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.

Economic Growth and Sustainable Development – Irreconcilable Opposites?

Those wishing to undermine the UK’s climate change mitigation agenda as useless can do so with just one word: China. Or maybe two: China and India. In this article, which first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) I probe the assumption that economic growth and sustainable development have to be at loggerheads and introduce a new initiative called India: Innovation Nation.

Is it immoral to expect emerging economies to commit to curbing their environmental impact, potentially stifling growth and trapping billions in poverty? Or is it immoral not to, given ever-bleaker climate change projections and the state of the world’s natural resources? Moral or otherwise, views on this subject are unhelpfully polarised: some argue that urban growth, airport expansion and coal-fired power stations are non-negotiable in improving the quality of life in the developing world; others insist that our only hope of saving the planet rests with stringent carbon emissions reduction targets for growing giants like India and China. Among the latter camp, applause for the existing carbon intensity targets announced by both countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is muted at best. Meanwhile, a new global climate deal will not be struck until 2015, and the contribution of the developing world is far from finalised.

But do economic growth and safeguarding the environment have to be incompatible? The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit – now in its 13th year – is based on the conviction that they don’t. The flagship event of Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), it provides an international platform for a diverse group of state premiers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to debate critical issues relating to energy and the environment. Regular highlights include a special summit for global CEOs and a Sustainable Development Leadership Award (previous recipients have included Ban Ki-moon and Arnold Schwarzenegger). This year’s events are grouped into sub-themes including “Employment and growth potential of a green economy” and “Choices before the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and a new economic construct”. The latter is framed around the search for a new paradigm of growth with low resource requirement and minimal pollution, and takes its rallying cry from Gandhi: speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

Whatever their value, targets and paradigms can seem offputtingly remote, and practical examples are usually a more inspiring call to action. One new initiative being launched at this year’s summit is dedicated to just that. India: Innovation Nation is a collaboration between TERI and global non-profit Forum for the Future and centres round a special publication celebrating success stories of sustainable innovation in India.

Browsing the publication, it is not difficult to feel enthused by the wealth of examples. Air conditioning, for instance, is responsible for 30-40% of India’s domestic energy consumption, but cooling doesn’t have to be so resource intensive. Technology consultant Infosys’ new Hyderabad campus comprises two identical wings, one with conventional air conditioning, the other with a “radiant cooling” system which draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water. Not only does the wing with radiant cooling consume 38% less energy than its air conditioned neighbour, but its capital spend was fractionally lower and, according to occupant surveys, it is a much more comfortable place to work. Meanwhile, microgrids – local electricity networks powered by renewable sources such as solar and biomass – are springing up over India, providing power cheaply and reliably for the first time to remote communities and casting doubt on the paradigm that fossil-fuels are a pre-requisite for modernizing societies.

India: Innovation Nation tells an inspiring story, but I can’t help wondering how widespread such examples really are across India. Martin Wright, spearheading the initiative from Forum for the Future, stresses its role as a blueprint in demonstrating persuasively that there are practical and profitable alternatives to the dominant model of high-carbon, resource intensive growth. He argues that India is an intrinsically innovative culture and has pedigree in spreading new technologies and ideas. Mobile phones are a classic case, with many remote Indian villages now supporting better networks than parts of rural England! Moreover, so much of what we would label “green living” in the West – recycling, low energy consumption and low car ownership – is commonplace in India, a country well-versed in the art of jugaad, variously translatable as “muddling through”, “quick-fix” or the rather more respectable “frugal innovation”. Unfortunately, the trend among the mushrooming middle class is to move away from this low-impact lifestyle towards more conspicuous patterns of consumption. Part of India’s challenge will be to make sustainable living desirable while putting measures in place to reduce the damage that inevitable new waves of consumerism will cause.

Targets, paradigms, blueprints and a deeply-ingrained flair for jugaad – all of these will be necessary if India is going to embrace a new model of economic growth that doesn’t help destroy the planet. Endeavours like the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and India: Innovation Nation aren’t the whole solution – especially when we broaden the debate to China, Brazil and other emerging economies – but they provide a vital shred hope that such a model is possible.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was held between January 31st and February 2nd 2013 at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi. For more information about Forum for the Future’s work in India, visit: www.forumforthefuture.org/india and www.greenfutures.org.uk/innovationnation