CH 7: When the margins explode

IMG_0573_bParamita Nath is a documentary maker based in Toronto and New York. Paramita’s award-winning debut short Found (2009), which premiered at TIFF, has been described as “visually remarkable” (Huffington Post) “like a poem… a cinematic gem” (DOK Leipzig). Her second short, Durga (2012) won the prestigious Banff Quebecor Production Fellowship and premiered at Hot Docs. Since 2009, Paramita has been part of the critically acclaimed NFB HIGHRISE web-doc project team, which has won every major award for digital non-fiction nationally and internationally. Paramita was the Interactive Producer for 17.000 Islands (2013), an experimental web-doc in collaboration with Norwegian filmmaker Thomas Østbye and Indonesian filmmaker Edwin. Read more about Paramita here.

Paramita Nath on Arrival City Chapter 7: When the Margins Explode

What I find striking in this seventh chapter of Arrival City is the way in which Saunders reframes three major political upheavals as “revolution[s] of the arrival city.” He does so by challenging the conventional accounts of religious and ideological origins of these explosions—tracing their roots instead to poor land reforms, mass rural-urban migration, inadequate infrastructure, corruption, misplaced subsidies, and overall failure in municipal governance and urban planning. In each of these cases we see how ideological movements became the only remaining choice that promised the hope of change in environments of dysfunction.

Throughout the chapter, I found parallels to what we experienced during our work in Mumbai. Along with a collaborative team of documentary filmmakers and academics, I travelled to Mumbai last spring for our final fieldwork. This would be the culmination of three years of field research I had already done for the Highrise Digital Citizenship project in this city.

We initially began our work in Mira Road. Located just north of Mumbai, it is one of its most rapidly growing suburbs. Development in this area began in the 1980s when builders bought up largely agricultural and tribal lands and developed townships to meet increasing demands due to the rising cost of housing in central Mumbai. Mira Road offered an alternative to the middle class, who could live with the comforts of city life affordably. Furthermore, its rail connection made it possible for people to continue working in the city.

The Mira Bhayander Municipal Council (MBMC) was set up in 1985, when five Gram Panchayats (rural self-government system in India) were amalgamated. It only achieved full municipality status in 1990. However the services were not upgraded to adjust to the demands of this rapidly developing satellite city, which now saw mass migration of “people displaced from the city through forced evictions tied to urban renewal schemes, by skyrocketing real estate prices that are […] firmly inserted into globalized land markets,” (1) and the 1992 riots, which saw an influx of fleeing Muslim communities looking to set up a new safe haven, bringing about communal segregation to Mira Road. There is the Hindu side and the “little Pakistan” side and often these don’t mix.

Here we witnessed all the trappings of delinquent municipal governance as described by Saunders, including water shortage, lack of proper roads, services, and sewage systems. Rampant corruption, and a tight ‘builder-authority nexus’ further escalated the problems faced by residents looking to purchase new apartments here. Still dependent on the municipal water connection from the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), most apartment complexes didn’t come with running water for years, forcing people to purchase water from “water mafias” operating water tankers. Furthermore, to meet the rapidly growing demands for housing, builders were developing highrise units very quickly, often without proper permissions, on illegal land, and using cheap material such as concrete made from sand with a high salt content purchased from “sand mafias” who illegally farm sand from the creeks and rivers from the neighbouring Thane district, leading to quick deterioration of buildings.

The scale of this corrupt construction industry came to the limelight in April 2013. A building in Mumbra, in the Thane district, collapsed killing 72 people. It got wide media attention. The building was being illegally constructed under precarious working conditions. Soon the BMC and the MBMC rushed to publish lists deeming hundreds of building illegal, to buffer the criticism directed at them.

Prior to this building collapse, the scale of the problem was felt primarily at an individual level, by homeowners and homebuyers. So many of whom are either made to vacate their homes because the building that houses them is no longer safe to stay, or lose their money because they’ve invested in properties that were illegally set up—leading to demolition, or the building not being built at all. Or like in one particular case, corruption within the residents’ association of the building itself led to eviction and demolition with some residents still occupying the buildings.

Our time in Mumbai coincided with the story of Campa Cola building complex in South Mumbai. When residents of this complex learned, after having already lived there for 25 years, that their building was illegal, they launched a well-planned, highly organized social media campaign. The campaign was the first of its kind in India to generate such publicity, and on the day that the municipality had sent bulldozers to raze the grounds, #savecampacola trended on Twitter in the country. The buildings in this complex had violated Floor Space Index (FSI) limits and the illegal floors were up for demolition. FSI index is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the plot it is built on. The higher the FSI, the taller a building can be.

“A surprising target for demolition, the story of the Campa Cola complex is increasingly common. Recently revealed is the astonishing fact that almost half of all constructions in Mumbai of the last decade are illegal. The exact figure, obtained by activists through India’s recent Right to Information Act (RTI), is staggering. More than 56,300 buildings in Bombay hold this same status, and so could face a similar fate.”(2)

One of the main demands made by the Campa Cola residents was to request an increase in FSI on humanitarian grounds, which would remove the illegal status of their building. It was denied. And yet, earlier this month the civic authorities of Mumbai unveiled a draft Development Plan (DP) for the city that promotes a vertical construction boom along the city’s transport corridors by significantly increasing FSI across the city. This proposal for further densification contains no real provisions for affordable housing, open spaces, or appropriate public services. It can be read as yet another move to isolate the urban poor. This seems to ring similar tones to what we’ve heard about in this chapter describing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s ambitions for Tehran decades ago.

The residents of Campa Cola confessed they didn’t know anybody who lived in their own building prior to this. The social media campaign brought them together and they grew into becoming “like a large family.” It will take time for the new class of displaced and compartmentalized urban poor in the fringes of Mumbai, now living in isolating concrete vertical slums, to regain a sense of community. If the effects of the new DP are felt and further push this demographic into unsustainable living conditions, this megalopolis is perhaps setting itself up for its next explosion to happen.

By Paramita Nath

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Benjamin Allen Stevens says:

    Fundamentally, chapter 7 is about how the vast energies of arrival cities, usually directed towards attempts to join the lower or even middle class of urbanites, can be co-opted or even perverted when those attempts are frustrated by inadequate or nonexistent government support. This failure can take the form of seeming ignorance (Tehran), misdirected attempts to help (Caracas), or unmet expectations (Mumbai). However, whatever the cause of the failure, without access to basic services, recognition, or political representation or influence, the only remaining choice in this narrative is revolution.
    By reframing these revolutions and political movements around the arrival city, Saunders shifts the focus from the immediate causes to the underlying conditions that enabled these revolutions. However, while Saunders’ narrative is compelling, he overcompensates and attributes too much to the arrival city. Revolutions, like fires, require both fuel and a spark. While Saunders writes that “these are patient, conservative people, unwilling to risk everything for a mere political statement,” without a political organizing force there would be no spark, and no revolution. If the ideologies of religion, socialism and fascism had not galvanized action in Tehran, Caracas and Mumbai, respectively, it is impossible to say what would have happened, whether the revolution would have had a different cause, or if there would have been a revolution at all.

  2. uzmizzle says:

    The ties between renowned revolutions in history and arrival city effects are quite striking. The effects of an “exploding” arrival city, as Sanders and Nath try to demonstrate, have mostly been handled poorly by the government. Governments’ failure to effectively respond to and accurately represent the interests of the huge influx of migrants have created intense restlessness, which did not exist before. The concerns of new migrants in various arrival cities around the world have seldom been heard or understood by politicians, which have led to immense frustration, enabling the revolutions we know.

    In the cases of Mumbai, Tehran and Caracas – although the lack of response was present in each case, the results played out quite differently. Most interestingly in Mumbai’s case, the lack of government response created a void where a de facto municipal representative could become the voice of the downtrodden new migrant population. Albeit using a religious supremacist agenda, the Shiv Sena was able to create a large group in their favour which became their political leverage afterwards. Ironically, this political leverage is an interesting aspect that is a key presence in all 3 cases in Sanders’ chapter 7. Chavez, and Khomeini also built up support in these desperate migrant populations who essentially, voted them into legitimacy. Unfortunately, once in power, the rulers in whom they were banking on for a stable future, turned a blind eye, causing these tumbles into explosive revolts.

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