City Bypassed: The casualties of Mumbai’s urban renewal

This film was first hosted on the  openDemocracy website.

Mumbai’s road to global city status has been marked by the construction of road infrastructure projects. Apart from increasing the speed with which the city’s new arrivals travel from its domestic/international airport straight to the business district, these infrastructure projects also enable Mumbai as an aspiring global city to make its marginal spaces and citizens invisible to these new arrivals in the city. City bypassed presents the story of Mumbai’s urban renewal as seen from Byculla, a multicultural inner-city neighbourhood symbolically and physically bypassed by road infrastructure projects along Mumbai’s journey to global city status.

Set in Byculla, South Mumbai, City Bypassed tells the complex story of the ironies of Mumbai’s urban renewal and the casualties along this journey. Byculla has the largest Muslim population in Mumbai and rose to notoriety as the site of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in 1992. Still coping with the stigma of communalism and violence, Byculla however has seen high urban renewal because of its proximity to the central business district. Yet this renewal comes at the cost of ghettoisation and increasing marginalisation of women and urban poor. City Bypassed explores the ways that Mumbai’s minorities, women and poor continue to enter the public realm, claim citizenship rights and negotiate the larger forces of change dividing and shaping the city along class and religious lines.

The communalisation of the regional state

Byculla was settled from the 18th century by Jewish, Parsi, Christian and Muslim migrants and oral histories of Byculla residents testify to strong cross-cultural exchanges and intercultural celebrations of festivals. For those in contemporary Mumbai however, Byculla is a stark reminder of the increasing ghettoisation across Hindu and Muslim communities particularly in the aftermath of the 1992 communal riots. At a broader level, Byculla shares the ironies of Mumbai’s quest for global city status. Close to the central business district and the headquarters of multinational businesses in South Mumbai, Byculla faces intense pressures on its land and therefore, just like the rest of South Mumbai, has recently experienced intense urban renewal. This renewal however is of a specific kind, where its old chawls (tenements), mill workers housing and informal settlements are being demolished to provide for more upmarket lifestyles of the middle-classes in high-rise housing. This renewal is also ironical because despite its broader move towards gentrification and middle-class ‘respectability’ it spatially and physically reinforces and reproduces existing religious divisions between Hindus and Muslims (Shaban 2010).

1992 was a watershed in Hindu Muslim relations in Mumbai. The communal riots that took place in Mumbai marked the beginning of a period of continuing state politics around religion and its spatialisation across Mumbai’s multicultural neighbourhoods. Hindus and Muslims had so far lived with each other in Byculla, but the riots marked the beginning of a continuing ghettoisation that saw each community moving into homes, streets and neighbourhoods where they formed a majority. The roads where intense rioting and killing and mayhem had occurred, were embossed in the minds of eyewitnesses as the boundaries dividing the imagined Hindustan and Pakistan (Chatterji and Mehta 2007), as the roads which later became the boundaries between Hindu and Muslim areas of urban renewal.

Mumbai’s urban renewal can no longer be seen simply as a state-led communalisation of land development and housing construction. In the film, Noor Jehan, founder of the Indian Muslim Women’s Association (BMMA) points to a bureaucracy that is inherently communal and that has been instrumental in the ghettoisation of Hindu and Muslim spaces in Mumbai.  This underlines the beginning of an intense ‘communalisation of the state‘ which is ideologically and politically driven to separate and mark out the spaces of Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai via bureaucracy, law-enforcement, civil society and links with the underworld. The transformation of a state-led communalisation of Mumbai’s urban spaces to a communalisation of the state itself means that social and religious discrimination lies at the heart of Mumbai’s urban development schemes. Schemes that are meant for Mumbai’s urban poor and its minorities often do not reach them, project files associated with Muslim names or organizations do not move beyond the desks of bureaucrats, and low-cost housing schemes do not reach intended recipients. The regional state of Maharashtra thus practices an ideology of communalism that pervades all scales and spaces of state-citizen relations.

‘Land mafia, sand mafia and mining mafia’

Prof. Madhav Gadgil, renowned environmentalist in India comments in the film, ‘Maharashtra government today is run by the land mafia, sand mafia and mining mafia’. Apart from the communalisation of the regional state of Maharashtra which Mumbai is a capital of, the story of Mumbai’s urban renewal is also the story of the state’s intimate links with the Mumbai underworld. The increasing demands for housing and urban development in Mumbai has seen the revival and transformation of Mumbai’s small-time mafia engaged in smuggling till liberalization in 1991 to a globally connected underworld post-liberalization meddling its hands in one of its most important economic sectors – construction.

The close relationship between Mumbai’s regional state and its underworld led urban renewal is particular to Mumbai’s history of communal politics. It is widely known that Mumbai’s underworld has always played an important role in its economy (Mehta 2005). in the aftermath of communal violence in 1992 the underworld carved a bigger role for itself in Mumbai’s economy. It has infiltrated the spaces of the state to regulate the implementation of housing and urban development policies, to channel the availability of land for construction, and to control and regulate prices of building materials and labour involved in the construction of simultaneously gentrified and ghettoised spaces (Shaban 2010).

Gendered citizenships and the violence of development

The ongoing politics of communalisation of the state and its connections with Mumbai’s urban renewal has seen an increase in the marginalization of Mumbai’s poor, minorities and women. The construction sector now largely driven by the underworld fractured Mumbai’s urbanscape along class and religious lines. One of the participants in the film, Noor Jehan noted that ‘Mumbai’s ghettoisation is now complete’. Indeed it has been the insidious links between communalism and urban development that has seen the retreat of Mumbai’s minorities within itself, of the demolition of informal settlements to make way for high-rise apartments, and of a general ‘violence’ of development that treats the spaces of the poor, minorities and women as backward and hence worthy of erasure. This ‘violence’ is seen in the making of special policies and schemes for urban development that treats their spaces and places as exceptional, the enforcement of these policies by which homes of the poor and marginalised are erased, and the ‘legitimate’ appropriation of these very spaces by the middle-classes.

The film ends with three related observations:

1. That the most tragic outcome of the violence of development is when those deemed to be the subject of development begin to adopt and internalize the pathological representations of urban poor lives as perpetuated by the state and wider society. This is evident in the narratives of a community worker and a Byculla resident who argue that moving from the slums and chawls to highrise development housing provides social mobility and a transformation from the ‘criminal’ mentality of slum dwellers.

2. That the links between communalisation of the state and violence of urban development produce struggles for gendered and active citizenships. This is seen in the aftermath of communal riots in 1992, which ironically brought poor Muslim women at the forefront of political society. As Noor Jehan notes in the film, the riots had led to a large scale absence of Muslim men from ordinary homes and families, and in their absence, Muslim women were ironically forced to enter the public realm to – negotiate with the police, with bureaucracy, to claim their rights and more broadly survive in the absence of male breadwinners. In particular Muslim women were at the forefront of struggles against the state when their chawls and slums were demolished in order to negotiate their rights to alternative housing in the State regulated SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) schemes. And in doing so they created alternative spaces of activism and political society that were highly localised and gendered.

3. That the links between communalism and urban development has produced a number of insecurities in public life around the stigmatisation of Muslims around parochialism, religious fanaticism, terrorism and a number of other global/urban pathologies. These insecurities have direct impacts on the lives of Muslim women. As Noor Jehan notes in the film, these larger insecurities make communities more inward looking, and this introvertedness produce increased controls over women’s bodies and spaces within these  communities. Thus even though Muslim women have begun to enter public life in increased numbers, this has ironically produced increased anxieties and hence increased incidents of violence over women within homes and families.


  1. I loved it, Ayona! I grew up not too far away from here, in Parel in the ’80s when a lot was changing in Bombay. In fact, on a recent trip to Mumbai, I opted to stay in Byculla and explore the area around to relive my childhood, so to speak. As a child, I wandered long distances by foot and public transport with my maid, who I called Mavshi (aunt) and loved dearly. Today, I find it hard to relate to the Mumbai of chauffeur-driven cars and visits to Phoenix mall that my friends there experience. About the film, I am particularly fascinated with the idea of women benefiting from the situation post-riots when the men were simply not available. Its a potent thought and could be looked at in many post-disaster situations, Uttarakhand for example. Contrasted with the idea of the restrictions imposed on women because of intense ghettoization, it presents a contrasting picture of opportunity and frustration that women experience, one that consumes so much energy that could have been utilized for something more productive!
    The other idea, that of a deliberate attempt to weaken local community, is disturbing. The weakening of community mobilizations across urban India is something urban practitioners see widely and is a key reason for the extreme chaos. I know of a few interesting initiatives and research projects that are looking to understand these dynamics closely and change the equation. Am sharing this film among people I know and work with. Thanks for putting it up!

  2. Thanks Mukta, glad you liked it. Byculla is a fascinating place and I was directed to it by Prof Shaban from TISS who featured in the documentary.

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