MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Madhuri Dewar remembers her wedding in 1981 in the tenement building where she had lived all her life: guests sat in the colourful tent in the courtyard, packed the corridor and squeezed into the one-room home she shared with her parents.

Today, Dewar, 65, lives with her husband in the same room in a Bombay Development Directorate (BDD) "chawl" - a building divided into small rooms with shared toilets - in Naigaon in central Mumbai.

Her two sons and their families live in two rooms across from her, and the families walk into each other's homes all day.

But after four generations, their way of life is under threat as city officials are set to redevelop the colonial-era BDD chawls in four locations in south and central Mumbai.

"We have lived here for so many years. My family is here, all my neighbours are friends," said Dewar.

"We would like to have bigger homes, become owners, but we do not know if our lives are going to be the same after the redevelopment, if we will all be together like we are now."

Washing hangs in the corridor of a Bombay Development Directorate 'chawl', a century-old building made up of small rooms with shared toilets, in Mumbai. May 24, 2017.
Washing hangs in the corridor of a Bombay Development Directorate 'chawl', a century-old building made up of small rooms with shared toilets, in Mumbai. May 24, 2017. © Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

About a third of India's 1.25 billion population lives in cities, with the numbers rising every year as tens of thousands of people leave villages to seek better prospects.

Up to 37 million households - a quarter of the country's urban population - live in informal housing including slums and chawls because of a critical shortage of affordable housing, according to social consultancy FSG. 


Mumbai's BDD chawls were built in the 1920s to house textile mill workers. Some were built as prisons, then converted into military barracks and low-cost housing for migrant labourers.

More than 16,500 families live in the four BDD chawls spread across more than 93 acres (0.15 sq mile) of land in prime sites. They pay a monthly rent of about 18-20 rupees (about 30 U.S. cents) each.

The rooms, measuring 160 sq ft (15 sq metre) each, have been modified by families over the years, some carving out a kitchen and a toilet as their means improved. 

There is a shared open courtyard where children play and festivals and weddings are celebrated. In the corridors, washing is hung and children's bicycles parked.

The chawls -- in close proximity to offices, schools and public transport -- are rare enclaves of affordable housing in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Plans to redevelop the chawls in the space-starved city have been made and shelved repeatedly over the years as governments changed and residents opposed the plans.

Now, the buildings are so dilapidated that they must be knocked down, officials say.

"The buildings have outlived their life spans," said S.D. Lakhe, vice chairman of state agency Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA).

"These people deserve safer, bigger homes with better amenities," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


India has a shortage of around 20 million urban homes, according to consultancy KPMG.

In financial hub Mumbai, about 60 percent of the 18 million population live in crowded slums and other informal homes.

States are rushing to meet a 'Housing for All' target by 2022, which aims to create 20 million new urban homes and 30 million rural homes.

The plan for the BDD chawls is to give tenants two-bedroom flats measuring 500 sq ft (46 sq mt) each in high-rise towers. A third of the land will be developed and sold commercially to help meet the project cost of more than $1 billion.

Residents say MHADA reneged on a vow to let them pick a developer, instead floating tenders without informing them. 

Also, only tenants who can prove they lived there before 1996 are eligible for a new flat. Anyone who owns property elsewhere in Mumbai is barred.

Several residents' associations have filed petitions against MHADA's plans and have threatened to protest.

"MHADA did not take us into confidence and are going ahead without our consensus. This is a violation of our rights," said Raju Waghmare, a spokesman for residents in the Naigaon chawl.

"Everyone who lives here deserves a home; the cut-off date is random. And those who bought a property are being punished for prospering," said Waghmare, who estimates about half the residents may not be eligible under these conditions. 

Public hearings were held for chawl residents, and contracts were given to builders Larsen & Toubro and Shapoorji Pallonji following a "transparent and thorough" procedure, Lakhe said.

A cut-off date is essential to ensure only legitimate tenants get new apartments, he said.


The redevelopment of the BDD chawls is second only in scope to the long-delayed plan for the Dharavi slum, home to about 1 million residents and hundreds of small businesses.

That plan too, was criticised for ignoring the needs of poor migrant workers who have lived there for generations. 

Activists say the government's focus on creating Smart Cities with internet connectivity, uninterrupted power and efficient public transport will hurt poorer residents including those in slums and chawls.

Mumbai's chawls help meet the affordable housing needs of the city, and foster a sense of community and inclusion that eludes low-income workers and migrants of religious minorities, said Sameep Padora, an architect who has studied chawls.

"Creating affordable housing is not merely about adding square footage area; it is also about maintaining the social fabric and about sensitivity to the needs of people who do not have many options," he said.

As chawls make way for skyscrapers, their part in maintaining the city's diversity is lost, as informal rules and biases increasingly erode the multi-cultural character of cities.

"The government wants to make south Mumbai into an elite community of rich, white-collar people and push poor, working-class people out of sight," said Waghmare.

"We are not encroachers; these are our homes, our lives."