Main Feature | Sep-Oct 2018

TWO PLACES, ONE SPACE
Vernacular architecture and urbanisation in India

by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava

Bhandup in Mumbai is a dense home-grown settlement, notified as a ‘slum area’ by the municipal corporation
 

HOMEGROWN NEIGHBOURHOODS

The Kule family lives in a small brick house on a hillside in the suburbs of Mumbai. They are part of a
majority of Mumbaikars who reside in settlements officially designated as ‘slum areas’. The Kules belong to a
farmers’ caste from the Konkan, a region that stretches for hundreds of kilometres from Mumbai to Mangalore
along the Arabian Sea. Parshuram Kule, the patriarch, came to Mumbai over 50 years ago to finish his primary
education, leaving behind his ancestral village near Chiplun 250 kilometres away. He never lost touch with the
village and made sure his children also developed strong bonds. With savings from Mumbai, the Kule family
purchased farmland, which they cultivate. They also opened a shop on the roadside, and built two houses where
Parshuram now resides with two of his four children.

When Parshuram first arrived in Mumbai, he stayed with relatives and only moved out when he secured a
job as a mechanic in a factory. As soon as he could afford it, he bought a plot of land from a farmer near his
factory, in the neighbourhood of Bhandup, in the northeast of Mumbai. He and other natives from his region
were among the first settlers on what was then a forested hill. They used skills acquired in the village to build
small mud and straw huts. They levelled the ground and built wells and pathways. When Parshuram first moved
in, the area looked very much like the region he came from—a jungle dense with wildlife, including snakes,
monkeys and panthers. Today, it is a highly populated suburb in the sprawling metropolis.


Parshuram’s small house was rebuilt once in the 1980s and then again in the 2000s. It is now a G+1 brick
and cement structure measuring 15 feet by 20 feet that opens to a courtyard, with a well and a cage to keep
chickens and ducks. Since it was built on a slope, he made sure that the foundations were strong. Parshuram
became well-known in his neighbourhood for his ability to make monsoon-resistant structures. The furious
Mumbai rains could wash away houses built on shaky ground. He remembers how a particular resident, who
declined to follow his step-layered style of construction, had his house destroyed twice over.

The Mumbai house is now occupied by Parshuram’s son and daughter-in-law, along with their son, his wife
and their young daughter. Parshuram has built a grand house near his native village where he now lives with
his other son and one of his three daughters—both of whom were born in Mumbai but chose to move to their
ancestral village. The relatives in Mumbai manage the daily operations of a spice business that Parshuram
started with his son. Both sides travel regularly between the city and the village, and maintain strong familial
and business bonds.



A well and patio in front of the Kule family’s house in Bhandup; what looks like a ‘slum’ from outside is a village-like neighbourhood on the inside

In many ways, Bhandup embodies the rural origins of its inhabitants. However, the neighbourhood, like other
such home-grown settlements in Mumbai, is also intensely urban. It is densely built with bricks, concrete and
steel. Residents are actively involved in city and national politics. They have a strong voice in municipal elections
as they often vote along communitarian lines. At the same time, the demographics of Bhandup reflect the
cosmopolitanism of Mumbai. Marathi is spoken in its streets with various regional accents. One can also get by
with Konkani, Hindi, English and other regional languages. The kind of educational and professional opportunities
that Mumbai provides is unmatchable in the village. Many people have government jobs, run small businesses
or are employed in large corporations. Most families have reached middle-class status in income and education
levels. Electricity rarely goes off nowadays and most homes have running water and access to toilets.


Eligibility for a rehab unit is not guaranteed to all slum dwellers. And even those who are eligible may
not want to live in a tiny flat (about 300 square feet) from which they cannot run a business. The threat
of redevelopment, which is always looming over Bhandup and other such settlements, helps explain why
most families keep investing their savings in ancestral villages hundreds of kilometres away. However, while
many migrants and their descendants project their future in the village, especially as it keeps improving and
developing, they also want to keep one foot in the city.


CIRCULATORY URBANISM

Third or fourth-generation migrants value the contact with nature and village life, but they also want urban
comfort and opportunities: brick houses with modern kitchens and ‘western’ toilets. Paradoxically, the urban
lifestyle to which they aspire to may be out of reach in the city, where they must live in crowded neighbourhoods
that are redlined by municipal services. It is in the village that they can build the modern urban house of their
dream, which they cannot afford to in the city. Konkan villages receive massive financial flows from the city—
not only Mumbai but also other Indian cities and from abroad, especially from the United Arab Emirates where
millions of Indians are employed. Money is invested in land and homes primarily, but also in water systems,
temples and schools. Sometimes, it is used to help deserving children pursue their studies away from the
village. Many also invest in farming tools, vehicles, or help their relatives start a business.

Circular migrants are perhaps today the first actors of urbanisation of India. User-driven development has
been somewhat recognised as an important phenomenon in cities. Home-grown settlements around Bhandup
are the first sight the city offers to visitors who land in Mumbai. Other such neighbourhoods—Dharavi in
particular—have been featured in movies, documentaries and books. They are usually portrayed in a dystopian
way as the city’s failure to modernise. Little attention has been given to their economies, in particular to the way
artisanship and the local construction sector contribute to improve the neighbourhood from within. Their role in
maintaining village cultures in the heart of the city is hardly even acknowledged. Likewise, user-generated forms
of urbanisation have been completely unaccounted for in Indian villages, because they are small, scattered all
over the country and out of the public purview.

The story of the Kule family is the story of hundreds of millions of migrants who have settled in towns and
cities while maintaining active ties with their villages hundreds of kilometres away. It is the untold story of a
user-generated urbanisation that eludes statistics. Officially, India, which is still about 70 per cent rural, lags
far behind China as far as urbanisation rates are concerned. This preoccupies the government, which endorses
the orthodox view that it is only by increasing the statistically urban that the country can achieve first-world
standards. The mantra of development through urbanisation, however, rests upon assumptions that are
challenged by a new generation of researchers.

 


The Kule family on its way from Mumbai to their village near Chiplun in Konkan, 250 kilometres away
 

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