Architect Kaiwan Mehta on the importance of Wadis and Chawls, in the concluding part of our campaign on the Rent Control Act
Cities are complex networks of human lives. We often talk of cities like they are machines, a network of numbers and gears of policies. Whether it is about housing or transportation, we reduce humans to a tussle over numbers, population, units, densities, dates, and money. Not that judgments based on numbers are not valid or important, but they often end up hiding a more human ground reality. The recent news on the Rent Control Act in Mumbai was nothing new; it comes up in policy and news discussion time and again, and it is always caught up in some algebra of lack of housing in the city, vote-bank politics, and the reality of real estate aspirations and lobbies.
One aspect of some of the older parts of the city is their hybrid and cosmopolitan nature, and one of the key reasons for their cosmopolitan survival is that they are economically heterogeneous. The change in this Act threatens to destroy in large numbers two types of buildings very specific to Mumbai, the Wadi and the Chawl. Often, the Wadi has been misrepresented as a gated community of the past; in many ways a Wadi did accommodate people of a singular religion or ethnicity, but there were always exceptions based on social relations and obligations which were respected and recognised more than just a person's caste. But most importantly, Wadis and Chawls have never been specific to economic status, unlike the many new-age housing enclaves that measure families by their monthly incomes and trips abroad, and interview them before selling a house even if they can afford to buy one.
By nature of their location, need for housing, labour and job markets, Wadis and Chawls housed people of varying economic capacities, some grew rich over time and some didn’t, but they always had systems to take care of the destitute and the homeless within the gates of their buildings, under staircases, and in the verandahs. They produced a social system of survival as well as cultural and economic exchange. These exchange systems often extended to the streets outside the building, and were played out in the entire area, producing rich neighbourhoods built on visible and invisible networks and relationships. A new policy may give buildings lifts and fancy facades, but can it assure us of rich neighbourhoods?
The fancy facade will fade after a few monsoons, and false aspirations will meet their reality, but a neighbourhood is the survival kit for the people in a city, all pressures and problems are absorbed within neighbours and neighbourhoods, will the government and developer promise me this social and safety network under a new policy?
There’s no doubt that many buildings in the older neighbourhoods of the city are not in a good shape, and fall short of providing good living conditions. Often, the Rent Control Act is to blame; secondly, we should never foolishly romanticise something that is old, we will have to make way for the new, but it does not mean we throw the baby with the bath water. Why have we forgotten the idea of repair and restoration. Why cannot the government policies invest in that? Why is demolition and building anew the only way? Why can we not design policies that are not blanket-distributed across urban regions, but, are developed to serve specific problems of certain zones and sectors in a city? There are questions we need to ask, not just as architects and planners, but also as citizens too.
The city is a social and cultural fabric and not just about densities; housing is about where families stay and communities are formed and not just about FSI and minimum area allocation. The neighbourhood is the essential space where urban life and architecture grow and take shape, public life and human interactions are supported. We need to be conscious about the fabric of our cities and not be lost in the measure of square-feet.
The author is an architect, academic and researcher