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Kamathipura 2.0

Updated on: 17 August,2021 08:12 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Shunashir Sen |

A virtual exhibition highlights how redevelopment plans in this neighbourhood must ensure that the future of marginalised communities is not jeopardised

Kamathipura 2.0

Unfinished high-rises dot the fringes of Kamathipura

Being tagged as a red-light area has been a monkey on the back of the Kamathipura neighbourhood since the 19th century. The place earned this reputation when, back then, British colonisers brought girls from underprivileged families to work as sex workers who would service soldiers stationed in Mumbai. At the time, Kamathipura was located in what was considered to be the fringes of the city, a place originally inhabited by the Kamathi community, or migrant labourers from Andhra Pradesh who had shifted here in search of work while the port city of Bombay was being constructed. These people co-existed with the sex workers, making the neighbourhood a place of work and residence for marginalised communities.

The area is a hub for many small-scale manufacturing industries. Pics/Aradhana Paralikar
The area is a hub for many small-scale manufacturing industries. Pics/Aradhana Paralikar

But with time, as Mumbai grew into the megapolis it is today, the real-estate value of Kamathipura appreciated considerably, bringing it to the notice of private developers who wanted a piece of the pie. Meanwhile, the colonial buildings there fell into ruin because of a conflict between the landlords and tenants over settlement issues, which acted as a cog in the wheel of any redevelopment plans. Ratoola Kundu, assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), tells us that government authorities didn’t pay much attention to the needs of the migrants and sex workers either, leading to poor sanitation, water facilities and ventilation. Many brothels were shut down, which meant that the sex workers plied their trade on the streets, making their presence more noticeable and exacerbating the conflict between them and the other residents. All these issues are now being highlighted in a virtual exhibition that TISS is organising, called Make Break.

The entire exercise is aimed at showcasing how we need the diverse communities that exist in the area so that Mumbai does not become a homogeneous city of towers and gated communities meant only for rich citizens. Kundu, who teaches at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance at TISS’s School of Habitat Studies, tells us how Kamathipura has also developed into a place where small-scale manufacturing industries for products like recycled jeans and shoes thrive, much like they do at Dharavi. This has created a further rift between these workers and local residents, who blame the former for increasing pollution levels. 

Ratoola Kundu
Ratoola Kundu

There are thus multiple levels of conflict, between different stakeholders such as the marginalised workers, tenants, landlords, real-estate developers and even the state authorities. The latter two groups have attempted to redevelop the area on multiple occasions starting from the 1980s. But a combination of different factors has proved to be a hindrance at every step, the latest one being the pandemic, which stalled a redevelopment attempt in early 2020.

But the question that this exhibition seeks to answer is, who is this attempted redevelopment really benefiting? “Who will be able to live there in the future and who will be shunted out? What is the end game of this exercise? The question comes back to more participation and democratisation of the planning process, taking the informal sector into the picture. We need to understand how cities work and be more people-focused, looking at an approach that is driven more by justice than by profit,” Kundu says.

She also feels that it will be an uphill task for the private developers to bulldoze their way into the area, literally, because the poor migrants and workers who live there won’t give up their homes without a fight. “They don’t have a formal say in the process but there are negotiations that take place on the ground, through which they mobilise themselves,” Kundu explains, showing how the complexities of Kamathipura’s history ensure that it’s unfair to tag it as simply a red-light area. It is much more than that, and it’s high time that we rid the neighbourhood of this monkey on its back.

Till: August, 2022
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