The Bombay Files: Is Bandra the new shantytown ?

A view of Behrampada, Bandra East, Mumbai. Photo: C. Anand Velayudhan

Truth be told, till pandemic hit, India’s maximum city was chaotic but definitely a working one. It was within the Covid-19 lockdown, that things went awry. Rules, in this period, seemed applicable only for the obedient. Law enforcement was reluctant and sporadic. Thus the city plummeted from a path of all round  development to one with terribly low standards of traffic, tolerance, sound pollution and aversion for everything civilised. Not to mention the flurry of infrastructure construction that brought torrents of dust clouds.

Experiencing this difficult state of Bombay, now Mumbai, demands a visit to Bandra, the queen of suburbs. Driving into the very wide road leading to BANDRA STATION from the Western Express Highway is a nightmare.  Disregard for law narrows the approach making it  barely motor-able. Three-wheelers, cars and bikes vie for space between pedestrians who never take to sidewalks owing to offices of lawyers, marriage bureaus, chaiwallahs, lemonade stalls , vadapav and every other imaginable vendor spilling over this common space.

Snaking thru these challenges and the defiant ghost riders if some of us were to actually venture to the east of Bandra station,  rising from the haze were Storeys of mushrooming tenements which have no reason to be there. Giving the Brazilian favelas a haughty run for the medals of infamy, these multi-storeyed precarious slums are the gaudy aberration to the towering reputation of Bandra . Both the west and east of Bandra station area is of unspeakable ugliness despite the architectural beauty of the railway station building. BUT THE EAST takes the prize for these abnormalities start immediately as one reaches the office of the city’s slum rehabilitation Chief Officer. Onward from this gentleman’s office structure, as we take a right turn, begins the impossibly stacked rooms like disfigured lego pieces. Beharampada it is called. Needless to mention this ghetto has all the vile happenings expected in a community devoid of policing. Living like starved animals being transported, this is the EVERYDAY lifestyle of thousands of humans. NO sanitation or sewage system, non existent social amenity, no health evaluation and no hope.

Behrampada , View from slum Rehabilitation Office side. Photo: C. Anand Velayudhan .

Behrampada’s existence here is altogether an accomplished humiliation for administration because it possibly stands on the flood plains of river Mithi. This land was holdings area for the rising sea and river confluence. Had police and civic administration been allowed to do their jobs, this settlement, size of a town would neither have further expanded vertically not on to the public spaces and mangroves of the city. Every sheet of tin and bag of mortar used to build this shantytown was brought here right under the noses of the big boys of Bombay. At stones’ throw away from there are the homes of the celebrity packs of India – high octane movie stars and business professionals.  If the stone were to veer south it could well land into the Worli,  home to many ministers and politicians . Just 500 meters  behind at Kalanagar signal  in Bandra East is home of the only tiger in this city knew, ( as the moniker goes.)

Alarming as it is, though the multi levels of slum were built during covid, shanty town of Bandra had already come up at unbridled pace during the regimes of Congress in the state assembly with overarching powers over the civic administration. Shiv Sena ruled the civic administration in partnership with BJP. At that time Congress and Shiv Sena at logger heads with each other, reigned the political spectrum of Bombay. But now the new gentlemen wielding power are from BJP and ShivSena. The latter sans its founder family the Thackeray clan,  and former, sans the respected sachems like Advani and Vajpayee.

Over last 6 months, while politics of the city swayed dramatically bringing unprecedented outcomes,  Bandra never got cleaned up nor did many parts of the city with sights equally calamitous.  So the difficult question is, will the wrongs be set right ? Because, the scale of repair needed is huge … the high density of population in Behrampada has led to unbridled hawking on sidewalks of the Linking road and SV road. How else will slum dwellers earn ? And then the Bandstand and Carter Road is chock a block beyond its holding capacity, how else will the humans of Behrambapada breath some fresh air ?

Long since the moral thread of India’s famed city tightened in a bid to accommodate rising population, a fuzzy blizzard of lawlessness has gripped it. The trouble is not the migrant workers but the eagerness of city planners and dwellers to look away from the terrible sites housing their cheap labour. The need to keep the odd job man within city limits comes from unwillingness of the city residents to pay minimum wages , which was unavoidable had they been settled  in extended suburbs. Shantytown Behrampada, relieves the rich people of the city from paying for  transport  to their workers. The administration is relieved from the need to buy land and erect affordable housing and provide public transport infrastructure.

By creating shantytowns, hitherto non development zones can be officially reclaimed through dubious Slum Rehabilitation Programs. The developer roped in will make a killing allegedly sharing booty with politicians and bureaucrats. Must admit that to a degree the nefarious process is quite democratic as the encroachers too make a bundle and get legal apartments. Politicians get a bonus by creating bogus list of eligible beneficiaries who in turn will re-elect them to legislatures.

But can this nexus and resultant putrid outcomes be allowed to progress unbridled ? How much of Mumbai will actually resemble a developed modern city depends on the BJP’s determination to bring back the glory of law and order.  The city has just been released from the unyielding clutches of an old guard but is politically adrift and many pray it peacefully  transfers into the grip of liberal younger, educated lot.  But will the new order find the spine to speak about the bad ways of the past ? Free speech, I hear, is increasingly a risky enterprise !

(The views expressed are solely of the author and do not reflect those of Parikh Worldwide Media/ITV Gold/News India Times or any other PWM publications)



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