Making the Modern Slum. The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay

Chhabria, Sheetal
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Sumeet Mhaskar, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University

One of the images that the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) evokes is the enormous presence of slums. Nearly half of the 20 million population in Mumbai city resides in slums. Mumbai is also home to the first slum museum in the world. The museum located in Dharavi, supposedly the biggest slum in Asia, showcases some of the myriads of objects produced in the region. The image of Mumbai city and its slums was reinforced globally by the award-winning Hollywood film Slumdog Millionaire. Making the Modern Slum by Sheetal Chhabria examines the structures that we today call slums by placing capital at the centre of colonial Bombay. Chhabria argues that instead of looking at the demographic aspect for understanding the city’s making, we should see it „as the effects of labors of demarcation“ (p. 17). That is, cities are not merely produced by some „lines on a map“ (p. 9) but through the policies of inclusion favouring the capital, which excludes the labouring poor. Secondly, the book shows how a particular idea of „the city“ resulted in placing the slum „not as the outside of the city, but as its internal other“ (p. 17 emphasis original). Slum thus came to define the internal boundary of the „city“. Interestingly, as the author notes, the first structures defined as slums were the „tenements in the center of the city and not the sprawling shantytowns we might associate with postcolonial urbanism“ (p. 18).

The book takes an unusual route of exploring the broader processes in the countryside to understand its linkages with urbanisation; and how they impinge upon the creation of the modern slums. The book’s biggest strength lies in linking the “slum question” to the “agrarian question”. It shows how the „city“ of Bombay was „constituted by the [labour] migrants“ movements in search of work as they responded to the imperatives forced by the capitalist pressures across city and country’ (p. 4). It examines the major events such as the famines and plague that profoundly impacted the city and the countryside. While the famines resulted in the movement of workers from the countryside to the city, the plague epidemic saw an exodus of workers from the city to the countryside. Chapter 1 shows how the urban was connected to the rural in myriad ways and that the city of Bombay was not merely a product of the colonial intervention. In doing so, the author draws attention to the processes that result in creating the power of capital in non-factory work „where disciplinary effects of the machine are less pervasive“ (p. 28). It also examines the power of capital during crises such as famine, plague, or cholera outbreaks. Interestingly, Chhabria focuses on indebtedness rather than wages to locate the continuous reproduction of the power of capital. She demonstrates the role of common calculative rationale in constituting the power of capital. For instance, during the famines, the colonial state prioritised the needs of the capital and helped the traders and entrepreneurs to sustain during the crisis. Under the East India Company, the rationale for providing relief to the poor changed from precolonial times – „it justified assistance only after its own criteria had been met, such as financial calculations and speculations on projected gains“ (p. 30). Such an approach had a profound impact on the spatial ordering of the city, „justifying dispossession of various kinds and eventual dominance of private property in the town over other forms of tenures“ (p. 40). In doing so, the colonial state overlooked the needs of the migrant labourers as more significant consideration was given to the well-being of "the city".

By examining the case of famines and its impact on Bombay city, the author shows how the policies carried out by the colonial state reproduced and exaggerated inequality. The flow of migrants to Bombay city was systematically pushed into certain spaces making a clear distinction between good circulation and bad circulation. The former being that of capital, and the latter identified with the famished migrants. This process, as described in chapter 3, led to „an internally differentiated space where, despite growing critique of imperial beneficence, rationales of rule fixated on 'health of the city' dispersed productive power among inhabitants“ (p. 83). While discussing housing in Chapter 4, Chhabria notes how the notion of legitimate and illegitimate housing depends on the source of concern. For instance, until 1911, when overcrowding was the main concern, given its relation to sanitation, „huts were legitimate forms of housing and were even well regarded because they tended to prevent overcrowding“ (p. 93).

The plague of 1896 threatened the city’s commercial status as the labouring poor and working classes left for their places of origin. These movements of the labouring classes caused immobility for the capital resulting in the interventions by the colonial state. More than quarantining, exclusion and medicine, urban planning became the central foci to address the plague epidemic. Here, the author shows how “slums” were seen as reducing „the commercial viability of the city“ and thus became the target of reform. This was especially the case with those slums, „located in the center of the city, near the elite quarters in southern Bombay“ (p. 117). These patterns find striking similarities with contemporary urban spatial transformation in Mumbai. High-end housing complexes have come up near „slum“ or working-class areas in central Mumbai. These residents of these high-end apartments use their influence to get rid of the informal markets which cater to the working classes and the lower middle class. Furthermore, spaces historically occupied by the city’s working classes and the labouring poor are being renamed to cater the needs of the „new middle class“. The new middle class often employed by the Multinational Corporations, is identified with „new culture“ and is seen to symbolize „modernity“ by way of aspirational lifestyles, consumerism, materialism and adoration of the West. Its members are also staunch proponents of liberalisation.[1] For instance, Lower Parel, an area identified with the working classes, is now renamed Upper Worli to create a new sense of belonging of the space for the new middle class. This making of the city anew through gentrification has gradually pushed a large section of the working classes and the lower middle classes from the central parts of the city to the extreme suburbs.

Making the Modern Slum provides fascinating insights into the urban spatial transformations in colonial Bombay. While this book is an interesting contribution in understanding the genealogy of the “modern slum” and its linkages with the developments in the countryside, it has a couple of limitations. The title of the book suggests that it is a story of the making of the modern slum. However, on several occasions, the reader is puzzled in seeing this connection to the making of modern slum. Secondly, it would have been helpful to connect the colonial making of modern slum with the present urban spatial transformations and gentrifications of the dwellings inhabited by the working class and labouring poorer sections in Mumbai. While the high-end real estate developments are pushing the slum-dwellers to the outskirts of the city, there are also cases whereby they are resisting and negotiating these changes by deploying their numerical strength during the municipal corporation elections. The city’s working classes who have been residents of the chawls (tenement building in Bombay city) have been able to negotiate a space in the gentrified Mumbai. Thirdly, the author does not use any new archival sources to make her case. The significant events of the book, such as famines and plagues, and the role of Bombay Improvement Trust and the countryside’s connections to the Bombay city have been richly documented and analysed by the historians of Mumbai.[2] These scholars have highlighted the numerous ways through which colonial state intervention, due to the plague induced crisis, resulted in spatial reorganisation of the city. They have also shown how slums inhabited by the labouring poor became the target of colonial state’s intervention. Likewise, Jim Masselos’s work on the famines demonstrates how the refugees from the countryside were stereotyped in various ways, which had profound implications for the policies framed to address the crisis.[3] Notwithstanding these limitations, Making the Modern Slum is an important work that forces us to challenge “the city” as given. The book will be of interest to urban historians, geographers, and those who work in the field of urban-agrarian connections.

[1] Leela Fernandes, India’s new middle class. Democratic politics in an era of economic reform, Minneapolis 2006; Jan Nijman, Mumbai’s Mysterious Middle Class, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (2006), 4, pp. 758–775.
[2] Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The origins of industrial capitalism in India. Business strategies and the working classes in Bombay, 1900–1940, Cambridge 1994, ch. 4; ibid., Imperial power and popular politics. Class, resistance and the state in India, c.1850–1950, Cambridge 1998, ch. 7; ibid., History, Culture and the Indian City. Essays by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. Cambridge 2009, pp. 59–82; Prashant Kidambi, The making of an Indian metropolis. Colonial governance and public culture in Bombay, 1890–1920, Aldershot 2007; Vanessa Caru, Circumstantial Adjustments. The Colonial State, the Nationalist Movement, and Rent Control Legislation (Bombay, 1918–1928), in: Le Mouvement Social 242 (2013), 1, pp. 81–95; ibid., Where is Politics Housed? Tenants’ Movement and Subaltern Politicization: Bombay, 1920–1940, in: Revue d’histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 58 (2011), 4, pp. 71–92; Aditya Sarkar, The City, Its Streets, and Its Workers. The Plague Crisis in Bombay, 1896–98, in: Ravi Ahuja (ed.), Working Lives and Worker Militancy. The Politics of Labour in Colonial India, New Delhi 2013; ibid., The Tie That Snapped: Bubonic Plague and Mill Labour in Bombay, 1896–1898, in: International Review of Social History 59 (2014), 2, pp. 181–214.
[3] Jim Masselos, Migration and Urban Identity. Bombay’s Famine Refugees in Nineteenth Century, in Sujata Patel / Alice Thorner (eds.), Bombay. Mosaic of Modern Culture (5th ed.), New Delhi 2013.

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