A Rule of Property for Mumbai (Review)

This book review appeared in slightly edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36 September 04, 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010)

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”. The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay. Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians.

Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development. The best works of urban history, both in India and elsewhere, spatialize the classic opposition between capital and labour in the geography of the modern capitalist city. In Bombay, Raj Chandavarkar has shown how trade union politics and industrial protest were shaped as much in the workplace and factory as in the organization of working-class neighbourhoods. Jim Masselos has narrated how control over urban space was central to public politics and nationalist mobilization in colonial Bombay. In capitalist cities, space and the built environment are both the outcome of ongoing struggles, as well as an arena for new practices of politics and social life. The state, in turn, ensures the reproduction of the dominant spatial practices – private ownership, profitable land uses, and stable property values – through technologies such as cadastral mapping, revenue surveys, and urban planning.

It is within this “theatre of conflict” over land and property relations that Dossal’s spatial history of the colonial and postcolonial city unfolds. Divided into two sections – on agrarian Bombay until 1860 and industrial Bombay until the present, respectively – the book seeks to situate Bombay’s urban history in the historical transition from “feudalism to capitalism”. The large format, coffee-table book ambitiously claims to chronicle from “1660 to Present Times” in nine chapters. However the real heart of the study is from around 1790 to 1940, or about 150 years (Chapters 4 to 8) which span the rise of Bombay from an archipelago of agricultural-fishing islands to one of Asia’s largest industrial metropolises. The first three chapters chronicle the British acquisition of Bombay from the Portugese, and early efforts by British governors to protect and fortify their settlement, and extend their legal sovereignty over the city and its inhabitants. In the new courts instituted by the British in the 18th century, a modern form of legal hegemony over land transactions was sought through instituting a “rule of property” by which the colonial state would supersede earlier Indian and Portugese tenures, neutralize the power of landlords and tenants, and establish Government as the ultimate “lords of the land”.

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Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 11 September 2010 6.03 pm

Visiting the Municipal Corporation

Yesterday my friend, the historian and collector Deepak Rao, took me for what he excitedly described as a “peep show” in the corridors of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which are lined with glass-faced cupboards containing a veritable treasure trove of municipal archives. Deepak is the only person I know who will compare the delight of visiting a rare archive to the pleasures of a brothel. And his “peep show” was indeed titillating. Everything from the proceedings of the Corporation House, to the departmental files of the Education, Sanitation, Improvements and Standing Committee are carefully stored in bound volumes which are seemingly catalogued according to an internal file keeping system, going back to the 1880s (!). Today I again returned to the corridors of the Municipal Corporation, this time to the Estates and Land Management Department at Manish Market. I gazed longingly at the files stacked next to the desk where I was sitting, each of which contain the files for individual plots in the old Scheme no.5 of the Bombay Improvement Trust, the neighbourhoods of Dadar and Matunga. While I am scheming to get access to the records in the main office I saw in the glass cupboards today, the hope of accessing these mountains of detailed files for research is a distant dream. The builders would sooner burn the place down.


Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 18 August 2006 9.28 am

Expanding the Franchise

A friend from Pune, Dnyanada, while visiting today reminded me that there are two types of scholars — those who are studious, and those who are creative. And historians, in most cases, must value the former as much, if not more, than the latter. For while there is no denying the labour of creativity involved in the act of interpretation, for under-investigated areas such as the urban history of modern India, give me a studious archive rat any day. The recently deceased Raj Chandavarkar always insisted, often polemically, that the most basic questions about urban history, such as about party politics in the Bombay Municipal Corporation, have still not been written about in any serious way, and the new research interest in cities will prove ephemeral without a solid empirical focus. Indeed a basic political history of the municipal corporation is waiting to be written, and the primary materials for this task can, I am confident, be found in the Maharashtra State Archives.

While sitting there yesterday, I happened upon a reference to a compilation of files from 1920-24 on “the reconstitution of the BMC on a more democratic basis” containing a fascinating debate around the extension of the municipal franchise following the constitutional reforms of 1919. Government sought an expansion in the franchise for municipal elections, which until 1920 was based on an electorate restricted to rate payers, who numbered no more than 12,000 in the entire City of Bombay. While the directive was to seek an expansion to between 50,000 to 60,000 voters for the reconstituted corporation, a debate ensued between British civil servants, and corporators and civic representatives, and nationalist reformers on the principle of the franchise. This was to be changed from a basis in “rate-payers” to “rent-payers”, the question arising as to the minimum rent paid which would qualify someone for the vote in Bombay City. Various statistical distributions of the rent-paying populations of each ward in the city were presented in the debate as to whether to fix the minimum from between Rs 10 to Rs 25.

As I remarked to Nikhil, who initially got me thinking about municipal elections, this was the first time I had seen a real breakdown of ward-wise rates of rent in this period. This is where the debate also turned communal, as the question of reserved electorates for minorities such as Parsis, Mohammedans, Christians and others were mooted along with the new principles of expanding the franchise on the basis of rents, and increasing the number of seats in the Corporation. It seems from the correspondence between the Indian members of the Municipal Corporation and the British officials deliberating the new principles of enfranchisement that the former were concerned with the dilution in the influence of Parsi community, whom Ibrahim Rahimtoola hailed as having shouldered the great burden of local self-government (and who must have also represented a significant number of the rate payers in the old franchise). Nonetheless they rejected the idea of communal electorates as divisive and unnecessary to secure minority interests, which they still claimed would be best managed by a propertied elite. Some British officials strongly remarked that Government should not stick too closely to the “class of landlords” who on the one hand directed civic affairs and on the other hand abetted in the creation of slum areas, the single biggest problem of colonial administration in Bombay at this time. The expansion of the franchise based on rent payers was eventually accepted with some amendments, and instituted in 1923.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 10 August 2006 2.16 pm