Understanding Spatial Inequalities in Mumbai: From Colonial India to the Present Day


The largest factor causing Mumbai to become one of the world’s biggest cities is widely accepted to be its location on the Indian peninsula, with the presence of a deep and sheltered harbour. The erstwhile seven islands evolved from being outposts for fishing villages on the mainland to being the buzzing metropolis that it is today in a span of just around six hundred years, which is extremely brief when compared to the long and multifaceted histories of other global cities. The development of Mumbai (previously, Bombay) is inextricably linked to the sea and the functions associated with it, in the form of trade and naval power. Both these functions were prioritised by the British during the city’s role as one of the focal points of colonial rule, and also later by the Indian government after independence (Swaminathan 2014). Through this piece, the author aims to examine Mumbai’s history primarily during the colonial rule to understand how inequality in living spaces has manifested, particularly for the city’s indigenous residents.

Roots of Segregation in Colonial Bombay

Beverley (2011) shows that colonial rule and the consequent class segregation had its boundaries often coinciding with existing religious, caste, and ethnolinguistic differences. This formed the basis for shaping colonial cities like Mumbai. The outcome of the planning and construction stage in colonial urbanism manifests itself in the form of race and class-based segregation. The boundaries between the “white town” and the “black town” were porous and arranged more on function and class, rather than on race. This is evident because many functions, particularly the more unsavoury ones like burial and labour were concentrated in the “native town”, despite being used by the European residents too. Notions of sanitation and communal harmony were fronted to promote the ‘dual city model’.

There were radical differences in both these quarters, with native settlements showing an intricate network of streets and a high population density. The European Quarter, in comparison, was spacious and sparsely populated. European architecture was characterised by uniformity and cohesion, brought about by systematic planning through development schemes, while native buildings displayed a high degree of heterogeneity, often contingent on the background and occupation of the communities that occupied them. (Chopra 2007).

The functioning of the “native town” was administered by the British government using a combination of fearmongering through a strong military presence (Beverley 2011) and unilateral action over Indians without consent (Chopra 2007). This interference by the colonial administration was just one of the ways in which the natives and the European areas mingled.

Transition to Class-based Segregation

Lewis and Harris (2013) note how the strict boundaries in the dual city model largely existed only in the studies by colonial authors and observers. Widespread industrialisation and the actions of the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) after the plague outbreak in the late nineteenth century are widely identified to be primary causes of the blurring demographics of segregated areas. An increase in prosperity, particularly among the industrialist classes, caused native Indian communities to make a foray into the erstwhile inaccessible and unaffordable European areas.

Bombay’s Fort area started out as the historical centre of the British settlement. However, the concentration of Europeans in the nucleus of Fort began to be diluted as wealthy Indians acquired property in that region. The breaking down of the Fort’s walls, in addition to the increasing suburbanisation towards the north, helped the European settlements spread out over a larger area and allowed for the greater mingling of Indians (Lewis and Harris 2013). What started as racial segregation gradually transformed into class-based segregation with the advent of the 20th century.

Understanding Spatial Inequality

Mumbai’s prosperity as a city was primarily brought in by the industrialist and mercantile classes, whose functions were first monopolised by the British, but later became open to Indians. This greater access to wealth further caused the seeds of inequality sown through colonial segregation to grow. The city underwent a reorientation of sorts in the early twentieth century with the mindsets and economic conditions of the people undergoing vast changes.

Greater access to wealth for the citizens further caused the seeds of inequality sown through colonial segregation to grow. The city underwent a reorientation of sorts in the early twentieth century with the mindsets and economic conditions of the people undergoing vast changes

The growth in importance of the sea-view in Bombay embodies this journey of the city’s reorientation. As the city grew and its economy diversified away from its maritime functions, the sea-view grew in importance in the minds of its residents. Mumbai saw a reorientation of its principal axis away from the port in the East to the open sea in the West (Doctor 2010). This change may be interpreted as a change in the people’s mindset, where the port’s status as a source of livelihood was seen to be diminishing in importance in favour of more materialistic requirements such as a pleasing view (Swaminathan 2014).

This sea-view, however, came at great cost: both social as well as ecological. Ecologically, most of Bombay stands on reclaimed land (Ghadge 2018). This has disturbed the indigenous flora and fauna. Far greater is the social cost, where indigenous communities, especially the fisherfolk who originally inhabited the seven islands, were displaced to accommodate the influx of immigrants that Bombay’s economic boom brought in.

Burnett-Hurst (1925) observes the large number of immigrants thronging to the city for securing their livelihoods. Some groups like the Parsis and Gujaratis formed a large part of the industrialist classes, while others supported the burgeoning industries with their labour and allied services. The cumulative effect of this active role of immigrants in the development of the urban fabric has led to the marginalisation of the indigenous people of Mumbai (Chhabria 2018). The economically poor inhabitants were relegated to the fringes of the city, either being geographically distant from the economic core, or forced to live in previously uninhabitable regions like swamps and marshes on the city’s coasts (Anand and Rademacher 2011).

When the settlements of Kolis or the indigenous communities of Mumbai are compared with those of the immigrant classes, the spatial inequality is clear. While there exists a wide disparity among the economic status of the immigrant groups, the Koliwada or the Koli settlement is largely at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The term ‘economic backwardness’ as understood by Gerschenkron may be interpreted with regards to the condition of the Kolis, owing to their distance from the process of industrialisation and entrepreneurship as seen by the rest of the city. The Kolis were largely involved only in fishing activities and in land ownership but were not primarily involved in the entrepreneurial processes that caused the rest of the city to prosper rapidly.

Way Forward

The entrepreneurial process, if extended to indigenous communities, may have widespread positive impacts. This will help reduce the impact of their exclusion from the benefits of the market system. This method is already considered to be beneficial to improve the standard of living for indigenous communities around the world, as it is spearheaded and acted upon by the beneficiaries themselves (Peredo et al. 2004).

This growing interest in entrepreneurship among indigenous and economically backward groups requires adequate support in the form of education and skilling. Robust education infrastructure backed by a mindset which recognises the importance of education towards improving the quality of life is necessary to bring in the desired changes. A skill development programme, with an emphasis on both hard as well as soft skills is also critical to ensuring that the entrepreneurial ventures succeed.

Land-titling of unofficial slum developments may also be explored as a viable alternative to unlock the potential of slum areas. While Kolis have legitimate claims and records of their land (Chhabria 2018), other economically backward sections, particularly from immigrant groups do not possess the same. Formalisation of their lands may allow for in-situ development (Galiani and Schargrodsky 2010), and provide an alternative to the currently adopted solution of razing, rehabilitation and reconstruction (Anand and Rademacher 2011). Land-titling will also allow for the land to be used actively as a component in the economic process, by opening up its potential as collateral and thus complementing the impetus given to the entrepreneurial process.

In conclusion, Mumbai, with its strong spirit of entrepreneurship, allows for rapid economic growth of its inhabitants. However, this process has a tendency to be discriminatory against the people excluded from the entrepreneurial process. A potential solution to remedy this exclusion is to bridge the gap that exists between the groups with access to entrepreneurial networks and those which do not, by actively encouraging entrepreneurial activity. This will help make the Maximum City less about being a city of two extremes, and help bring its residents closer, at least economically, if not otherwise.

Chaitanya is currently pursuing the Master of Public Policy course from the National Law School of India University, and is a part of Lokniti’s Editorial Board. He hopes to assist in reforming our urban spaces to make them more inclusive, sustainable, and vibrant. He can be reached at bhatchaitanya@nls.ac.in.


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