Why You Must Experience Chawls In Mumbai Atleast Once In Your Lifetime





I still remember in my architecture college days when we were getting ready for one of the trophies for NASA while doing the case study of chawls I learned how important these structures were to the urban fabric of the city. These were the spread outs from the focal points (Mills). Also, not to forget about the social aspect of these chawls. In India where you have so many festivals of which many are where the whole society is involved. The best part of these chawls was the courtyards which developed a strong cultural background amongst the tenants. Be it festivals, social events or just a Sunday morning cricket match it had a strong emotional value, and by urbanization we are losing these cultural pockets leaving us with just the nostalgia of such spaces.

So around the 1850s a lot of thing was happening in and around Bombay. In 1845 the seven islands coalesced into a single landmass by the Hornby Vellard Project. In 1853, we had our first Indian railway opened which stretched from Bombay to thane. In 1854, we had our first cotton mill in Bombay.in 1863, the British orchestrated the construction of a robust and affordable transportation system of local railways. In 1872, the addition of trams, trains and bus routes throughout the city allowed people to move into the suburbs post-independence. Due to unplanned settlements, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, Plague broke out in 1896. In response to those problems the City Improvement Trust was established to open new localities for settlement and to erect dwellings for the artisan classes.

As Bombay prospered as an industrial and commercial center, many prestigious urban projects were undertaken in the colonial (European/ British) parts of the city in an attempt to mirror the ‘spatial reconfiguration of the 19th-century European cities. It appears that the large parks, monuments, bungalows and wide streets of south Bombay came to be precisely because the poor lived and continue to live n chawls and ‘slums’, area without any civic amenities.

According to the 1849 census, Europeans were only 1 percent of the population, but they lived in the spacious fort area, while nearly two-fifths of the population lived in the crowded areas immediately north of the Fort. The death rate in such dense areas was four times that in the Fort area. The census of 1911 found that 80 percent of Bombay’s population lived in chawls.

Sketch by Ruchir Lad on "Chawls in Mumbai"
Sketch by Ruchir Lad on “Chawls in Mumbai”

In 1890 when the city boasted of 70 textile mills, it was estimated that around 100,000 people slept on roads or footpaths. Continued industrialization throughout the early 20th century caused exponential increases in population and contributed to the continued growth of chawls and slums beyond the wall.

According to Adarkar, Pendse and Finkelstein (2011), living conditions and the fate of working-class dwellings are closely related to urbanization in Mumbai. Industrial land during the early 1900s was inexpensive due to its proximity to the outskirts of the fort area. Both workers and employers needed to have workforce housing within an accessible distance from the industry. It is estimated that at one time, almost 75% of workers lived within a 15-minute walk to their workplace. Incidentally, many textile mills arranged for some social commodities such as bathing areas and barbershops with their premises.

The chawls were originally permanent housing for male workers and were either mill-owned, constructed by Bombay (Mumbai) Development Department, or privately owned as an investment property. The Chawl was meant for both blue- and white-collar workers, though they lived in different buildings. Each Chawl formed an unofficial “neighborhood” in and of itself, where occupants were typically people pf the same origins, dialects, occupations, or classes. This organization has remained the same over the years. As the population gradually increased, timber and brick chawls soon became overcrowded and slum settlements began to develop into temporary clustered units.


Dwivedi and Mehrotra (1995) describe how these overcrowded conditions made renting space more difficult. This difficulty led Chawl owners to seek creative ways to accommodate new members or migrants, such as partitioning single rooms, installing folding wooden planks to serve as bunk beds and constructing mezzanine lofts for storage and sleeping.

Further, the British introduction of reinforced cement concrete (RCC) as a construction material dramatically increased the rate at which developers could build chawls, demonstrating how Indian and British contractors actively promoted these living conditions. Though cement was imported initially, the readily available sand for concrete mixture paired with cheap labor in Mumbai made RCC an ideal solution to the local housing shortage.

According to Adarkar, Pendse and Finkelstein (2011) during colonial rule, the mill-owned tenement housing was quite unpopular, though considered to be the most convenient accommodation at the time. Adarkar (2011) writes, “Absence from work could not be easy if you stayed in one of these chawls. The owners could (and did) threaten to cut off electricity and water supply to the chawls if the workers were on strike, particularly what was termed ‘illegal strikes’.

rupali gupte prasad shetty propositions to see cities 17-638
Rupali Gupte Prasad Shetty, Propositions to see cities 17-638

The overcrowded scenario of the chawl, with its bare minimum civic amenities, would become a reference for the layouts of slum dwellings. Similar to chawls, slums during colonial rule were also an outcome of severe housing shortages throughout the city. Lack of housing led new laborers to construct dwellings near their places of work, forming a network of huts and sheds without any civic amenities. These slums neighborhoods were symbolic of the surplus of cheap labor: laborer’s housing needs were neither supported by their employers nor the state; thus residents, viewed as dispensable, were under constant pressure of eviction.

Indeed, during the 1890s with the addition of 70 textile mills in the city, it was estimated that around one million people slept on roads or footpaths. In the 1940s with the end of World War II and amid India’s independence and partition – Mumbai experienced yet another influx of migrants and refugees who would find themselves living in slums and pavement dwellings. The census of 1911 shows that 69% of the population lived in one-room dwellings; by the 1930s an average of around four people lived in each tenement, with over two million tenements throughout the city. Within this context slums during the colonial era were intended to be only temporary squatter settlements.

Unlike the worker-occupied chawls of the 1900s, post-colonial chawls are occupied by families. While workers had little incentive to convert these dwellings into homes, families make continuous efforts to transform their units into a habitable living space. After moving into the chawls families gradually invest in improvements that display qualities of performance and stability. Common spaces such as corridors staircases, courtyards and roofs change with the needs of the occupants.

This was a fun collaboration with Ruchir Lad. Thank you for the sketches. You can check his Instagram for more such sketches. Instagram – archi_theatre

These are a series blog so if you are not following anything is because you haven’t read from the start Click here

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Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010, P. 198

Prashant Kidambi, making of an India Metropolis: Colonial Governance & Public Culture in Bombay 1890-1920, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007, p.38.

Neera Adarkar, Sandeep Pendse, Maura Finkelstein


Prasad Shetty, “Ganga Building Chronicles,” The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life, (Gurgaon: Imprintone, 2011), 61

Mehta, “The Terrain of Home,” 83.

The Chawl neighborhoods of Mumbai – Neera Adarkar


Kaiwan Mehta, “The terrain of home and within Urban Neighbourhoods (A case of the Bombay Chawls),” The Chawls of Mumbai: galleries of life, (Gurgaon: ImprintOne, 2011), 61.

Mills in Bombay

In the previous blog we saw that the city got its shape by the 1850s. Trade started flourishing in different sectors. People from different communities started migrating because of trade. A working-class of people started migrating for jobs. This action resulted-in increase in population. But to see the trade of cotton mills we have to take a detour to the west.

Its beautiful bolls,

And bales of rich value, the Master controls.

Of “mud-stills” he prates, and would haughtily bring

The world to acknowledge that “Cotton is king”

– The gospel of Slavery, by “Iron Gray,” (Abel C. Thomas) 1864.


In the 1830s and 1840s, there was a common phrase for the growth of the American economy was “cotton is King”. It is important to understand that cotton was one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco.

Cotton was very profitable and was interconnected with the economies of cotton plantation and the Northern banking industry, New England textile factories and a huge proportion of the economy of Great Britain overlapped. 

a r street

Traditionally, it was assumed that the slump in the cotton industry was the simple result of a shortage of raw cotton created by the blockade of the southern ports during the civil war. As a result, the depression came to be called the “cotton famine”. However, recent academic research questions this interpretation, believing that the depression in the cotton industry was inevitable since the boom of the late 1850s had created an over-capacity which was unsustainable. 


The position of many producers was aggravated by the growing substitution of inferior Indian cotton for American cotton from 1862, which led to soaring production costs. Since markets were quiet, price rises were often inadequate to compensate for spiraling production costs, and profit margins were eroded. For those marginal firms with few reserves and little opportunity to reduce costs, the future was bleak, particularly for many of the more isolated country mills. Being some distance from the commercial centers of Liverpool and Manchester, they already operated with inflated costs. These circumstances sounded their death knell.

mount mary stairs

Yarn and cloth prices in the cotton trade as a whole began to fall after the American Civil War – more a reaction to the inflated levels of the war years than to the freeing up of supplies or the opening up of markets. Had the downwards movement halted at a certain price, there would have been few problems. It continued, however, almost uninterrupted for the next three decades, part of a world decline in prices. This downward spiral inevitably reduced already stretched profit margins, discouraging investment and expansion – especially in coarse production, which suffered most. 

sassoon dock

The prosperity of the cotton industry had depended heavily upon exports for much of the 19th century, yet it was in foreign markets that the performance of the cotton industry was most disappointing. Yarn exports actually fell and cloth exports, which had been growing 8.3% per annum between 1820 – 60, grew by a mere 1.4% per annum between 1870 – 1910. Britain’s cloth manufacturers were for the first time facing foreign competition. The impact on demand was exacerbated by the effect of the world decline in prices, which reduced the import capabilities of many of Britain’s customers.


Competition first came from The United States and some European countries, where cotton industries which had been developed from the 1830s grew rapidly. Initially, the threat was minimal and Lancashire retained its comparative advantage in cotton production, her merchants simply tapping new markets e.g. India, the Far East, South America, and the Levant

ma haji ali

Before the middle of the 19th century, India used to export cotton to Britain, and then reimport the textile. In 1820 the total textile import cost only Rs. 350,000. However, these costs escalated tremendously until in 1860 textile imports stood at Rs. 19.3 million.

The impetus towards the founding of a cotton industry came from Indian entrepreneurs. The first Indian cotton mill, “The Bombay Spinning Mill”, was opened in 1854 in Bombay by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar. Opposition from the Lancashire mill owners was eventually offset by the support of the British manufacturers of textile machinery.

By 1870 there were 13 mills in Bombay. Cotton exports grew during the American Civil War when supplies from the USA were interrupted. At the end of 1895 there were 70 mills; growing to 83 in 1915. A period of stagnation set in during the recession of the 1920s. In 1925 there were 81 mills in the city. After World War II, under strong competition from Japan, the mills declined. In 1953 there remained only 53 mills in the city.

horniman circle

The growth of the cotton industry was spurred, and for a small time eclipsed, by the cotton boom. Before the American Civil War, the mills of England imported only 20% of their cotton from India. With the blockade of the Confederate ports, Indian cotton prices rose. By 1865, when General Lee’s army surrendered, Bombay had earned 70 million pounds sterling in the cotton trade.

This money spurred on a financial bubble, with land reclamation schemes and the dockyards attracting huge investments. By January 1865 Bombay had 31 banks, 8 reclamation companies, 16 cotton pressing companies, 10 shipping companies, 20 insurance companies and 62 joint-stock companies. Within two months the American Civil War ended and most of these companies went into liquidation. Large numbers of speculators became bankrupt. However, wealth had been created and this led immediately to an industrial growth.

haji ali

The rapid growth in mills was sustained by a large migration of mainly Marathi speaking workers into the city. Most often, the male member of the family would work in Bombay, leaving the rest of the family in the village. These workers were initially accommodated in hostels. Eventually, these chawls became tenements, with full families crammed into single rooms. The mills filled up Parel and then expanded westwards all the way to Worli.

These are a series blog so if you are not following anything is because you haven’t read from the start Click here

Don’t forget to like, comment, follow and share it with your friends

For more such cool stuff follow me on social media

For business inquiry: armohsinsheikh@outlook.com