Watch: Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar to be revamped

Project hopes to transform Mumbai's historic Bhendi Bazaar from a dilapidated ghetto into a slick Singapore-like enclave.

AFP April 24, 2017 16:18:52 IST

Farida Kachwala is vacating her family's cramped home of eighty years, one of thousands receiving modern apartments through a project that hopes to transform Mumbai's historic Bhendi Bazaar from a dilapidated ghetto into a slick Singapore-like enclave.

Six hundred million dollars is being spent to demolish hundreds of rundown low-rise buildings in the dirty colonial-era market and replace them with shiny skyscrapers that will house 20,000 Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Shia Muslims, who have made the area their home for decades.

"We have many problems here. It's smelly because there's sewage and garbage everywhere and the wooden stairs are really steep and dangerous. I'm so happy that we're moving," says Kachwala.

The rehousing project aims to replace the decrepit structures and maze-like narrow streets, where hawkers sell everything from sunglasses to sweets as goats meander docilely, with gleaming towers and polished shopping arcades.

It is also hoped the scheme will help cleanse the neighbourhood of its underworld image. Dawood Ibrahim, who carried out the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts, lived in Bhendi Bazaar during the 1980s and Bollywood films often portray the area as a gangster hangout.

In India it is common for tenants to stall development projects by refusing to move, or for homeowners to hold out for more cash, but this project is unique in that it is being driven by residents' faith as much as their desire for 21st century amenities.

Bohras, whose women wear colourful ridas akin to hijabs while men sport gold and white caps, are a Shia Islamic sect who follow a religious leader they call his holiness. They originally arrived in western India from Yemen in the 11th century.

Bohras often seek guidance from his holiness on many matters ranging from marriage to naming a child. The redevelopment was the brainchild of late leader Syedna Burhanuddin, who died aged 101 in 2014, a key reason why residents support it.

Spiritual leader 

"Our families took his holiness Syedna's advice and supported the project so we hope it will be good for everyone involved," says Juzer Morbiwala at a transit home where he is being housed until his new apartment is ready.

Some 250 decrepit three and four-storey buildings known as chawls -- originally built for single male labourers in the 1800s and where residents often share toilets -- are being razed and replaced with 17 high-rise towers across 16.5 acres.

Three thousand two hundred families will receive new homes free of charge. Each will be a minimum of 350 square feet in size with private bathrooms and separate sleeping and living spaces.

It will be a significant improvement on the tiny, dark one-room home Kachwala shares with her husband, daughter and father-in-law, who moved in as a ten-year-old in the 1930s.

"I'm attached to this place because I've lived here almost my whole life but our children will have a better environment to live and grow in the new home," says Kachwala, 45.

The demolition and construction is taking place in nine phases. The first started around three years ago and the entire project is expected to be completed by 2025. The only buildings not being torn down are the area's mosques.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is taking a keen interest, hoping that the cluster redevelopment method can become a model for urban renewal across India.

It is budgeted to cost 40 billion rupees ($600 million) and a trust attached to the Bohra community's governing body is providing the funding through donations. Money will also be raised by selling off four of the new towers that could stretch 60 storeys into the sky.

Conservationists' lament 

Abbas Master, Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust CEO, says the trust had acquired almost 90 percent of properties but that a small fraction of residents were refusing to negotiate.

"To uproot people and to bring them back is a challenge. It happens in places like China but in a democratic world I think this is the first example," he told AFP.

Some 1,250 businesses will move from ramshackle shops and stalls down dingy lanes into shopping arcades above street level which will be connected by pedestrian bridges.

Rapid development has altered Mumbai's skyline over the past two decades and conservation architects lament the loss of another historic district and the personality attached to it.

"The entire fabric is going to get erased, the history, the artefacts. It's going to have an impact on the social character," architect Vikram Pawar told AFP, adding that the skyscrapers will be out of keeping with neighbouring areas.

But that doesn't seem to concern the majority of residents, including Shirin Electricwala.

"It will change the way we live. We'll have more space, hygiene and comfort," she told AFP.

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