of all the several factors needs more than this paper to grasp all the details of the whole image of Mumbai. Thus, it discusses one of the attributes that Had a vital impact on this dichotomy which is the socio-spatial part i.e., to study the interaction between the built environment and the society.

Exploring poor and rich groups along with their ambient circumstances, does not mean that it expresses only the economic part. For example, there are dualities of static and kinetic, organized and random growth, initiatives by the government or by private sectors, between the pukka and the kutcha cities, and so on. Studying dualities reflections in a comprehensible image helps to grasp the complexity of segregation and its branches. Moreover, seeing how all aspects are linked together helps in figuring out its position and not thinking of the weakest part – which is the poor one– as it is the only source of the effect, notice the economic value that comes from Dharavi as an example. Thus, an inclusive and clear image is needed.

At first, in the situation of understanding the dichotomy, it is vital to study the main events that occurred in the past and contributed to strengthening the division – the physical and non-physical ones –, even if they were small moves. Besides, studying the initiatives and projects that aimed to change the current situation is also important in knowing previous attempts that are part now of the present and the future of Mumbai and cannot be apart from it.

Paramount Events

Changing factors overlap, for example, economic factor has a direct impact on the social and spatial factors as it is recognized throughout history. Events that changed Mumbai are divided into small and big ones –in the effect they had done– and it is important to place each event in the right position since that way the whole frame could be understood.

The main impacts on the social and spatial attributes were:

1) The inception of going deep into the concept of industry.

2) Trade and capitalism.

3) The unprecedented migration from the hinterlands led to a huge impact on social development.

4) The construction of the railways.

In a large-scale manner, regarding past transformations and developments, it is obvious that repetitive events occurred. Thus, the city's transformation occurred due to two main factors; tremendous repetitive events, and small contributions that led to strong impacts.

+ Textile mills boom in the mid-19th century Before 1800, the efforts were focused on making Mumbai – Bombay at that time – a trade center by the British impacts more of what was made by the speculators sent by East India. In 1857, the first spinning and weaving mill was established. By 1860, Mumbai became the largest market to manufacture cotton in India. The first cotton investments were, mostly, Indians whose families possessed those mills. After the American Civil War, the supplies of cotton stopped to Britain which led to a huge increase in cotton demand in Mumbai. Yet, after the war had finished, cotton prices decreased dramatically but were still –because of the hinterlands– opened which made Mumbai a strong center for cotton supply. Moreover, by 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, and that facilitated being opened to the world and contributed to its prosperity.

Relating to social and spatial attributes, Mumbai witnessed an increase in the number of the population with randomness and unsanitary conditions in widespread areas. The workers left their families in the villages and came to the city to work and settled down in hostels named ‘chawls’.Eventually, these chawls developed into settlements where whole families lived there in single rooms. This inflation led to increasing diseases such as Plague by 1896, besides other problems like low wages that were unsatisfactory and poor infrastructure.

As a result of that, the cotton boom impact led to making slums formation easier. These slums had their own mutual culture, traditions, and stories. By this time, some of the remnants of the mills had turned into buildings, and the others were ruins. It remained to remind us of the massive impact they had on the social and the physical environment. By the 20th century, this culture ended, and it occupied about 100 years of Mumbai’s history.

Through the last 30 years, the lands –where those mills were occupied– have been reclaimed and developed like; the Palais Royale which was built on the remnants of the Shree Ram Mills in Worli, and the plush Kamala City Business Park in Lower Parel that was the Kamala Mills. However, they were not given the same consideration. +1900–1930 Due to previous problems, the City Improvement Trust was established to help to provide lands and settlements for the artisans' sector. By 1900, the city became one of the cities in India that has segregation with the absence of one unified masterplan. The city grew dramatically, but this time in a different way; the rich sector became richer with projects they have done and when they moved to the suburbs of the city, the richness moved as well. Simultaneously, with the beginning of constructing an efficient transportation system. Due to the city’s expansion, it was required to develop a new transportation system.1901 was the year when the first Indian habitant had his car, simultaneously, with the electrification of the railways. After the developments of the city, the railways became part of its fabric and it continued to establish more projects, but this time in a small-scale manner like private buildings. Moreover, people were concentrated in the old fort area, thus, Mumbai witnessed the first clear physical segregation between the two groups. The segregation went too deep, and it did not overlap, as each group has its culture i.e., the segregation between the pukka and the kutcha city has stretched. +Post-1930 By 1930, the business class stratum was interested in helping the poor and middle strata. Thus, the migration grew towards the suburbs and Greater Mumbai, which led to high pressure on the island. The infrastructure layer had hidden the dichotomy underneath by offering electric train systems and extensions from adjacent lakes which led to forming the great area and became, apparently, one place. The result of that was a lack of a clear image due to the sprawl towards main transportation lines forming an ambiguous picture.

What is clear by then, organized and random planning were working side by side, but it is still varied from the British impact as it forms a trade center for the whole nation. The middle area which passes by the east-west access forms the city center and heightens the division between the two areas by its empty access. This area only grew because of commercial use since the government was not able to manage the city’s growth. Also, the reclamations at the back bay decreased with a clear lack of interest in urban design.

By that time, there were no clear successful projects or contributions aimed to imagine the space and plan it as one coherent unit that embraces the social and cultural sides of both groups. Thus, the city developed with an ambiguous capitalist relationship and it was complicated to be interpreted architecture since it lacked the authentic meaning that was built for. After 1930, the growth was concentrated on a small scale, on the planning, thus, buildings in Art Deco style were built along the Marine Drive.

By 1940, Mumbai witnessed a change in the demographic structure of the lands. The rich people decided to move from the new fort area to the western edge of the island. The upper-middle stratum which had a good quality of life–it has the money and the investments– moved to the suburbs, since it was cheaper with improvements in living conditions, in contrary to what the situation was in the city center. The city center by that time had many problems. Many people indeed moved from it, but on the other hand, the migration continued which led to an increase in the prices of the lands and the settlements.

After two years, an organizing system was imposed for land renting, but it was not feasible for landowners, and that caused problems in maintaining those lands as well. The new settlements offered to the workers were unsatisfactory and living conditions were bad as well. That led to obstructing the development of the city center. Landowners and constructors cooperated to offer settlements for the middle and poor strata after the migration of the rich inhabitants and they transformed it into a multi-house like chawls. The problem has not finished by then, chawls inhabitants increased because of the migration of the workers’ relatives and other inhabitants.

Due to the previous efforts concentrated on the commercial side, the interest in improving at this scale increased and continued after 1950. However, the desire to restructure the city on a large scale decreased. Mumbai stayed – till now – in some parameters a prosperous city because of advanced technology and infrastructure improvements such as highways, bridges, and the inception of constructing a new public transit system, although, without finding solutions for problems like widespread poverty and environmental pollution. +A Cleardichotomy It is important to shed light on how these communities interact with space and with each other. They work both as an affected and a modifier in the space. The huge migration makes it too complex to have one clear image due to the large number of inhabitants that changes the city rapidly.

Segregation finds itself in many attributes, not just the economic one. Every group has its characteristics, culture, and background. Sometimes they face conflicts together. Although they share the same stores and used techniques, they differ in the manifestation of the physical borders. These borders become intensified when the rich part becomes richer and the poor, poorer. Mentioning widespread poor areas, it is remarkable its continued encroachment and random movement. People there build their small huts along with the coast near Cuffe Parade and they believe that it is their property and legal decision to build there. Rajesh Dhanu–one of those inhabitants– said: “We have built our settlements here for generations and cannot be expected to stop because high-rises need to be built. 8“These settlements were exposed to repetitive demolitions but continued to rebuild every time. The government offered to demolish their previous settlements and to build instead small new apartments for most inhabitants, but people refused because they believe that it might threaten their jobs. As mentioned before, one of the reasons behind the existence of slums was the mills. One of the most famous slums is Dharavi with an area of 2 sq. km. It has 1.5 million inhabitants 10. Some of them have work in the city center with highly-priced lands. Houses there consist of one to two-storey and part of them are working in leather tanning, pottery, and recycling.

Dharavi is a big financial source for India, it contributes around 1 billion dollars each year10. However, the slums have many problems that many agencies pointed out such as: 1) The lack of safety 2) Scanty bathrooms for every 200 people –sharing the same one–. 3) Electricity and sanitary problems. 4) Floods and problems of old lines that are no longer intact.

And the problems get worse in winter as they become a mess because of the rain. The rich part, as well, has its problems, they suffer from congestion because of the huge number of cars without enough space, thus, these cars stand on both sides of the street.

What is meant to recite these details because of the strong effect of the economic factor on the social image of both groups? The pukka city versus the kutcha city, the temporal materials versus the lasting ones. It is easy, for example, to build every time your house, if it is from temporary materials, thus, people that possess these huts can build them every time the government decides to demolish them.

+Preceding efforts

After recounting problems, studying what varied agencies – small and big ones –have done throughout the history of Mumbai is vital to think about how it could be improved. One of the main lines is figuring out the intentions and implementations behind projects made by these institutions.

By 1888, new building laws were regulated by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Simultaneously, the Improvement Trust was concerned with the urban planning of the city and the developments of its parts such as studying the streets and settlements in poverty areas that lacked good life conditions –the chawls in North Mumbai–. In general, the mainframe of this institution was helping both poor and rich groups with varied tackling as well as trying to make a balance by organizing projects. Both institutions had concerned with hygiene and a good sanitary system that grew with the city expansion. Regarding having one clear image, before 1900, the government tried to unify the image of the city using urban technologies by showing interest in the buildings and infrastructure which is in opposition to the random growth of the fort area.

In the period between 1850-1900, there was a great opportunity to enhance the city's image because of the abundance of money and urban technologies. It was intended to ask social engineers to work with agencies to help to fill the gap between the two groups and make each group do what is possible for the city’s prosperity. By 1907, besides the Improvement Trust help, the government also contributed efficiently but it was concerned with helping out only the poor stratum which was on the west edge of the shore. For example, the Marine Drive project was established on the west edge of South Mumbai. This project was a fantastic promenade that contributed to merging bay edges into one. It had a big impact not just on the internal and physical sides of the city, but also gave Mumbai a new international image. However, settlement problems had not finished by then, it was intended to create a middle stratum when the rich people moved from the city center. Moreover, decision-makers did not find the need to allocate new areas for poor people because they were living beside their workplaces near factories. After 1930, there were no projects and clear contributions aimed to have one image and an inclusive masterplan that takes into consideration the cultural and social aspects with differences between each social group. Thus, the capitalist image grew with unclear and ambiguous relationships and it lacked authentic meaning and became abstract.

The government did not find efficient solutions due to the lack of resources and population pressure. The suggested projects were, unfortunately, concentrated on intensifying the dichotomy dramatically. One of the suggestions aimed to force the poor group to move to the suburbs. It was not just inhumane but unfeasible too, because it separates the workers from their workplaces, and it lacked the coherence of the city.

Later, a group of people and environmentalists established initiatives aimed to engage the government with the process of enhancements, but it was ineffective and concentrated on individual efforts rather than the collective.


Crucial points related to previous contributions:

1) In some cases, small initiatives and groups of people can carry a stronger impact than those arranged by huge institutions and could be on a large scale. However, still, a problem is that those large institutions do not give what is anticipated, and they do not interevent too much in the city’s problems.

2) Another important point is that these initiatives tend to restrict their efforts to a few categories rather than having most groups’ opinions. The most important step toward successful planning is to have all varied ideas and cultures on one table. It is needed to have more people from the public, professionalists, and decision-makers from different positions and to use " socialization " as one of the urban planning instruments. Therefore, that will help reduce inequality and make society more aware of it.

3) Unfortunately, decision-makers and planners, and some interested groups tend to maintain and conserve what is existed already. Thus, it has not seen any change related to the splintering, but it gets deeper each time. Also, to conserve a part of the city means that, it may be converted into another function without any destruction; functions that both social groups can use, however, that applies only to some places in the city. One important step is to change some plans and obviously, wrong parts, to destruct and rebuild some buildings, bridges, and streets. That does not mean rebuilding the whole city, but working on the relationship between all parts that form the whole city i.e., restructuring what is there. And that makes us able to differentiate between what is better to conserve or destruct, and to be aware of context-sensitive developments.

The existence of both groups is not a problem if we rethink what is better for each group. The city needs static and kinetic, it needs assorted buildings and cultures, and it is not meant to be with a narrow vista and rigid formularization. It is vital to concentrate on two parallel lines at the same time, this means, to pour the efforts towards planning on a large scale and individual one simultaneously.

Treating the future as what was dealt with –to not change any part–, problems like migration will not be solved and the gap between the two groups will increase. The city has many treasures that are not invested yet and needed to not be buried forever.




Student- The University of Jordan. An architect finds architecture a wide field that is linked to many others. Gained experience through traveling and participating in many activities such as internships,

competitions, and workshops around the world, yet still, strives to see lots more!


Professor, Manipal School of Architecture and Planning, Manipal, India.


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