Urban Upliftment: Big Changes Ahead for Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar

This piece was written in April for the Huffington Post India. As they have not (yet?) published it I am posting it here instead (strictly in keeping with HP’s guidelines). Since I wrote the below, the SBUP has been selected by the Government of India as one of the county’s best “Smart City” projects.

I am naturally drawn to cities. Especially ones with crowded, chaotic quarters where labyrinthine alleys squeeze between crumbling old buildings. Bhendi Bazaar, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, fits the bill perfectly. Its streets teem with life. While men in prayer caps hurry past stalls piled with mangoes, washing billows overhead from antique balconies. Add an edgy reputation and a characteristically Indian sense of theatre and the place becomes irresistible.

When I first came across plans to redevelop the area I was horrified. The newspaper article I read gave the impression that everything would be razed to the ground and replaced with a mall. “This is outrageous” I fumed. “They’re going to rip the heart and soul out of the place and turn it into a mini-Dubai!”

A little awareness of the area’s history might have given me pause for thought. An integral part of the East India Company’s construction plan for the city, Bhendi Bazaar drew in migrants from all over India during the 19th century. Gradually the neighbourhood filled up with families, predominantly from the Memon and Bohra Muslim communities, crammed into rooms built for single migrant workers. Even today, common toilets are the norm.

A unique culture has grown out of these congested streets. Mutton Street (or “Chor Bazaar”) is famous for its antique shops while, elsewhere, cheap eateries, textiles, perfumes and religious items can be found. There is even Bhendi Bazaar gharana (musical tradition). Meanwhile, the Raudat Tahera, a mausoleum for the 51st and 52nd Bohra spiritual leaders, became India’s first structure in the Fatimid style, an architectural oeuvre more commonly encountered in Cairo.

Of course, a casual visitor like me can revel in all this, happily unaware that 80% of Bhendi Bazaar’s buildings have been declared unfit by MHADA, the state housing authority. What appear to my eyes as charming old buildings are actually death traps for those living in them. And those endearingly chaotic streets? Claustrophobic health hazards that parents are too frightened to let their children play in.

So disheartened was the late Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, previous spiritual leader of the Bohra community, by these living conditions that he dreamed up one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in Asia today: the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project (SBUP). The name is carefully chosen. “Upliftment” suggests a much broader scope than simple redevelopment. What it aims to deliver is no less than comprehensive physical, social and spiritual renewal.

Despite all this, my natural scepticism is running high when I meet Murtaza Sadriwala, Corporate Communications Manager of the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT). He has kindly agreed to talk me through the project and we meet in Mufaddal Shopping Arcade that will temporarily house Bhendi Bazaar’s displaced businesses. He delivers a polished and informative pitch and it is hard not be swept up his enthusiasm.

The scale of the project is grandiose. 20,000 people will be shifted from 3,200 homes and 1,250 businesses, and temporarily rehoused while demolition and rebuilding takes place. All residents, whether tenants or owners, will be given ownership of the new apartments. These will all exceed minimum space standards and will be provided with two bathrooms.

Even the temporary accommodation which, unusually, is within walking distance rather than in some far-flung suburb, is similarly high-spec. Meanwhile, shopkeepers’ requests for street-facing premises have been factored into the master plan, and a mall layout will be avoided. Indeed, the plans, comprising graceful towers and arcades set among wide roads and plentiful green spaces, are nothing short of transformative.

As Murtaza’s spiel gathers momentum I find myself waiting for a catch that never seems to come. What about community tensions, I wonder? Surely the project is just a giant bonus for the Bohra community while everybody else looks on with envy? This concern has often been aired by sections of the media, but the SBUT line is clear: the project is intended to benefit all tenants, regardless of religious or community background.

What about the environment, then? Can a development of this scale be delivered sustainably? A close look at the site’s layout reveals a focus on maximising natural light, managing the flow of traffic and providing safe, shaded walkways. This holistic approach is complemented at the building level with a mix of solar panels, rainwater harvesting technology and energy efficient air-to-water heat pumps. A pre-construction “Gold” rating from the Indian Green Buildings Council endorses the development’s predicted performance as outstanding, if not quite in the “Platinum” league achieved by the nearby ITC Grand Central hotel.

I finally pluck up the courage to ask about funding. I am told that the trust is currently drawing on loans and charitable donations from the wider Bohra community. Additional revenue will come sales, as twenty per cent of the land has been allocated to residential towers that will be sold at market rates. Murtaza dismisses my suggestion that any tension will arise between long-standing community members who get their new homes for free and those presumably wealthy outsiders paying for a slice of Mumbai’s juiciest real estate. I want to believe him, so decide to wait and see what happens.

A few days after the meeting I take a nostalgic walk round Bhendi Bazaar, conscious that it might be the last time I see it in its current state. A chunk has already been demolished and the sublime Raudat Tahera mausoleum is currently hidden under a protective white sheet. A few stallholders tell me they would be leaving the area as there would be no place for them following upliftment. Otherwise, shopkeepers I speak to seem upbeat about the impending changes despite some media scaremongering.

My only lingering concern is a thoroughly selfish one. Having visited Bhendi Bazaar many times over the years, I cannot quite shake off that initial horror of change. Will it really be possible to retain the essence of a place when it is going to be so utterly transformed? I suspect the answer is “not entirely”, and fear the wider implications this will have if the SBUP model catches on. Realistically, though, a city’s soul is probably better served by ensuring its material well-being than by letting it rot in unsanitary neglect. If I remain unapologetic in mourning the old, at least my eyes are now wide open to the need for the new.

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