Three Stories

I spent most of this summer trying to understand how the massive urban bureaucracy in Mumbai really functions on the ground. Even though the formal functioning of the state is fascinating in itself, my enquiry was taking me into domains of what could very loosely be termed as the ‘informal state’ in Mumbai. I spent most of my time in M/E ward office, which is the lowest level of the urban bureaucracy in Mumbai. The M/E ward spans over an area of 32 sq km and has a population of approximately 675,000 people. There are over four thousand employees in this office.


Panjrapole is one of the most interesting places in the M/E ward. In addition to being a concentration of Dalit and minority households, it has also been subjected to displacement caused by the construction of the Eastern freeway[1]. Though a large chunk of the settlement has been resettled, the peripheries were not deemed to be eligible for resettlement by the implementing authority and still remain as they were. Geographically, Panjrapole is located on a hill, on the outskirts of the Bhaba atomic research center (a highly classified space).

Scene 1: I am visiting Panjrapole today with the Junior engineer (JE) of the maintenance department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Assistant engineer (AE) and the local corporator[2] of this area. We are met by the local corporator[3] on site, who has already been in conversation with the people from the community. There are a lot of people there, women, young men, children and also a municipal employee who lives there (he is in his uniform). With her, we walk to the edge of the settlement where a landslide has recently occurred due to the recent onset of the monsoon, killing an eighteen year old boy who was sleeping in his hut at the time. Both the AE and JE progress onto the landslide site, while the corporator continues to talk to the people, where they notice that the retention walls built by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has abruptly stops even as the settlement has continued. AE directs JE to immediately start work on the retention wall. We return to the corporator where we hear people complaining about the lack of water, road connectivity or any kind of drainage/public toilets. What I should also mention here is that it is pretty clear that all of these tenements are very recent; almost none of them seem to be older than five years old, making them illegal[4]. However, all parties agree that the condition of this area is of utmost concern and proceed to discuss planning for services in this area. They will start with the retention wall and the construction of an access road to the edge[5] of the settlement.

Scene 2: In the second half of the day, I meet the chief officer for the resettlement division of the MMRDA. He is surprisingly easy to access and his office looks like a labyrinth with piles of files in every corner. He is an alum of Tata institute of social sciences[6], he seems welcoming and apprehensive of me at the same time. I had broadly informed of my research interests in relation to landuse planning and urban governance in Mumbai. He is willing to engage with the rhetoric of urban planning and how the MMRDA conducts planning in Mumbai but seems slightly antagonistic. However, I am finally able to get through to him, and convince him that it is the everyday functioning of his office that I am interested in, his day to day encounters with different levels of state and society; and his whole persona changes. He relaxes and starts telling me stories of how due to rigid procedures of the MMRDA hundreds of people suffer in interactions with his office. He tells me of instances in which he has made concessions which he can never admit to on paper, just so that an entire community could be resettled as is. He proceeds to tell me about Panjrapole, where after resettling the ten thousand households another eighteen hundred households[7] now claim that they are eligible for compensation. He claims that these people have forged documents and garnered massive political support to substantiate their claim. He tells me that the survey for allotment has happened three times in this area. All levels of the elected representation reaching up to the chief minister are involved in this process. How did this happen? He tells me the state officials of all levels involved in the survey were involved and most of these eighteen hundred people are ‘dummy recipients’. I tell him about what I saw this morning; he is not only aware about the landslide and the poor living conditions there, he has visited the site but also admits his inability to take any action. He tells me that the landslide is an annual occurrence and MMRDA has failed to provide so far. He also tells me that this land with all the ‘encroachments’ has been transferred over to the BMC this year and now it is their problem. He ends the conversation with – “What are you going to do with this kind of information?” Its 8.30 pm and he is still working.


I have been hanging around in the office of the Assistant Municipal Corporation (AMC) in M/E ward and am waiting for the review meeting of all the departments. The district municipal commissioner (DMC) is to come in today into the office. The DMC arrives and goes in to meet the AMC directly; another man in a white safari suit suddenly makes an entry into the office. He gets a warmer welcome in each every department that he goes to than the DMC, starting from the executive engineer (EE), the building factory department to the maintenance department. Each and every person, from the peons to the EE himself entertains him with great respect. Who is this man I ask? He is the driver of the DMC. Why is he so important I ask? And I am met with amazed looks, because he knows the boss’s locations and negotiations they say. In addition to that, this particular driver lived in M/E and was a key informant for the corporation with regards to any illegal/extralegal activities going on in the ward; he is also a key point of access for people in the ward to officials working in the local bureaucracy. He was curious about me and I about him, but alas our paths never met again.


I am hanging out with the municipal secretary, Mr S, telling him of my field visit to Panjrapole and my astonishment at how 1800 household could have been added to the resettlement survey. He tells me “madam, if you need to get added to that survey, I can still do it for you”. How, I ask and he tells me about the registers that have been used to conduct the survey. The tables made to write the names of the actual allottess many times are accompanied with blanks spaces, on dividing which another can easily be added. He says “if drawing a line across a box helps someone and me, why should I not draw that line?”

[1] Which is an infrastructure project undertaken by the Mumbai metropolitan authority, causing displacement of approximately 10,000 households. Though the people were uprooted from their original homes, they were resettled in colonies built by the state very close to their original locations. As can be imagined, this process has been and still is very highly contested.

[2] The elected representative

[3] She has been temporarily nominated as the previous representative, hugely powerful person, Rahul Shevale has been elected as the member of parliament. She has very little understanding of how the allocation process works. As JE puts it, she was nominated simply because she belongs to a certain caste background.

[4] How and why these tenements have come up here is a whole different story.

[5] Very complicated, as the land doesn’t belong to BMC and a there is a tunnel for the freeway just below this settlement.

[6] Where I have completed my masters from and also the institution I used as my base during this summer. This institution has a very long history of contesting state policy, while many a times it may be involved in creating state policy.

[7] 1800 tenements = $21 million at least