Cities & Architecture

Mumbai’s Historic Bhendi Bazaar is Being Revamped, Driven by Faith and Huge Investments

An artist's rendition of what Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai will look in a few years after it is completely revamped

An artist’s rendition of what Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai will look in a few years after it is completely revamped

Saifuddin Tahirali Patanwala’s home in Bhendi Bazar has a fridge, a television set, beds and two cupboards, one of them an antique, standing against a wall. One corner is a cooking area. An air-conditioner hums above a window. All this is packed into a compact 125 square feet. The toilet is out on the landing, which is shared by all the families on the floor. Patanwala lives here with his wife and two grown daughters; a third move out after her marriage. If he could, he would too, but property prices in Mumbai being what they are, it is not easy.

But now there is hope. A new scheme might just make it possible for Patanwala, and thousands like him, to get a brand new apartment, three times the size of his current one. From being a tenant, he will become an owner. That too for free.

It sounds like one of those offers by private real estate developers who promise untold luxury but hide the inconvenient details in the small print, but its not. “This is not a project about commerce, it is about community upliftment,” says Murtaza Sadriwala, the spokesman for the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust(SBUT), which has come up with the scheme that will completely alter the face and character of this historic neighbourhood.

It is an urban regeneration programme on a scale never before seen in India and is being guided is Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual leader of the one million strong Dawoodi Bohra community, to which Patanwala belongs. Highly educated and engaged in business and the professions, the Dawoodi Bohra’s are a sect within the Ismaili branch of Shias and trace their lineage back to Yemeni traders who came to India in the 11th century. They are distinguished by the coloured burqas called rida worn by women and the woven skull cap and sport beards that the men wear.

The Syedna – the current one is the 53rd in a long, unbroken line – commands not just religious but also social control over the Bohras. His followers refer to him as His Holiness and look to him for all manner of guidance, including, it is said, naming their children. Every child who comes of age has to swear loyalty to him; disobedience by a community member could and often does lead to social boycott. Many community members chafe at the rules and rituals but a large number see him as a munificent and paternalistic figure.

“It was His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (the present Syedna’s father) who came up with this idea of completely revamping Bhendi Bazaar. He was very much concerned about the way people lived. He used to go to their homes and see the conditions for himself and decided to do something to improve their lives. This is his vision,” says Abbas Master, CEO of the SBUT.

Bohras form between 70 percent and 80 percent of Bhendi Bazaar, which is also called Bohri Mohalla. Most have been living here for generations and have businesses within walking distance. There are five mosques, three of them for the Bohras and also the Raudat Tahera, the mausoleum where the present Syedna’s father and grandfather are buried. The walls of the tomb are inscribed with the Quran in gold letters and are a great draw for Bohras from far and wide. Not surprisingly, many Bohras continue living here despite the poor living conditions.

A top view of what the boundaries of Bhendi Bazaar look like today

A top view of the area that has been taken up for reconstruction

Over the years, things have only got worse. Many buildings today stand precariously, propped up by wooden beams, which sometimes give way and collapse during heavy rains. Climbing up even three or four floors is a chore fraught with risk, especially for older residents. Bhendi Bazaar – the name comes not from the vegetable but is a corruption of ‘Behind the Bazaar’, the latter referring to Crawford Market built in 1889 – is full of low rise structures which had been built there earlier as tenements for workers employed in the nearby docks. The Bohras, and other Muslims moved here in the early part of the 20th century.

The place is celebrated in legend and lore – there is a Hindustani music gharana named after it – and is known for its food, which attracts Mumbai residents from far and wide, especially during Ramzan. Its most famous stretch is Mutton Street, or Chor Bazaar as it is widely known, which is the best place for treasure hunting to pick up antiques, real and fake, furniture on order, auto parts, film posters, old vinyl records, lamps and other bric a brac.

A photo of Bhendi Bazaar as it was and still is

A photo of Bhendi Bazaar as it was

Mumbai sees Bhendi Bazaar as Muslim ghetto, quaint and colourful in its own way but also somewhat notorious. It was in Pakmodia Street, in the heart of Bhendi Bazaar, that the country’s most wanted criminal Dawood Ibrahim grew up and though his family no longer lives there, the after effects of that infamy have not really dissipated. “It is not always easy to get pizza delivered here,” admits a wizened old timer. “No one wants to come. The rest of us, perfectly respectable people, have to suffer.”

Patanwala himself felt the brunt of this prejudice some years ago. “When my daughter was to be married, the prospective groom’s family was worried that we lived in Bhendi Bazaar. We get this a lot.”

To him and many others, the SBUT’s scheme is a boon that will upgrade their lives. Residents will get homes in skyscrapers where each family will be given a minimum space of 350 square feet, which will accommodate a living room, a bedroom and indoor toilets. The residents see it as a win-win situation.

Businesses – the food stalls and the informal bazaars now on street level — will move into shopping arcades and malls on first few floors of the towers. At the end of it – no one knows exactly how long it will take – 16.5 acres of one of the oldest precincts of Mumbai – will have turned into a glittering, smart city with skyscrapers, gardens, wide and pedestrian-friendly roads and Bhendi Bazar as it has been known for over a century will cease to exist. The mosques and the Raudat Tahira will remain untouched-the plan is to build around them.

Work is going on at breakneck speed. Century-old buildings are being demolished and Bhendi Bazaar now resonates with the sound of pile drivers and jackhammers. Already hundreds of families have been moved to transit accommodation and many shops have been given temporary space in a mall a few kilometres, though there have been complaints of a fall in customers.

The statistics are impressive—Nearly 250 buildings over an area of 16.5 acres will be brought down and 3000 households, and 1250 businesses will be accommodated in 13 towers. The entire investment of Rs 4000 crores – though some reports suggest it could be as high as a billion dollars — will be borne by the SBUT, which will recover it by constructing – and selling in the open market – four luxury towers that could go up to 65 floors.

This grand Hausmann-like idea of totally destroying the old to make way for the new would have remained on paper but in 2009, a new scheme introduced by the government of Maharashtra opened up a way.

The scheme allowed entire neighbourhoods to be redeveloped in “clusters”, instead of one building at a time. While the construction was on, the old tenants would have to be accommodated in transit housing, which would be paid for by the developer. The rules said that at least 70 percent of the tenants and landlords of the precinct would have to agree to turning over their properties to the developers.

This proved to be a stumbling block for private companies who found it difficult to deal with thousands of people, each of whom had their own particular demands. The residents of just one building could hold up the entire project. After a while, the enthusiasm among developers for the project dried up.

The Bhendi Bazaar project had an advantage no one else had—the residents could not possibly say no to any appeal from the Syedna whose word was law. The SBUT went from building to building spreading the word among tenants and they simply bought out each landlord to avoid disputes. There were holdouts, mainly for more money or larger space, but gradually, most of them agreed. The scheme was not limited to the Bohras – others (mainly Muslims) were also offered the same terms. Several families were moved to brand new buildings not too far from their original homes while they awaited construction of the towers to which they would return.

Still, things were moving slowly, till a new government took over at the centre in May 2014 and then in Maharashtra in October that year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a keen interest in the project and the state chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has included it in a list of high priority infrastructural schemes.

“The state government has been very helpful. The CM has a war room that monitors all important projects–every month we meet and if there is a hold up of any sort, it gets cleared immediately,” says Master. Permissions from various authorities in the city, usually notoriously slow to obtain, have been coming speedily and last May, the SBUT won the best Smart City Project award from the central government. With such high-level official blessings behind it, the Bhendi Bazaar makeover is proceeding speedily.

But such wholesale redevelopment raises several questions; urbanization experts have reservations about the plan. “Individual residents will benefit from it, undoubtedly. Who wouldn’t want to move to a modern flat with all the amenities? But the project will affect businesses. At the moment, all the shops are at street level and there are organic networks built over years of customers, dealers, even handcart pushers. That will disappear when these shops move to higher floors-the area will have no relationship with the street, unlike now; can you imagine Chor Bazaar, where people like to stroll, in a mall,” says an architect, who declined to be quoted by name.

The buildings of Bhendi Bazaar will have shopping areas on the first few floors.

The buildings of Bhendi Bazaar will have shopping areas on the first few floors.

There is also the question of wiping out heritage. Bhendi Bazaar has grown organically over decades-many buildings have architectural vignettes and styles that collectively lend a charm to the area. The modern towers could be generic buildings of the type that can be seen anywhere in the world.

The SBUT says it is conscious of the fact that a very integral part of Mumbai is going to disappear. “We want the buildings to be different from the usual skyscrapers. The architecture will incorporate Fatimid motifs from Egypt. We have also launched a project to record people’s histories as well as keep elements that are typically Bhendi Bazaar.”

The Trust estimates that it could take between 7-10 years by the time all towers are built and occupied. Bhendi Bazaar will then become a Singapore-like development in the midst of one of the most congested areas of Mumbai. “It will float, above its neighbourhood, above the city,” says the architect, expressing concerns that it could become, from a ghetto, which still remains open and allows movement of others, to a gated enclave.

Patanwala and his family however are waiting for that day when they move into their new home. They know it won’t be soon, but they are ready to wait. “It’s all the gift of His Holiness. Otherwise, how would we have ever afforded to get a house of our own in Mumbai?”

Images courtesy SBUT