Whose city is it after all? Examining informality and what is considered as “normal” urbanisation in Mumbai

Who does the city belong to, and, who comprises the city?,” are questions more relevant than ever. The Indian government’s strict nationwide lockdown, as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, sparked off a series of enquiries into population, demographies, urban form, living conditions, labour and employment. With millions of migrants stranded in cities, fighting hunger and government’s apathy, the implication of a lockdown and social distancing norms created different circumstantial scenarios for different people. The miniscule population who could lock themselves up in the security of their homes, with sufficient access to essentials had little to complain, but for those deprived of even basic utilities such as sanitation and shelter, the lockdown turned into to a humanitarian crisis.

Mumbai, attracting thousands of labourers each year, witnessed a mass exodus, as migrants, unsure of their survival in the city, returned to their hometowns. The city came to a grinding halt as the walas and walis went missing in action. The people, who built the city, and keep it running, ironically lost claim over the city. As Mumbaikars found themselves struggling with so many services including couriers, deliveries, maintenance, domestic help etc. it became clear that like most Indian cities, Mumbai too was dependent on its informal help. Even our transportation is informal…which major cities in the world still have autorickshaws plying commuters? This demography of population which we term as ‘informal’ in reality forms the ‘normal.’ Yet, our rapidly urbanizing city does not plan for this normality. We find ourselves asking मुंबई कोणाची?

In the 1960s and 70s, rapidly urbanizing metropolitan cities such as Hongkong, Singapore, Seoul, Beijing introduced state-built low-cost housing schemes to rehabilitate people in slums and increase house ownership. In Singapore, such efforts have resulted in a private/public housing ratio of about 20 to 80. However, in the case of Mumbai, with 42% of population still living in slums in appalling conditions, it is clear that current policies have failed to provide for affordable housing. MHADA has been unsuccessful in scaling up to cater needs of affordable housing whereas the SRA is completely reliant on private sector, driven by market forces. Forcibly, Mumbai’s informal and essential workforce lives in fringe towns of Mira-Bhayander, Vasai Virar, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivali, Navi Mumbai, Panel, Ambernath, Badlapur.

The development plans for Mumbai and its peripheral towns have been prepared, based on their jurisdiction boundaries. But do these boundaries truly exist? If not, then why are our city plans prepared in isolation, when Mumbai and MMR are completely inter-dependent? How do we make sure that these towns are reinforced with adequate infrastructure & facilities? The development plan and policy framework of the city and region has remained biased towards the smaller percentage which is the formal. As a result, only 15-18% of the DP 1967 and 1981 have been implemented. Incorporating what majority of the people do, where they live, how they move and how they work should become key focus while planning for the future development of the city and the region.

We need to reevaluate the adequacy of our planning tools and mechanisms to deal with the predominant informal nature of the city. Have the planning tools deployed for Indian cities worked over the past six to seven decades? If yes, why are cities still suffering. If not, where are we falling short? We are currently trying to use tools such as DCRs which are from the formal physiology, but in India, formal is far from the normal, and has led to creating one planning disaster after another. Further, the current planning tools are limited to planning of physical space, whereas we can see the digital space transforming the work and live patterns in future, and able to address the complexities bringing in hybrid solutions in all sectors. Hence, do we require a substantial change in our approach to urban planning?

The objective of this UDRI research rubric is to treat the normal, not the formal. It is a multiple year, multi-disciplinarian initiative, spanning across several layers of urbanism, and comprising several tools for examination. It is an overarching umbrella for a number of research projects, programs and publications, undertaken in parallel, on Mumbai and the Metropolitan Region.