What if traditional rural settlements were historic urban nuclei?
Tracing the history of the BDD chawls and what its location and typology mean for future development of the city.
BDD Chawls, Worli, Mumbai
The 121 odd thick walled buildings known as the BDD Chawls, in Worli, stand out in Mumbai’s jumbled landscape of habitats. The combination of well planned and organized buildings, arranged around a handful of small open spaces that nevertheless have all the typical signs of an economically marginal neighbourhood, seem anachronistic. Given that even upper-middle class areas of Mumbai can be a cluster of haphazardly constructed structures on uneven layers of crisscrossing lanes – as a walk down Malabar hill will reveal.
The BDD Chawls are part of a family of colonies that were conceived in 1920 with the setting up of the Bombay Development Department. The BDD chawls represent a colonial vision of working class needs – symbolized by the barrack like rooms along corridors that end with common toilets.
Today, different communities live in the chawls. These include primarily Ambedkarites, (Dalit followers of Ambedkar), followed by an ethnically diverse set of state government employees – mostly policemen, and then Hindu and Muslim groups mainly from Maharashtra.
The pride that most local residents have in the quality of construction of the buildings is symbolized by the ‘broken nail’ story. Everyone claims that the walls are so strong – thanks to the British era thick stone structures – that it is impossible to hammer nails into them. Even electric drill machines are useless.
Nothing seems to puncture the amazing pride that the residents have in the chawls. At the same time these buildings seem to be drawing from the confidence of the residents as well and resisting any makeover plans that the real-estate lobby is inevitably pushing for. The myths and legends of the strength of the building help of course. People love to say that the cost of breaking these powerful buildings will probably be as much as making new structures afresh.
The Ambedkar followers, or neo-Buddhists, have been part of the proud Dalit history of the city. The neighbourhood has seen several political movements connected to Mumbai’s industrial working class history as well as the Dalit-panther movement.
We walked through the fascinating installations during the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations on April 14. We were meeting recently made friends who insisted we come and join the party.
Each set of buildings was its own dedicated party zone with thundering loudspeakers, DJs, coolly attired youth and lots of energy. The urban youth over here are attuned to what it means to be urban and youthful with a special zeal. Ambedkar had left no doubt that the direction of aspiration should be firmly in the direction of modernity and there seemed to be much less weight of ‘tradition’ around. A float dedicated to Columbia University – where Ambedkar had studied caught our attention. Then there were floats about other leaders and an exhibition about the history of Buddhism, all of which provided a unique template for cultural expression that one rarely sees being endorsed by other groups and neighbourhoods in the city.
The neat shrines and Buddhist temples did not feel the need to evoke a sense of an ancient sacred past. The colours, the aesthetic and the impulses were firmly urban and contemporary.
Most of the residents told us that they did not mind living in tiny homes in good quality buildings and with so much of open space and a sense of community. At the same time nearly everyone (except for the police community) had made changes, both internal and external to accommodate the needs of growing families.
This dual desire – to change and still keep within the existing fabric – accompanies many other needs for change that the residents articulated. Jobs for the young, capital for the enterprising, and being accepted by the city at large were some. For all of Mumbai’s modern aspirations it still manages to factor in caste based prejudices directly or indirectly in its relations with different communities.
The BDD chawls are managed by the Public Works department which has been trying to engage the residents in dialogue about the future of the neighbourhood. However, these discussions tend to be politicized and monetized as much here as in any other part of the city.
What is striking about BDD chawls is its proximity to offices and commercial establishments that can also be harnessed into these discussions to make the neighbourhoods future a collective endeavor in which the city pays attention to it.
Its rich industrial working class history, as well as its connections to the city's resonant Dalit presence – especially through Ambedkar's legacy, is something that needs to be connected to the city’s imagination at large.
After all, like the rest of the country, even Mumbai was once historically a site of Buddhist presence. At a time when caste based equations were disbalanced thanks to the thoughts of this enlightened soul. After several hundred years of endorsement, his institutionalized legacy was eventually erased by resurgent upper caste revivalism. However its subversive potential was revitalized by Ambedkar and now has become a powerful urban force. In Mumbai the BDD chawls represent an important facet of this history – at once connected to and distinct from the many Mumbai neighbourhoods in which other Dalit and non-Dalit communities continue to live. Still facing prejudice of all kinds.
We hope the city looks at BDD chawls afresh when telling its own story to a future generation. Maybe it may help revitalize this divided city at large. And just as Ambedkar embraced the idea of the city for emancipating community – the city needs to embrace Ambedkar to emancipate itself.