A large part of Mumbai’s outlook adds to its chawls, which could soon become history with the state government’s push for a revamp of these iconic structures of BDD chawls. These were in fact jails in the British era but later transformed into housing tenements for the working class. These chawls are spread over 92 acres of prime land in Mumbai and 195 chawls are spread over Worli, Naigaon, NM Joshi Marg plus a few in Sewree.
Chawls were first built in 1900, when the then British government encouraged many traders to set up textile mills here. These mills needed labour and the workers — mostly from the coastal Konkan region made to queue up for jobs here. In order to ensure houses for these labourers close to their mills, these residences were constructed in 100-200 square-feet areas by mill owners. Taking advantage of this situation, many landlords also constructed chawls as rent was a source of productive income for them.
As Mumbai grew, the workers then started bringing their families to the city and lived with them in these chawls. The children were sent to municipal schools. Freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak started the Ganeshotsav festival from Keshavji Naik chawl in Girgaum with the whole aim of bringing people together. In the freedom movement, chawls played a vital role with many youngsters jumping into it.
BDD chawls are famous mostly in the area of Lower Parel. BDD is the “Bombay Development Department”. As of 2016, total 195 BDD Chawls located at Worli, Naigaon and N M Joshi (Parel) cover an area of 86.98 acre, with the Worli BDD chawls occupying the maximum area of 59.69 acre. Out of the 195 BDD chawls, the maximum of 121 chawls are in Worli. In all, there are 16203 tenements of which 2901 tenements have been earmarked for police housing.
These chawls had a large verandah as well as a big ground where children could play. In the night, adults would take a stroll in the compound, which also served as a meeting point for the residents. In these chawls, various festivals like Ganpati, Dahi Handi and Diwali were celebrated with enthusiasm. In case of weddings and functions, as people could not afford halls, a pandal used to be erected at the ground and the whole function used to take place there.
In case of a celebration at someone’s house, all the women in the chawls would come together and cook for the guests. The exchange of commodities like sugar, milk and other eatables is commonplace in these chawls. The chawl culture also played its role in Marathi literature and theatre. The ‘workers theatre’ also gifted a number of playwrights and actors to Marathi theatre. The ‘chawl culture’ has been portrayed in the works of several Marathi litterateurs like P L Deshpande. Socialist and leftist parties also got tremendous support from the tenants of these chawls for a few decades since the 1940s and 50s.
Few decades ago, Underworld mafias too had their control over these chawls. From freedom fighters to commoners and criminals everyone had room here. Currently more than 16,000 families stay here in 160-square-feet cramped houses with issues like ventilation and water. The Bombay Development Directorate Chawls were built by the British. After the British left, the chawls came under the jurisdiction of the state government and were handed over to the PWD department for maintenance.
When Shiv Sena was founded in 1966, the party attracted many youths from these chawls. Top leaders like Manohar Joshi, Vithal Chavan, Dattaji Nalawade, Wamanrao Mahadik and Suryakant Desai all trace their origins to these chawls. But, on January 18, 1982, the entire textile sector went on strike, which proved to be a death knell and the strike’s direct effect was borne by chawls. As the strike lingered on, many mill workers sold their houses and returned to their villages or went to the distant suburbs. Many unemployed youths began to get attracted to the underworld. Chawls like Dagdi Chawl at Byculla and 144 tenements at Chinchpokli gained notoriety as it became a recruitment place for gangsters.
There was always political upper hand by one or the other leader but these chawls are dedicated to the vote bank of Shiv Sena. BDD chawls pose to be money-spinning real-estate for builders. From the government’s point of view, chawls offer a great opportunity to offer affordable houses after rehabilitating the existing tenants. The chawls owned by landlords are also on the revamp radar, but now the recession in the real-estate market has slowed down the entire process.
In 2018 the then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that families of the police personnel living in BDD chawls will be given houses constructed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). Around 2,950 police families would have benefited from this decision. The decision was taken during the review meeting of progress on the redevelopment of the BDD chawls in the city. Fadnavis then directed the MHADA that once the houses are ready it should hand them over to the home department. The home department will prepare a policy to ascertain the eligibility of the candidates and then allot the redeveloped houses.
The families will be given redeveloped houses at the location they are currently residing at. The redeveloped houses will be of 500 sq. ft. But somehow the announcement was not executed and the lethargic approach of authorities delayed it further. However, there is no timeline defined by the government to hand over the redeveloped houses.
Finally, the much-awaited BDD chawl redevelopment project was kickstarted on Sunday as Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar jointly laid the foundation stone of the project.