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With state govt’s redevelopment plans for Mumbai’s BDD chawls, is it time to let go of a familiar way of life?

With the Maharashtra government’s redevelopment plan for the century-old BDD chawls in central Mumbai, the city might soon lose a way of life forever.

Written by Srinath Rao |
Updated: May 28, 2017 12:42:11 pm
BDD chawl Worli Life in a metro: Hemmed in by highrises, the century-old BDD chawl in Worli is home to nearly 16,000 residents. (Source: Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Among his string of girlfriends, Akshay Jadhav is pained to admit that not one of them lives, like him, in Worli’s Bombay Development Directorate (BDD) chawl. “Whenever I ask a girl from here out, she asks for my building number. When I tell her, she knows my caste and goes away,” he says with a sigh.
The BDD chawls in central Mumbai are a tough place to find a date, and when everyone knows everyone, romance is a casualty.

But the smile never leaves the 22-year-old’s face. He knows that he’s born into a “lafde waali jagah”, and that it’s bound to have some consequences. “Outside of here, no girl asks where I live. It is like this only in the chawls. I wonder when that is going to change.”

In seven years’ time, Jadhav could find himself out of the chawls, going by Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s announcement last month to redevelop the century-old BDD chawls.

At present, Jadhav’s concerns lie in becoming the next athlete to break out of BDD. He has distinguished himself already by choosing to excel in baseball — a sport that hasn’t yet moved from movie screens to playgrounds in India — in a neighbourhood known better for producing athletes who have represented the country in football, hockey, cricket and kabbadi.

At the moment, there is no hurry to go anywhere. On a Wednesday afternoon, Jadhav is seated comfortably on a motorbike that probably belongs to neighbours who live in the 20 or so chawls populated predominantly by Neo-Buddhists. It is Buddha Purnima and this is as festive as its gets in this corner of the chawls. Each chawl, built facing the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar playground, is covered in lights, with large framed pictures of Ambedkar placed at the entrance.

Even as his friends scurry about in preparation for the evening’s celebration, Jadhav makes no effort to join in. Had he had his way, Jadhav would have been capturing all of this with a camera. Instead, at the first mention of his intention to make a short film on chawl life, his idea was shot down. “I want to show everything that happens in a chawl from morning to night. You would think that it would be easy for me to do since I live here. But if you try to do something good here, people just drag you down,” he says, the smile fading a little.

BDD’s 207 buildings, spread across 93 acres in Naigaon, Sewri, Lower Parel and Worli, are not typical in structure of the chawls featured in books and films. For starters, there’s no balcony or central courtyard. “In terms of architecture, it is completely different from other chawls. BDD resembles barracks and it felt suffocating the first time I went there,” says photojournalist Atul Loke, who grew up in a chawl in Naigaon, close to BDD. Built during the 1920s by the British government to accommodate labour migrating from Maharashtra’s villages to work in the city’s textile mills, each chawl is a monolith placed evenly apart from the other. Over the decades, the chawls transformed from dormitories packed with men to three generations of families crammed inside each room. As migrant labour recreated entire villages away from home and sought safety in numbers, the chawls came to be segregated first into different religions, and then, caste blocks. It meant that Muslims and Christians continue till day, to form only a tiny fraction of the chawls’ population.

Jambori Maidan Worli Still moving life: A cricket match in progress at Jambori Maidan in Worli. (Source: Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Fashioned out of solid stone, most buildings are now painted only in the front, while the other walls are a dull grey streaked black with leaking water and plants shooting off the top. In spite of the age, complaints of disrepair are few. At Rs 19 a month, the rent that residents pay to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (and previously to the Public Works Department) is quite unimaginable for central Mumbai. But, that is the extent of the government’s role in the residents’ lives, apart from the PWD cleaner who visits once a week to spray water around spit-soaked common toilets.

As though aware that a 160 sq ft home — an area smaller than a living room in an average two bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment — could never contain the families staying there, the builders ensured that space abounds everywhere in BDD, except indoors. Its 80 rooms on three floors are separated by a constricted passage that is the centre of activity and is the substitute for the much-celebrated balcony. Without a balcony, the corridor is dark and gloomy, with light and ventilation only seeping in through windows at two ends of the tunnel.

It is wide enough though, for Jayashree More to place a wooden bed outside her first floor home in building 86. That’s where she plonks herself after an afternoon out in the sun shopping for dinner. With More’s husband and children, her brother-in-law and his family and aging parents-in-law, there are 12 residents in their room. “This bed is for my parents-in-law to sleep on,” she says, while hollering at the neighbour’s kid to switch on the ceiling fan in the passage, and wiping her moist face with the end of her saree. All around her is a jumble of unending clothesline. “Are we going to get this kind of space in buildings? The builders are going to take away our passage, our toilets, our playgrounds and our markets,” she says.

Inside, the 1994 hit, Vijaypath, is playing on a television placed on top of a cupboard. Level with the TV is a loft built above the windows where the More family has stored the belongings they could not cram below. All that separates the kitchen and the bath from the living area is the raised portion of the floor that leads to a rack storing utensils. In spite of the room being stacked from end to end, every possession is neatly slotted into place. The family is one of the few opposed to moving out of the chawl. When your home isn’t just confined to 160 sq feet and includes the passage, the playground, the pavement, and the cavernous water tap room in the middle of each floor, it is hard to give that up. “We’ll be shut in, in 500 sq ft. There will be nowhere to go,” says More.

Unlike her, Raju Waghmare does have elsewhere to go, but chooses to remain here. “I can move tomorrow if I want to, but that wouldn’t be right. Morally, I won’t be able to fight,” says Waghmare, general secretary of the Akhil BDD Chawl Rahivashi Mahasangh and spokesperson of the Maharashtra Congress.

Waghmare, 42, studied for his MBBS degree in the dank corridors of BDD chawl number 13 in Naigaon, before heading to the US to study and practise dentistry. After his father, who founded the residents’ association in the 1960s, could no longer continue fronting it owing to old age, Waghmare swapped Miami for Mumbai, and chose to lead his neighbours in their push for information about the city’s largest redevelopment project. “The state government hasn’t told us how big our homes will be, what they will look like, what facilities we will get and where we will stay until our homes are ready,” he says, adding, “they’re running this project like a dictatorship.”

Waghmare’s office in chawl number 14 has visitors from all over BDD speaking of the need to unite its 16,000 families in petitioning the state government for information. His 12-year-old son flits in and out, kitted in a Chelsea Football Club jersey. Side-footing his way around the crush of chairs, he whispers something in his father’s ear and scampers away. “We’ll see,” says Waghmare. “He wants to attend the Justin Bieber concert,” Waghmare says later. As a student of a posh Bandra school, his son is yet to fall in love with his life in the chawl. He visits his friends’ homes and “wants to know why he doesn’t have a bedroom of his own,” says Waghmare once his son is out of earshot. Birthday parties, too, have to be delicately handled. “We can’t invite his friends here, so we host parties in gaming centers,” he says.

BDD chawl Worli Often, lack of space indoors forces residents to spill outside. (Source: Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

With 20 rooms on four levels, each chawl bulges with close to 400 residents. Adjustments over space aren’t always amiable — chawls have attained notoriety for fights and disagreements among residents. Samarth Gaikwad, a social worker who lives in chawl 94, says, “You don’t see a lot of joint families staying here for a reason. Earlier, brothers preferred to stay together with their families. But, if their wives did not get along, one of them had to move away.” The ferocious and often bloody fights at the common taps in the middle of the corridor have mostly abated after taps were fitted in each home. Now, drinking water is supplied to homes every morning. In the evenings, long rubber pipes snaking across the floor out of each door have replaced queues of tired, squabbling women.

When former Bombay High Court Chief Justice SB Bhasme was inquiring into a deadly communal riot that hit Worli in 1974, he wrote of his visits to the chawls to interview affected persons: “In the one room tenement of 10×10, families consisting of 15 to 20 members reside… like cattle. There are common latrines and bathrooms. Although they are well-built chawls, they present an appearance of slums or ‘zopadpattis’. Everything is stinking and there is dirt and filth everywhere. There is glaring absence of sanitation and hygiene. The density of population coupled with the unhygienic conditions make the lives of these working class folk miserable. They quarrel for petty reasons and brawls and street fights go on everywhere at all times of day and night.” He submitted his findings in 1976 to the then Congress government. In it, he wrote, “Anti-social elements thrive on gambling, illicit liquor trade and matka dens. All these conditions have furnished a fertile breeding ground where seeds of communal hatred could be sown in no time.”

In a much sought-after English medium school in Worli, there are not many applicants from Jadhav’s neighbourhood. “The school takes one look at the admission form and if it sees 400018 in the address column, it tells you to go away,” says Jadhav. That pin code has meant nothing but trouble since the 1970s, when, at the height of the Dalit Panther movement, fights between the chawl’s dominant Maratha population and the Neo-Buddhists living in 20-odd buildings resulted in full-scale riots. The block where Jadhav lives saw some of the worst violence through the 1970s to the early 1990s. The BDD chawls at Delisle Road, Lower Parel, however, remained untouched by the violence, wrote researchers RN Sharma and CAK Yesudian in their paper, ‘Group Violence in a Neighbourhood: A Case Study Of Worli BDD Chawls in Bombay’ (1983). Their findings revealed that the awareness of Dalit identity and subsequent disgruntlement among the caste Hindus who made up much of the 121 building-strong colony in Worli were absent in the other BDD chawls. While there has been no violence in Worli for more than two decades, a policeman who stays there, recalls how difficult it was for youth in the ’90s to find employment. “No one would hire us because of the chawl’s reputation for violence,” he says.

Godfrey Pereira, former captain of the Indian men’s football team, experienced that closely while growing up in Naigaon. “I’ve seen people throw soda bottles and tubelights at each other from terraces. Whenever such fights broke out, my parents would lock me up inside our home,” he says. Pereira and a few other boys from chawl number 14 kept themselves out of trouble. “We were all sportsmen and played at city or state level. We practised from early morning to late at night at the playgrounds in Naigaon. I always thought that if I hadn’t become a footballer, I would have become a dacoit,” says Pereira, who moved out of Naigaon after being employed with Air India to coach its under-17 football team.

Things have since quietened down. Worli police station, which has been shifted out of the chawls, is also no more the battleground of 40 years ago. These days, petty neighbourly disagreements are the most common complaints received. With original residents leasing their homes to tenants from across communities, the friction between the Dalits and Marathas has reduced. “After the Emergency, there was a clampdown on violence. Once the mills shut and demographics in the chawls changed, the violence reduced,” says city historian Deepak Rao.

BBD chawl Worli Chawl number 95. (Source: Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

As Mumbai continues to reach for the sky, the BDD chawls are slowly being penned in. The chawls in Lower Parel and Worli are encircled both by the country’s currently tallest residential building and its in-the-works challenger. If Kiran Nagarkar had his way, the chawls would be destroyed and the country’s finest architects would build semi-circular structures up to five storeys tall in their place. “In the middle of these structures you would have play spaces, which is something that not even the rich have in this city,” says the author of the Ravan and Eddie trilogy — set in Mumbai’s chawls. Nagarkar says he did not want to sentimentalise chawl life in his books but would like them to be preserved in some manner. “There are infinite stories of women and men in there. These are heroes in our locality and they need to be remembered. The government has not given a thought to it,” he bristles.

It hasn’t helped that property prices have shattered the ceiling in just half a decade. “My house was worth Rs 10 lakh five years ago. Today, I can sell 160 square feet for Rs 40 lakh,” says Arun Kamble, who runs the local co-operative credit society in Worli.

Conversations about the impending redevelopment betray the apprehension of having to leave behind a life of security for one boxed into an apartment. “It’s a fun life, you know. When we move, we’ll have to keep our doors closed. Who will come to help you if you need to go to the hospital?” says Jadhav. Those who have moved out say the change wasn’t easy. “I had no friends when I first moved to Kalina. I’d miss the chawl so much that I would go back every day,” says Pereira.

Kavita Jadhav, 45, made the reverse transition when she moved into the chawl after her marriage, after 20 years of living in spacious homes in Nashik and Mumbai. Now a mother to three teenaged children, she wants them out of here within a year. “This is no better than a slum,” she says bitterly. It is nearly dinner time and Kavita’s youngest son, Niranjan, is studying on the loft. The family has high hopes of their little scientist. “He’s very bright,” says Jadhav softly, “and we know he’s going to make it big.” It’s fair ambition in a chawl that has given the city some of its most acclaimed names in literature, theatre, films and sports. “We have given the city so much over the years, but the government has neglected us. Life here just hasn’t kept pace with the 21st century,” she says, glancing up at where Niranjan has buried his head in his book and closed his eyes.

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