Mumbai is a study in contrasts. Once named as Bombay by its British settlers, the city is India’s densest, with a population of some 12.5 million people, one of the highest GDPs in the country with a per capita income almost three times India's national average and a range of industry leaders in entertainment, finance, luxury goods, information technology, and textiles, among others. Yet Mumbai also suffers from widespread poverty and unemployment, poor public health, and low educational standards for a large portion of its population, well over a million of whom live in makeshift slums. Mumbai's crisis has always been clear; in the process of wanting and yearning ‘exclusivity’, it has continuously failed to consider the ones excluded. Today, in a speculative surge of development, the constantly expanding city finds itself in a deeply polarized urban agglomeration, wherein it becomes possible to exist either in a metropolis or in a slum. In a global rush of industrially produced materials and mass-media, here, urban form and content lose priority to development, infrastructure and commodity; and life loses to a desire for lifestyle.
Mumbai's story begins as a agglomeration of seven islands, which were home to communities of fishing colonies, and that came together to constitute the city. For centuries, the islands were under the control of successive indigenous empires before being ceded to the Portuguese and subsequently to the British East India Company. During the mid-18th century, Bombay was reshaped through the comprehensive Hornby Vellard project, which undertook reclamation of the area between the seven islands from the sea. Along with construction of major roads and railways, the reclamation project, completed in 1845, transformed Bombay into a major seaport on the Arabian Sea; and the 19th century witness to massive economic and educational development in this new port. During the early 20th century it became a strong base for the Indian independence movement. Upon India's independence in 1947, the city was incorporated into Bombay State and in 1960, a new state of Maharashtra was created with Bombay as the capital. Although conceived by the British as a substantial trading port, Bombay was never expected to grow, most of its development being a result of organic increment; the constant tension between the native city and the newly emerging western city tearing its character and identity into undecided halves. While one remained a humble response to basic human needs, the other took to western paraphernalia as inspiration, with new forms of partnerships and local entrepreneurs marking a clear distinction between imperial politics and city commerce, and embracing the Neo-gothic town to merge it with the everyday life. With the Art-Deco movement, the city saw not just a shift in architectural expression, but in public social behaviour and interaction as well. But the nationalist movement was triggered soon and the 'Gandhian' imagination, that saw Art-Deco as opulent and extraneous and modernism as minimal, made the shift in the city's architectural expression, a seamless one. In a city like Mumbai, the spectacle was never really restricted to urban form and architectural content anyway, but was demonstrated in many ephemeral manifestations. And as this multi-faceted city grew, the concept of planning itself vanished; its expansion being impulsive and its development no longer speculative, but only an ill-prepared response to constant crises.
Mumbai, like any other city, is a fragile ecosystem. Policy becomes its DNA as it takes form in a surge of urbanization. No doubt, like most modern multi-ethnic cities, Mumbai is fast, with a lot to offer – entertainment, culture, city life, excitement and aspirations. But, growing as a centre of activity and economy, and yet, its failure to accommodate for the increasing populations that depend on it, Mumbai over-promises and under-delivers. As the act of building becomes a mathematical exercise in density, extreme opposites are created in close vicinity and a precarious equilibrium is established. Marginalization of the poor, high-rise constructions chasing real-estate demands and hikes in prices, result in an evident inequity, followed by uncertainty, dislocation and homelessness. Needless to say, the fundamental cause of Mumbai's crises lies in its basic structure of governance. The 'Report on the Development Plan for Greater Bombay' (1964) became the first of its kind to be envisioned and became a foundation for planning in India. However, it failed to address several key issues in terms of planning and governance and a counter-development plan by three architects, Charles Correa, Praveena Mehta and Shirish Patel was published in the avant-garde magazine, 'Marg', in 1972. Growth due to Mumbai's natural expansion was inevitable. The plan proposed to surge the development along an east-west direction, to release the current stress on the north-south direction that hosted the main railway lifeline of the city, by shifting government offices, commercial and business districts to the area and, hence, creating new jobs and supporting housing in the extended Navi Mumbai or New Bombay. But as politics took a new transition from socialist to capitalist agendas, free market imaginations surged towards concentrated economic prosperity, allowing organic transformations and the rapid emergence of slums. And while the close proximity of Charles Correa's LIC Housing (much inspired from the organic incremental growth of informalities) and CIDCO's housing development for the urban poor showed a marked distinction in the intentions of design ideologies and political considerations, the question of housing and the boundaries between the formal and the informal became increasingly obscure, with the latter becoming active centres of commerce, activity and jobs. And while the Eastern Waterfront saw a vast opportunity lost in 400 acres of land under the Bombay Port Trust, that could have considerably changed the chemistry of the city through incorporation of schools, housing and public spaces, it remained a dark contested zone in the imagination of the city's urban planning. Make-shift ephemerals attempted to compensate for this inconsideration through informal architecture that converted playgrounds into wedding venues and merged temporary responses with the historic permanencies of the city. With shifting meanings, changing spaces and a state of constant flux, the life of the city continued to adjust, continued to adapt and surprisingly, continued to deliver in spite of the negligence it was offered, the blur between the informal and the formal architecture and economy only fading more and more; and as described by Abdou Maliq Simone in 'People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg', people, infrastructure and the city came together to substantiate life and compensate for the inequity.
Mumbai's problem is simple to state, complex to solve. It is one of the densest cities in the world, with 27,000-100,000 persons per square kilometre. The pressure on land is intense. While only 2 per cent of this population depends on private automobiles, 90 per cent of the development funds are allotted to roadways and automobile development. The railway line, which is the spine of its economy is neglected. The pressure on public infrastructure is intense. It is a graveyard of non-governmental organizations, which instead need to be active and form a strong civil society to counter disinterested governmental agencies and vested developer interests. While 80 per cent of the population lives in slums, only 6 per cent of the land is designated as informal. These disparities are glaring. Further complicating matters, the Bombay Municipal Corporation which is the primary decision-maker, has no professionally trained planners, nor does the city, which is the hub of urban problems, have a dedicated planning school, and so, the profession is grossly involved in a post-facto clean-up rather than active projective planning. Mumbai, now turning into a landscape of what Architect and Urban Deisgner, Rahul Mehrotra calls "impatient capital", constantly also suffers from post-colonial disruptions in the creation of its narratives, an unsaid tension between the creators of the city and its custodians. Architects commonly believe, and manifest in their projects, that the role of the architect lies either in the collaboration with the community or in collaboration with political actors, who can help enforce change.
The answer for Mumbai's crisis increasingly lies in the intermediate "third space", the mediatory civil society and the creation of significance of the city in the psychology of the people. Between the ideals of the designer and the myopia of the politician, actuality reveals a dangerous rift between order and reality. Concepts from the 1800s and the 1900s are re-envisioned and reapplied repeatedly to concerns, while the circumstances demand new concepts specifically designed with the current situation in mind. The problem lies in this very abstraction and generalisation and in Mumbai's very psychology that fails to imagine itself as an environment where every urban individual lives with dignity.