ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ambivalences, Inconsistencies and Struggles of the Colonial State

Urban Planning in Bombay (1898-1928)

This article discusses the contradictions and inconsistencies within colonial plans for the urban renewal of Bombay in the years between 1898 and 1928. It attempts to break the perception of the colonial state as a coherent, hegemonic force of domination. Instead, it brings out colonial discourses of pretence and mimicry, and of upholding dichotomies and camoufl aging inconsistencies with the purpose of evolving more problematised concepts of colonial imperatives, intentionalities and rationalities.

The last few decades have witnessed unprecedented attention being accorded to colonial cities and their making. The present predicament of these cities (like Sao Paulo, Lagos, Mumbai), characterised by high densities of population, slum habitations, inadequate and declivitous infrastructure capacities have created an urban conundrum that no single master plan is able to address. ­Colonial legacies in terms of spatial ­difference and inequality have often formed an effective reasoning for the same. However, any analysis of the ­impact that the colonial state had on ­colonial cities first requires a look at how the state itself perceived this role. It is essential to delve into the colonial imagining of ­urban space and governance. This article undertakes an investigation into the same, with respect to the colonial conceptualisation of the idea of ­“urban planning” and its physical manifestation in the city of Bombay1 in the years between 1898 and 1928.

Bombay was obtained by Britain from the Portuguese in 1665 as an archipelago of seven islands. It was handed to the East India Company the following year, though it was to remain largely undeve­loped for almost a century. It was only in the late 18th century that its value as a port was recognised, leading to extensive reclamations in addition to the initiation of infrastructure provision. The cotton and opium trade of the early 19th century undoubtedly gave the most ­important boost to the city’s growth. The textile mills, a booming share market and a favourable atmosphere for commercial and industrial enterprise saw the economic prosperity of the city grow by leaps and bounds through the 19th century. The high percentage of migratory population that the city attracted coupled with the capitalist forces of operation led to the creation of a substantial working class population in Bombay, living in congested and often insanitary conditions. Early initiatives to address the paucity of space in Bombay involved bringing down the walls of the “fort” that had hitherto been constructed for protection against an enemy attack from the sea. However, the removal of the fort ramparts was far from adequate in dealing with the multitude of Bombay’s urban crisis involving the interrelated issues of demographic implosion, poverty, overcrowding, inadequate water supply, disease and the paucity of land. The three decades between 1898 and 1928 saw the provincial Bombay government undertake initiatives of urban planning and renewal, grounded on the discourses of “improvement”, “town planning” and “development”, as part of an elaborate philosophy of urban planning. The colonial state struggled time and again to implement its grandiose visions that were geared more towards an overhead simplification of urban issues than their resolution.

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