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The City in Colonial India

The pace of urbanisation in India was slow. A large portion of urban dwellers were residents of the three Presidency cities––Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The presidencies were multifunctional cities; they had major ports, warehouses, homes and offices, army camps as well as educational institutions, museums and libraries. Bombay was the first city of India.

Bombay became prosperous under the East India Company. It was the principal western port of the East India Company. It was the major outlet for cotton textiles from Gujarat. Gradually it became an important administrative centre in western India and a major industrial centre in the nineteenth century.

With the industrialisation of Bombay, it became the capital of Bombay Presidency. There was growth of trade in cotton and opium. A large number of traders, bankers, artisans and shopkeepers settled in Bombay. With the establishment of the first cotton textile mill in Bombay in 1854, there was an increase in migration.

Bombay witnessed the growth of maritime trade. Two major railways were established in Bombay. The railways encouraged higher scale of migration into the city.

Housing and Neighbourhoods

Bombay was a crowded city. The city was unplanned and led to housing and water problems. There was a racial pattern of settlement. The city was divided into two, the ‘native town’ where Indians lived and the European ‘white’ section.

The richer Parsi, Muslim and upper caste traders and industrialists of Bombay lived in sprawling bungalows. The poor working people lived in the thickly populated ‘chawls’ of Bombay. The mill workers were housed in Girangaon, a ‘mill village’ not more than a 15 minutes’ walk from the mills.

Chawls were multi-storeyed structures built in the ‘native’ parts of the town. These houses were largely owned by private landlords, such as merchants, bankers and building contractors, looking for quick ways of earning money from the migrants. Each chawl was divided into smaller one-room tenements which had no private toilets. The chawls were built from 1860s onwards.

High rents forced the workers to share homes. The houses were mostly present near filthy gutters, privies, buffalo stables, etc. There was scarcity of water.

People belonging to the ‘depressed classes’ found it difficult to find housing. The lower castes were kept out of chawls and often had to live in shelters made of corrugated sheets, leaves, or bamboo poles.

In 1898, the City of Bombay Improvement Trust was established. It focused mainly clearing poorer homes out of the city centre. This was done for the fear of outbreak of plague epidemic.

In 1918, a Rent Act was passed to keep rents reasonable, but it had the opposite effect of producing a severe housing crisis as the landlords withdrew houses from the market.

Land Reclamation in Bombay

Bombay always faced scarcity of land. Bombay was a group of seven islands. These islands were joined into one landmass over a period of time. The earlier project began in 1784. The Bombay Governor William Hornby approved the building of the great sea wall which prevented the flooding of the low-lying areas of Bombay.

Several private companies showed interest in reclamation of more land from sea. In 1864, the Back Bay Reclamation Company won the rights to reclaim the western foreshore from the tip of Malabar Hill to the end of Colaba.

The Bombay Port Trust created the famous Marine Drive of Bombay between 1914 and 1918.

Bombay—The World of Cinema and Culture

Bombay is popularly known as ‘Mayapur’—a city of dreams. Films were mainly based on the life of new migrants and their struggle in daily life. India’s first movie was shot by Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar in 1896. Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra in 1913. By 1935, Bombay had become India’s film capital producing films for national audience. Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto were famous writers of Hindi cinema.

Bombay films have contributed in a big way to produce an image of the city as a blend of dream and reality, of slums and star bungalows.

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