Conserving Khotachiwadi: A Hamlet Fights Back

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An oasis of old-world charm, Khotachiwadi struggles to make itself heard amidst mega towers and big development. Can we save this heritage precinct which forms such an essential part of Mumbai’s urban fabric?

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James Ferreira’s face is flush with rage, as he points to some of the broken tiles on the walls of his otherwise impeccably-maintained 210-year old house in the heritage village of Khotachiwadi. Tucked away in bustling Girgaum and designated as a heritage precinct in 1995, the narrow streets of Khotachiwadi are famous for their colorful Portuguese-style bungalows. Built in the early 1800s, the facades of these houses remain frozen in time, with their sloping tiled roofs, winding wooden staircases, hanging balconies and fretted windows.

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But soon, standing amidst this quaint little oasis of old-world charm in the heart of Mumbai will be an 18-storey steel-and-mortar tower, whose construction is said to be causing irreparable damage to a number of old houses in Khotachiwadi, including that of the Ferreiras.

This new tower is being constructed by South-Mumbai based builder Deekay Realtors on the plot which used to house bungalow number 35, also known as Dias House, until 2010. In November that year, residents of Khotachiwadi tried to prevent the takeover of Dias House by undertaking a signature campaign. Nevertheless, the 100-year old building fell into the hands of the builder, who started demolishing the bungalow after the death of the last tenants, from whom the house had been purchased four years earlier.

Of the 65 buildings that made up the original hamlet of Khotachiwadi, only 27 stand today. The rest have fallen prey to developers and builders fuelled by a mad rush for prime property in South Bombay, enabling a mode of redevelopment that has scant respect for aesthetics of this historic hamlet. Talking about the decline of Khotachiwadi, Ferreira, a fashion designer, says, “The periphery of Khotachiwadi has been destroyed, though the core still remains. Now, we’re fighting to save those few existing bits. The fact that the roads are too narrow to allow for a skyscraper to come up here only helps our case.”

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The Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust, was formed in 2004 to organize the residents’ efforts in the fight against such rampant redevelopment within the heritage precinct. Ferreira reveals that they are currently in the middle of proceedings to obtain a stay order on the proposed redevelopment of another house in the locality and mentions that what happened with Dias House has only strengthened their resolve to resist such realtor-led redevelopment. Speaking about what the trust is up against, Anvitha Pillai, a photographer who has documented Khotachiwadi’s architecture, says, “The disrespect for such historical structures is appalling. Khotachiwadi has its own culture, its own cuisine, and its own way of life, all of which will disappear when the homes go. It’s vulgar how the community is being broken down and swept away by money power.” There is also the question of a generational shift, with the older member of the families in Khotachiwadi wanting to hold on to the place where they spent their childhoods and the younger members encouraging them to dispose of the properties which are being courted aggressively by a number of realty firms.

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The struggle in Khotachiwadi, as it is in many other heritage precincts, is also largely associated with how the property laws have been framed and implemented. Most of the structures in the locality are ‘cessed properties’. Cessed dwellings refer to those buildings which are privately-owned and invariably built before 1940, with the repair and maintenance being the responsibility of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). The tenants in such structures pay a certain cess to the MHADA as owners have found it impossible to maintain the buildings, given that the rents obtained from these buildings under the Rent Control Act are a pittance. The Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC), which administers the heritage buildings list, has recognized this problem and outlined a number of monetary incentives in their August 2012 proposal to encourage owners and tenants to preserve and maintain such buildings and precincts. The list of incentives proposed included property tax waivers and allocation of floor space index (FSI) or transfer of development right (TDR) in the same civic ward which can then be encashed in the market.

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However, residents of the area claim that these incentives are offset by other laws, which allow for the face of heritage precincts to be altered radically. For instance, section 33(7) of the Development Control Rules (DCR) for the city of Mumbai states that if a cessed building is redeveloped, the developer can get an FSI of 2.5 or get the FSI required to provide accommodation to all the tenants in the building (whichever is more), in addition to some more FSI as incentive. The developer is then expected to rehabilitate all the tenants in the old building, and sells the extra FSI for his/her profit. The 18-storey high-rise tower that is being built on the plot of Dias House is one such deal. The builder, in such a scenario, stands to gain the most by maximising the space utilization of the plot, leaving serious questions unanswered about the sustainability of such structures, the effect it has on the community and the nature of transformation that it forces on the heritage precinct. “It’s not just about the buildings. For years now, we’ve functioned as a community, supporting each other in myriad ways. What such redevelopment does is dismantle the workings of such communities. We’re not against redevelopment per se. But it needs to be tempered with a sense of respect for the space. We can’t let it all go so easily, can we? We won’t stop until we stop construction of that wretched tower on the plot of house no.35,” thunders an angry Khotachiwadi resident who did not wish to be named.

Referring to the issue of how difficult it is to maintain the heritage buildings within the existing legal framework, Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, says, “There are inherent contradictions in the way things work. The laws that enable the conservation of such buildings are being counter-balanced by the FSI-based realty laws, which make it your right to demolish any structure that stands on a plot you own. So, if the plot is sold to a builder and he pulls down an old bungalow, there’s nothing you can do about it even if it’s bad for the precinct. If this continues, only the monuments and British-era buildings will get conserved. But really, the idea of Mumbai does not arise from those monuments and famous buildings. The urban fabric of the city is based on the privately-owned heritage buildings, like the ones at Khotachiwadi.”

All isn’t lost, though. The residents’ group in Khotachiwadi, along with activists, has made steady in-roads into the bureaucratic and legal agenda of the city administration. The MHCC’s August 2012 proposal, for instance, listed individual buildings in the Khotachiwadi precinct. Since then, 6 buildings have been bumped up from Grade III status to Grade II status, thereby lifting the entire precinct’s status to Grade II. This, in turn, protects the precinct from cluster development projects such as the one being undertaken currently in Bhendi Bazaar. “The thing with Khotachiwadi is that it is a picturesque example of everything that is considered to be wrong with the vision of skyscraper-based development espoused by the state. Some of the residents are well-connected and have been able to grab the attention of the government and the media. They keep getting written about quite often and that gives a sense of the developments in Khotachiwadi being played out in the public eye, unlike the cases of redevelopment in other, less attractive heritage precincts,” says a journalist who has written about Khotachiwadi in the past, on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, there are others who believe that Khotachiwadi deserves all the attention it gets and more. “The builder lobby is immensely strong and appears to have limitless resources and connections. Therefore, any act of resistance against such high-handedness merits attention. The people of Khotachiwadi have been at it for a while now. And despite these efforts, two of the bungalows have already been destroyed. The fight is far from over and they need the wind on their backs to ensure that their concerns get heard,” argues Srividya Iyer, a journalist who is an avid follower of the developments at Khotachiwadi.

What media attention does not result in, however, is an articulation of the contestations that plague the larger development debate. “Conservation becomes important, as it questions the haphazard mode of high-rise based development that has been enforced upon the city. We all know what the effects of such development are – public spaces become private, change becomes equated to gentrification and the vested interests of a few individuals take precedence over the collective responsibility that we all have towards the city,” mentions Dalvi. Agreeing with such an evaluation, Kaiwan Mehta, an architect and a founder-director of the architectural research initiative Arbour, says, “These spaces have grown over a period of time. There are memories and life practices that are embedded in these spaces. We will have to strive to allow for more organic change. And that certainly entails resisting any mode of development which is enforced upon the people of such spaces without taking into account any of the factors that affect their lives and in turn, the city itself.”

Photos: Sriram Mohan, Sandeep Viswanath & Fareeda Muhammed

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One Response to Conserving Khotachiwadi: A Hamlet Fights Back

  1. Rohini Shankar says:

    Great articulation of thoughts and the story line- Keep up the work Sriram- All the Best

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