A street in Bhendi Bazaar, Mumbai © Atul Loke

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Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar, known for its tempting street market food and eclectic shops jammed below decrepit homes, is typical of many colonial-era parts of India’s cities. Its 150-year-old, four-storey buildings, with their steep wooden staircases, were originally designed to house male migrant workers in small dorm-like rooms, with a single communal lavatory on each floor. More recently, multi-generational families have been crammed into the buildings’ tiny rooms, many measuring less than 200 sq ft. Mumbai’s state-controlled room rents have been frozen for decades. This has left building owners unwilling to invest in maintenance, so time and the annual monsoon rains have taken a heavy toll.

In one critical aspect, Bhendi Bazaar is different from other similar areas. Most residents are Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, a small, tight-knit Shia sect, whose members are known for their embrace of secular education and their business and professional acumen. In 2009, the community’s then 98-year-old spiritual leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, made a radical proposal. Bhendi Bazaar, he declared, should be demolished, except for its holy sites. In its place should arise gleaming new skyscrapers to provide modern living suitable for his upwardly mobile flock.

Razing several city blocks is a big task in a city with powerful tenants’ rights and where demolishing even a single decrepit building can be stalled for years by determined holdouts. The 16.5 acres the Bohra cleric had in his sights comprised 250 low-rise buildings, each with different owners, and housing about 20,000 people and 1,250 businesses.

Yet today, the redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar is well under way. The Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust — an arm of the Bohra clerical hierarchy’s community administration, or dawat — has already acquired 215 of the 250 buildings. Of these, 70 have been demolished, with 1,700 families installed in purpose-built temporary accommodation, which is being provided for free until their new homes are ready. It is the largest urban redevelopment to take place in India, or, as trust officials claim, in any democratic country.

With construction just starting, the project — blessed by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi — is being touted as a potential model for other dilapidated urban neighbourhoods. It still faces resistance from a clutch of building owners, demanding more money to sell, but the trust hopes the government will help it tackle this hurdle. Yet it is doubtful that the project could even have come this far without the pervasive influence of the Syedna — a dynastic leader formally called the Dai al-Mutlaq — on his flock.

Faithful Bohras revere the Dai as a spiritual and temporal authority. When they come of age, they swear allegiance to him in all things, including rendering their property to his service if asked. Failure to obey, or challenging the Dai, can lead to strict social boycotts and exclusion from holy sites, even burial grounds. Given such devotional fervour, it was not hard for a trust chaired by Burhanuddin’s eldest son, Shahzada Qaid Johar Ezzuddin, to secure support for the cleric’s dramatic vision. About 70 per cent of residents in Bhendi Bazaar are Bohras and 65 per cent of the buildings — and half the businesses — are Bohra-owned. “Many times the Syedna says we should do something that we all look and say, ‘This is completely impossible — we will never, never, never be able to do that,’” says Adil Zainulbhai, former chair of McKinsey India, the consultancy, and a member of the trust board. “And somehow it happens. The faith of the community is so strong. If he says, ‘Do it,’ it will happen. People put [in] an enormous amount of effort and somehow make it happen.”

It also helps that the project will give Bhendi Bazaar residents more private living space and modern amenities such as lifts and private toilets. Government rules say residents of a redevelopment area must receive the equivalent space in the new project that they had in their old buildings — and new units must be a minimum of 300 sq ft, even if residents’ previous homes were smaller. However, the trust is improving on that figure. The smallest new unit in the development will measure 350 sq ft. Families with bigger units will get 10 per cent more space than they had previously as an “incentive” to move. In contrast with commercial builders — of whom most Indians are wary — the trust is expected to fulfil its promises.

“The only reason we agreed to do it so quickly was because of His Holiness,” says Fatema Tankiwala, a 22-year-old law student, whose family was the first to sell the building they owned, and did so without haggling over the price. “We have a lot of faith in him . . . He says it’s for our betterment, so we said ‘OK, we’ll go for it’.”

The Bohras can trace their ancestry to Yemeni seafaring traders who probably arrived on India’s western coast in the 11th century. Today, the community claims 1m “card-carrying members”, who have digital Bohra identification cards, with detailed personal information, including — dissidents claim — records of dues paid to the dawat. Half the world’s Bohras reside in India.

For the contemporary faithful, one of their holiest sites is the Raudat Tahera, a 41-year-old white marble mausoleum in Bhendi Bazaar, where Burhanuddin’s father, the late Syedna Taher Saifuddin — and, since his death in 2014, Burhanuddin himself — are entombed. The walls of the tomb, also called the Roza, are inscribed with the entire Koran in gold letters. The mausoleum is at the heart of the redevelopment, with plans for 17 towers — ranging from 15 to 65 storeys — to rise in height, like theatre seating, as they recede from the monument.

Thirteen of these towers — measuring 250,000 sq metres in total — will rehouse the former residents and business owners who were previously squeezed into 150,000 sq metres. Apartments in the last four towers — the tallest buildings with 150,000 sq metres in total — will be sold to raise the estimated $1bn cost of the project. Strong demand is expected from the Bohras’ affluent global diaspora, many of whom aspire to live in the “shadow of the Roza”, or at least have second homes there.

The project’s working capital requirements are being met entirely from the dawat’s treasury — filled by donations from the faithful. “This entire project is funded by the community,” says Zainulbhai. “We’re not taking a bank loan. We are not taking money from anyone.”

Qutub Mandviwala, the principal architect, says the project will fulfil “the needs and requirements of today’s society, and today’s perception of how people should live in a decent atmosphere or a decent house.” But he insists it will remain a “vibrant, cultural place,” with multi-level, street-facing shopping arcades filled by the old businesses and attracting people from across Mumbai.

Washing hanging from Duriya Mhowwala’s one-room home © Atul Loke

Speech pathologist Rashida Jagmag, who lives with her husband and their teenage daughter in a 400 sq ft room inherited from his parents, believes the biggest beneficiaries will be the elderly, many of whom were unable to navigate the precariously steep, narrow staircases to get in and out of their homes.

“As we age, we can’t climb up and get down,” she says. “The lift will be a plus point. I have experienced it with my in-laws . . . When they fell sick, they never came back home.” Her daughter, Zahara, says children will also benefit, with open spaces at the base of the residential towers providing areas for “running, cycling, skipping”.

Preparing for construction to start has been arduous. Government authorities had to certify each resident entitled to space in the redevelopment and also how much space they should get — a complex, fraught exercise.

Rental rules have led to a system called “pagdi”, where people buy and sell tenancy rights, paying building owners a 33 per cent transfer fee to update official records. Yet many tenancy transfers go unrecorded, as buyers try to save money, or family elders die, passing apartments to their children. Families then need other documents — voter ID cards, bank books and old utility bills — to prove long-term occupancy. Often, several families have documents for the same apartments.

“Many people do not have proper paperwork,” says a trust official, whose team helped tenants with the certification, including obtaining old records such as utility bills. “We can’t just depend on the documents they have.”

State officials also had to measure each family’s living area, but did not recognise areas such as attics or covered balconies as living space. Some families demanded such areas be included when calculating the new space they were entitled to before they would vacate their old homes. Trust officials say such claims were considered on a case-by-case basis. “The magic word is ‘uplift’,” one says. “The vision is to uplift the lives of the people . . . so we do take a subjective call and accommodate them with some extra areas. Our decisions are never commercial.”

The courtyard of the Raudat Tahera, one of the Bohras’ holiest sites, at the heart of Bhendi Bazaar © Atul Loke

Bhendi Bazaar is a small part of a historic, sprawling, predominately Muslim area of Mumbai just outside the British-built Fort area. For many city residents, the area evokes images of riots and a violent underworld — negative stereotypes reinforced by many Bollywood films. It is hoped the redevelopment will help erase this image.

“The Bohra plan stands to represent a progressive, cosmopolitan, and economically productive citizenship in an area that has been stigmatised as a Muslim ghetto,” says social anthropologist Sarover Zaidi.

Some critics mourn the obliteration of a dynamic area in which a diverse population pursued commerce, family life and spiritual activities in close proximity. They also fret that it will create a gentrified Bohra enclave, alienated from the rest of the city. Others warn of a potentially “tense” relationship with its surroundings, with the new skyscrapers towering over their neighbours.

“These areas have a vibrant urbanity, but you are wiping out the fabric and creating a completely new fabric” says architect Kaiwan Mehta, editor of Domus India. “It will be a high-rise ghetto. We should not romanticise, or fetishise a certain kind of poverty or chaos of the inner city. But let’s understand the problems and find solutions. Are you telling me there is no solution other than demolition and high-rise?”

Yet such concerns find little resonance among people like Tankiwala. Now in temporary housing while her new home is being completed, she has only a mild lament for the disappearing neighbourhood of her childhood. “I have memories, friends, my cousins, the sandwich-wallah, the stalls and hawkers I’ve grown up with and I will kind of miss it,” she says. “But skyscrapers are just coming up in Bombay. If you are in a lower building, you will die of suffocation. Everything is growing. Better you also shift into a high-rise, too, and get an equal amount of light and air.”

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent

Details

Buildings:

Old 250 dilapidated low-rises

New 17 skyscrapers (ranging from 15 to 65 storeys high)

Size:

Total project area 16.5 acres

Old built-up area 150,000 sq metres

New built-up area 400,000 sq metres (250,000 sq metres for existing inhabitants, 150,000 for newcomers)

Parking:

Old Only available on the street

New Lots for up to 3,500 cars

Building materials:

Steel 54,000 metric tonnes

Concrete 375,000 cubic metres

Earth moved to lay foundations 500,000 cubic metres

Slums: a problem that refuses to be swept away

Presented as a measure to lift the poor out of their doleful living conditions, in reality slum clearance is almost inevitably a drive for gentrification, and ultimately does little, or nothing, for the poor it purports to help, writes Edwin Heathcote.

In both London and Paris the worst slums and rookeries were cleared in the mid-19th century but the poor were simply displaced and the areas they were forced to vacate became some of the most desirable parts of the cities for the bourgeoisie.

The first local authority housing estate in London (and the world) was the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, built on the rookeries of the Old Nichol, a feared quarter of darkness and crime. New housing was promised to the displaced residents but in the end only a handful were offered new flats. The undeserving poor of the old slums were not welcome.

A favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil © Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images

The cycle continues as 1960s housing is demolished. In January, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, blamed architecture for all kinds of social ills, rather than the real causes, such as bad maintenance or a lack of social care. “Decanted” residents find themselves priced out of their communities, rootless and disenfranchised again. Now the refugees at Calais’s “Jungle” are having their ad hoc shelters demolished as authorities proclaim to be concerned about conditions but are in fact embarrassed by the scale of the settlement itself.

In developing countries, too, slum clearance has been a cover for gentrification. Informal settlements are often well placed in cities — there is value in their real estate. As Rio de Janeiro “pacifies” its slums in preparation for this year’s Olympic Games, other cities, most notably Medellín in Colombia and Caracas in Venezuela, have developed ingenious solutions for improving everyday life while leaving populations in place. Inserting cable cars to cope with steep slopes and building public spaces, libraries and schools have meant the communities who have built their cities together and live in almost unimaginable proximity are left intact, with all the benefits of social cohesion and a sense of place which that enables.

There are no easy solutions for the slums. They are intolerable in civilised society, yet few cities have found ways to rehouse and reintegrate the myriad populations well. Probably a billion people live in slums around the world and the figure is growing as cities explode and wars displace settled populations.

Things can be done, but they take will, intelligence, design and investment. The results would justify the costs — the city remains the single greatest machine for lifting people out of poverty and creating growth.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

Photographs: Atul Loke; Getty Images

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