BDD Chawls. (Source: BloombergQuint)

BDD Chawl: How India’s Largest Urban Renewal Project Will Alter Mumbai’s Skyline

Shalini Jagtap, 66, had moved to BDD Chawl with her parents when she was about four years old. The century-old relic from Mumbai’s British and industrial past has been her home for more than six decades.

Jagtap’s 160-square-foot tenement — for which she pays almost nothing in rent — is barely big enough to comfortably park an SUV. The white, vitrified floor tiles are gleaming, and the walls are freshly painted off-white. But that masks the rot underneath. Part of the ceiling collapsed in the neighbourhood a few days ago, and the woman sleeping below needed 15 stitches to close the cut on her forehead. “We are scared for our lives,” said Jagtap.

Part of the ceiling that fell down on Chanchala Londhe in the BDD Chawl in Naigaon, Mumbai. (BloombergQuint)
Part of the ceiling that fell down on Chanchala Londhe in the BDD Chawl in Naigaon, Mumbai. (BloombergQuint)

Step outside, and it’s evident that the building is crumbling. The three-storeyed chawl in Naigaon area of central Mumbai is part of one of the four such clusters built by the erstwhile Bombay Development Department. Three, together covering an area as big as 22 cricket fields, will now be redeveloped in India’s biggest urban rehabilitation project.

In the next eight years, the rundown structures will make way for 142 skyscrapers in Lower Parel, Worli and Naigaon—kind of mini townships with 17- to 66-storeyed towers, playgrounds, community centres, gardens, clubs and a school. Jagtap is among 15,584 tenants who will get a 500-square-foot two-bedroom apartment each—the biggest offered in any such scheme in India.

An old BDD Chawl building. (BloombergQuint)
An old BDD Chawl building. (BloombergQuint)

“Shifting from a chawl to an apartment will not just be a physical, but a cultural transition as well,” Nilesh Bane, research fellow at Observer Research Foundation, said. “Still it’s a windfall. Upward mobility is a dream of everyone, and the residents deserve it.”

A similar-sized apartment in Jagtap’s neighbourhood—the central business district dotted with highrises—sells for at least Rs 2.5 crore. Owning a home at such a prime location in the world’s second-most crowded city is no mean feat—more so when it has the nation’s costliest real estate. People often refuse to vacate the buildings declared unsafe in the hope of such a turn in fortune.

Inside the 500-square-foot sample flat at Naigaon BDD Chawl. (BloombergQuint) 
Inside the 500-square-foot sample flat at Naigaon BDD Chawl. (BloombergQuint) 

BDD Chawls, built in the 1920s on land reclaimed from the sea, offered cheap housing in erstwhile Bombay, then a manufacturing hub. Four clusters came up in Lower Parel, Worli, Naigaon, and Sewri. Maharashtrian, North Indian, Telugu and Tamilian families who came to the city in search of jobs, mostly in the spinning mills, made it their home.

“These were mass-manufactured but were quite modern for their time,” said Bharat Gothoskar, founder of Khaki Tours, which promotes conservation of the city’s heritage. “The construction and design are amazing even today.”

Every building, with a row of 20 tiny homes called kholis on each of its three floors, looks onto a courtyard. Each tenement opens into a corridor—where women dry laundry, kids play and families store anything that doesn’t fit within the 160 square feet. Inside, a small part separated by a wall with a passage demarcates the kitchen and washing area.

As families grew, the tenements became even more crammed. When two wardrobes, a refrigerator and a washing machine took most of the area save the space kept for sleeping in the night, Jagtap’s family added a loft for the kids.

The home where she lives now was rented by her father-in-law in the 40s, she said, showing a worn-out Rs 6 receipt from 1948—something of a family heirloom. They now pay Rs 16 every month.

Mumbai transformed into India’s financial capital, more famous for its stock market and banks, and spinning mills went defunct. Thousands of workers including Jagtap’s late husband were laid off. That was the toughest part of life for her. “I had three children to look after. I wanted them to study,” she said. Jagtap then started a tiffin service that lasted till 1994, when her daughter got married and sons found jobs. The tenement is now home to nine, including her daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

Shalini Jagtap at her home in BDD Chawl in Naigaon, Mumbai. (BloombergQuint)
Shalini Jagtap at her home in BDD Chawl in Naigaon, Mumbai. (BloombergQuint)

Cultural Oases

After her wedding in 1968, Jagtap only had to shift from building No. 5 to 13. “It was an arranged, not a love marriage,” said Jagtap, smiling. Her parents had found a match within the chawl.

The tenement clusters were not just the living quarters for mill workers but a community. From the freedom movement to Ganapati celebrations, cricket to politics, they feature in every aspect of Mumbai. And crammed spaces bred a culture of sharing and open doors. Over the years as everything around changed and the mills made way for shopping malls, offices and apartment blocks, chawls continue to thrive as cultural oases.

They offer no privacy but people feel like one cognitive unit, a big family, said Bane. And the fate of BDD Chawls, according to him, is symbolic of India’s economic and political transition: from its socialist leanings which encouraged sharing to the reforms of the economic 1990s that gave rise to individualism.

The redevelopment will erase this part of Mumbai’s history. “Some part of the BDD Chawls should be turned into a museum as within them they preserve the unique essence of Mumbai’s culture,” said Gothoskar.

A BBD Chawl in Mumbai. (Source: BloombergQuint)
A BBD Chawl in Mumbai. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Two Decades In The Making

The redevelopment of BDD Chawls was first mooted in 1999 but the plan made no headway for more than a decade and a half. In 2016, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority was named as the government agency to rebuild NM Joshi Marg, Worli and Naigoan Chawls—covering an area of 84 acres. The one in Sewri is located on the Mumbai Port Trust land and no decision has been taken on it.

MHADA floated the global tender in 2017. The Shapoorji Pallonji Group won the bid to redevelop the cluster at the NM Joshi Marg for Rs 2,400 crore; L&T got the contract for the Chawl in Naigaon where Jagtap lives for Rs 2,900 crore; and a consortium of China’s Citic Group, Tata Projects Ltd. and Capicite Construction Ltd. won the bid for Worli—the largest of the clusters spread across 54.7 acres—for Rs 11,800 crore.

L&T, Shapoorji Pallonji Group and the Citic-Tata-Capicite consortium declined to comment on BloombergQuint’s queries.

Dream Project

Initially, tenants registered up to 1996 were to get new homes, if they produced genuine rent receipts or transfer documents. As protests followed, the cut-off date was extended to June 2017.

But the apartments aren't just for tenants. MHADA will build residential towers with 8,000 flats that will be sold below the market prices, increasing housing supply in the area.

“This a dream project of the Maharashtra government,” said Madhu Chavan, chairman of the Mumbai board of MHADA. The agency expects to make a profit of at least Rs 1,200 crore after the sale.

Naigaon BDD Chawls. (BloombergQuint)

‘Can’t Afford To Stay’

Still, tenants have doubts. For the first 10 years, MHADA will maintain the buildings. Then, the onus will shift on to the owners. And they're not happy about it.

“We are not sure what will happen after 10 years,” said Ramesh Jagtap, Shalinis Jagtap’s son. “From where will we get the money when the building will require real maintenance?” Most of the people in the chawl are from middle and lower-middle-class families, he said, adding that MHADA rejected their demand for a corpus. “We're afraid that after 10 years, people won’t be able to afford to stay in such high-maintenance towers.”

The average maintenance cost of any building with 20 floors ranges between Rs 6 and 10 per square feet, which goes into electricity bills, maintaining fire safety equipment and lifts, and paying security guards and housekeeping staff, according to Ramesh Prabhu, chairman at Maharashtra Societies Welfare Association. After 10 years, there will be minor wear-and-tear costs as well, he said, adding that for a 500-sq-ft apartment, an owner will have to shell out at least Rs 3,000 a month.

No wiggle room. (Source: BloombergQuint)
No wiggle room. (Source: BloombergQuint)

That’s not the tenants’ only concern. Some say there’s lack of clarity about the project itself. “The government hasn't taken us into confidence while designing the layout. We don’t have a proper agreement yet,” Makarand Tazgaonkar, a resident of NM Joshi BDD Chawl, said. “How can we blindly trust the government without knowing the terms?”

This threatens to delay the redevelopment. A survey by a panel of government officials to identify the beneficiaries is still not complete. While the process has started at Tazgaonkar’s chawl, it’s expected to soon start at Naigaon and Worli.

At Jagtap’s chawl, residents had opposed it twice earlier in 2017 and 2018. Even discounting a delay, it will take at least seven years for her to get her new home. “I'm not sure whether that will happen in my lifetime,” she said.

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