The Surprising Wedlock between Bombay's Capital and Its Slums

Hans Schenk

In Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay, Sheetal Chhabria offers a merciless analysis of the might of capital in the development of colonial Bombay.

The Structure

The formation of Bombay’s slums during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as described and analysed by the historian Sheetal Chhabria, took place in two distinct, though related steps. The first one was the extraction of agricultural wealth in a wide ‘catchment’ area north, east and south of the coastal city. The British demand for revenue brought about a steady increase in cash crops. Chhabria summarizes that, as a result, “millions of indebted laborers toiled to produce monetary values” from wheat and millet, cotton and opium (p. 64). Also, this demand forced “… further intrusion of moneylenders and merchants into production processes, and exaggerated the conditions for risk and precarity” (p. 44), and the subsequent urban accumulation of capital. And the risks came, as could be expected. Disasters, such as periodic and increasingly recurring regional famines, like those in the 1870s and 1880s in the western part of British India, and periodically reigning epidemics such as cholera, helped to produce “famished migrants” (p. 12), often part of a floating population, circulating between villages and the city, according to the calendars of agriculture and the monsoon rains. A second step was the allocation by local authorities of places deemed appropriate in urban and peri-urban Bombay to those who became superfluous in the countryside and tried to make a living, for instance in the cotton industry, in the city. The allocation of such appropriate places, “ordering” as Chhabria puts it, depended largely on the needs of the local industrial and trading elites and served their interests. Labourers, preferably young men, were in demand during the rapid rise of the cotton industry in the city and were hence occasionally even provided with some sort of shelter; “famished migrants” were discouraged to settle within the city-boundaries and even blocked from entering it, and stayed mostly in makeshift huts (called “temporary dwellings”) somewhere in Bombay’s periphery. Public authorities saw housing as a powerful medium for ordering, “a bounded object available for intervention” (p. 112). This included demolishing shelters that were declared “unfit for human habitation” (before the term “slum” became to be used for this purpose), to condoning, sanctioning, and even constructing such unfit shelters. This intervention hinged on societal conditions, such as epidemics and a more profitable usage of urban space, and much less on the physical qualities of a shelter.


Bombay’s City Improvement Trust

Ordering also served sanitary interests. This aspect achieved momentum during periods of contagious diseases. Chhabria mentions cholera, but she focuses especially on the major outbreak of bubonic plague that affected Bombay’s trade from 1896 onwards. The obvious operationalisations of the concept of ordering during and after the plague epidemic were aimed at creating physical spaces between the crowded labourer quarters. This would lead to, what she calls, the restoration of a “sanitary credit”, the restoration of “ … the reputation, livability, and world prominence” of the “city’s taxpayers, financiers, lenders, debtors and industrial leaders, who were all concerned with the ‘sanitary credit’”(p.156). Chhabria notes some unwillingness to restore this credit among inhabitants. She writes that: “Officials decided that natives were not willingly sacrificing enough for the sake of the city.” (p. 126). This sacrifice was sought after by the displacement and rehousing of a significant part of the city’s labouring and poor population by a new powerful instrument: the newly formed Bombay City Improvement Trust, which worked largely beyond the control of the municipal council and was mainly financed by loans from the local financial elites. Chhabria speaks of the immense liberty under which the Trust was to operate: “It’s expenditures and rights to act within the city were practically limitless.“ (p. 161). She adds to clarify the position of the Trust by writing that: “The Trust would reappropriate public functions into private hands through the instruments of finance and new rationales of [self-, HS] governance.” (p. 143). The reform of housing and sanitary conditions of dwellings was supposed to be the main activity of the Improvement Trust. However, Chhabria doubts however the reason stated for its formation: “concern for the housing conditions of the working poor” was just formulated to subsume reasons of revenue production, and she writes that: ”The revenue motive drove all the actions of the City of Bombay Improvement Trust” (p.158). It appeared that housing Bombay’s urban poor was not a profitable investment. The acquisition by the Trust of urban land and its real estate however was a rewarding affair for their owners.



Chhabria has made a strong analysis of the ways and means devised by Bombay’s economic and political elites to ‘order’ the city in favour of their interests. Very few alternative routes and strategies have been left open in this analysis and hence, Bombay’s course of development towards an ordering that includes increasing inequalities has been presented as an inevitable one, whereby catastrophes such as the plague seem to be a blessing in disguise for the urban elites. Chhabria uses “Marxist understandings” (p. 12) to explain this ordering. In Marxist wordings: she shows the way towards the necessary path of ‘Verelendung’, let me say, pauperization, of the labouring class of the city, before the social revolution was to take place. It is striking, and relevant in this context, that Chhabria discusses protest movements and acts such as strikes by labourers, and alternative approaches to Bombay’s industrial future during and after the colonial era, just marginally in an epilogue, following her main conclusions, and as an attachment to the main body of her book. She assesses such protests and alternatives as not very effective. One may indeed remark that the class-based course that Marx predicted, had been hard to find in Bombay, and was usually weaker than the disruptive powers of communalism.

Was this course in Bombay during the late 19th and 20th centuries inevitable? Different courses have existed. There are Indian examples whereby the urban ‘paupers’ fought the interests of traders and entrepreneurs with some success, following an electorally won regime change. In Alleppey in the southern Indian state of Kerala workers successfully attacked the power of coir manufacturers and worldwide traders in the 1950s and ‘60s, even though they bit their own tail eventually as most of the industry just faded away.

The analyses of Sheetal Chhabria offers detailed insights in developments in Bombay, as seen from those who were largely in control. How she deals with census definitions provides an example. She dwells extensively on the several census definitions that are relevant for the local situation, notably pertaining to such questions as: what is a house, a hut, a slum, how to classify houses, durability of a dwelling, etc., and concludes that such definitions served the interests of those who were involved in urban development issues during any decade of census taking. Her analysis of census definitions covers the late 19th century, but it can, without significant problems be extrapolated to the censuses of the 20th and 21st centuries, and to many fields of information. A careful reading of this analysis is in my opinion rewarding for anyone who plans to base their insight and knowledge of aspects of the past and present of Indian society partially on census data.

Also, Chhabria’s detailed account of the functioning of Bombay’s Improvement Trust is a must for anyone who wants inside knowledge of how the Trust dealt with its counterparts: owners of land and real estate, and providers of the capital for the operations of the Trust. She cynically concludes that: “… important things were accomplished through the Trust’s efforts. Namely, the status of the moneyed classes was elevated to caretakers of the city, …” (p. 177). But her analysis is also limited. Notably, I missed a section on what happened with all the men and women who were rendered homeless by the Trust in their drive to create “sanitary space”, and who were provided with new dwellings (some numbers: 14,613 tenements were removed, 6,111 were built between 1899 and 1909; p. 169). Simple questions such as how and where were categories of workers and their families housed ‘before-and-after’ and at what costs, etc., have not been answered systematically, and thus some sort of sociological approach to the activities of the Trust is unfortunately missing. Who suffered l from this rehousing and who benefitted, apart from the noted gains among Bombay’s financial elites? I realize that some answers are predictable. In style with the remarks on Marxist theory hereabove, Engels’ famous statement that the housing conditions among urban workers could only be structurally improved after a social revolution, is certainly not contradicted by my knowledge of the state of housing of the large majority of Bombay’s citizens, be it in 1900 or a century or so later. However, an empirical scrutiny of expected results would have been an asset to Chhabria’s study. Census data (sic!) and secondary sources (e.g. work by Kosambi, Kidambi, Conlon, Adarkar, etc.) could have resulted in at least some answers to the questions I raised – and many other ones.