The past two decades have witnessed rapid shrinking of Mumbai’s villages

As the evening stretches out on the Arabian Sea at Carter Road, the row of eateries come alive with boisterous crowds of youngsters enjoying a good snack. Lost among the tiny cafes and the imposing façades of sea-facing buildings are three 19th century Christian crosses, marking the history of the earliest village settlements in the island city of then Bombay. Those days, crosses were said to be congregation spots for East Indians, and for women in the evenings as they waited for their husbands to return from the fields. A time of lore when houses were never locked and community life thrived.

Behind these crosses, hidden in a vast concrete jungle, lie the villages of Chuim, Shirley Rajan and Pali — a little farther away. These are among the last surviving gaothans of Mumbai. The rapid pace of redevelopment has taken a steep toll on them, greatly shrinking their expanse, as cottages gave way to buildings. The narrow winding roads which can barely accommodate a car, the paver-blocked pathways that have raised the height of the roads and shortened the compound walls of the houses, new buildings that nearly touch the next house, indicate that the change has been haphazard, with scant regard for rules and regulations. Fly-by-night builders, also called Saturday-Sunday builders by the locals, eye prime property, and have made inroads into the gaothans and remain the bane of the residents.

“Illegal construction is causing mayhem,” says Daphne Warapen, a Chuim village resident and an activist. “Where is the parking area? Where is the disaster plan? If someone is critical, an ambulance cannot get into Pali village. These ‘chhota mota’ [small] builders in Chuim and Khar Danda buy from owners under the garb of repair permission.”

The builders are supposed to maintain the structure, but they build entire societies and even get them registered. Houses come up in six to eight months. “For a good builder, building in gaothans would have many obstacles, such as the narrow width of the roads, the lack of parking space, etc,” Warapen says. “So they do not take up projects in the villages. And, where is the infrastructure to redevelop? There is a half-inch water pipeline and old sewerage system.”

Official communication obtained under RTI by Chuim resident Andrew Monterio highlights at least one instance of “unauthorised” extension of an old house into the public road. Says Anil Joseph, chairman of the Perry Road residents association, “In Bandra gaothans, dubious builders are called ‘Saturday-Sunday’ builders or ‘Repair Permissions’ builders. East Indians are poor at leaving wills. So they scout for instances where wills are not clear. If a house is co-owned by two to three brothers, they will persuade and pressure one of them to buy off a share, usually the top floor. This way they get entry into the property.”

He adds, “Then they apply to the BMC for repair permissions and in its name start destroying the structure, using means such as pouring water from top, housing unsavoury elements. The remaining owners move the court, run to the police station. Some owners may get tried and sell off the entire property. These are Gaothan grabbers.”

The problem is prominent in Bandra and Khar, which commands prime real estate prices and is home to celebrities. Also, owing to in-fighting, family members sell off their portion for easy money and move out, making it easy for builders to swoop in. “Many Catholic families have moved to Vasai, Virar and Mira Road,” says Godfrey Pimenta, an activist and a resident of Marol gaothan. “No one looks at community interest. Gaothans are vanishing. In another 10 years they will be lost.”

Waging a lone battle

In Shirley Rajan village, 70-year-old Felicia D’Silva is fighting a lone battle with her tenant in court. The strain on her face gives way to joy as she speaks of the old days. “We lived in independent homes and spoke Portuguese. Our houses were always open. In the British administration, we never had to grease anyone’s palms. I worked as a teacher. We were a close-knit community. I miss the old days terribly.” Ms D’Silva claims a well-known underworld don had visited her house in the 1970s “when he was just a boy” with an offer to purchase the ancestral bungalow. However, the family showed no interest and there was no trouble.

Most of the cottages in gaothans are over a century old. As families expanded and needed more space, moving to flats in buildings after selling one’s property share was a natural progression. However, succession laws, claims of property heirship and “dubious” names on property cards gave rise to contentious litigation, points out lawyer Darryl Pereira. For nearly 80 years there were no property transfers and then family squabbles broke.

The BMC and police deny the presence of illegal construction and harassment by builders. “Gaothan lands are owned by the people. No property can be developed without the requisite permissions. The BMC makes entries on property cards and grants permissions only on the basis of documents. There is the remedy of criminal complaint for the aggrieved,” says Mumbai suburban collector Shekhar Channe.

The recognition of East Indians as a community in Mumbai dates back to 17th century. They claim to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai, along with the ‘koli’ (fishing) community. A lot of Portuguese influence is seen in the architecture of the gaothan houses as well as the language the people – Marathi with a mix of Portuguese. Their cuisine, comprising popular dishes such as ‘duck moil’, ‘fugiyas’ and ‘sorpotel’, is similar to their Goan counterpart with a difference in preparation. It is this way of life that the East Indians are yearning to preserve. “Others have their native villages. This is mine. These are my roots, my heritage,” says Colman Pereira of Pali village.

The government’s recent development plan, which included the Worli Koliwada village in the slum rehabilitation scheme, has raised the hackles across all East Indian gaothans. The Koliwadas, mainly fishing villages along the coast, are different types of villages from the Christian gaothans.

“By what stretch of imagination are these houses slums? Are we slum dwellers,” says Pereira. “The government wants to increase the density of the villages by giving larger FSI without improving the infrastructure to support this kind of construction. A building has come up right next to my house, whose plinth level is up to my first floor. It blocks my light and air. Change should come about, but it should be in continuity. Unwieldy constructions should not be allowed. Old houses should be blended with the new. Gaothans are left to stagnate. They are Mumbai’s only available real estate.”

Mr Joseph estimates that one village approximately covers five acres of land. With a hundred gaothans in existence, the nearly 500-acre area holds attraction for builders. Other villages such as the ones in Gorai have been able to keep the problems of illegal construction at bay, thanks to better organisation to preserve local culture and way of life. There is less pressure from land sharks. However, two proposed bridges from Gorai and Marve have caused much anguish about the future of the village.

“The people in Gorai are unified. We stay close to each other. If there are any property disputes, we try to settle before going to court. We want development, but not at the cost of our culture,” says Rossi D’Souza, teacher and sarpanch of Gorai village having a population of around 12,000.

“There are about 100 Gaothans and 25 Koliwadas left. Most have been lost to urbanisation. The next generation may want tall buildings, but it will be great if it is done in an orderly manner and taking the Gaothans into confidence,” says Alphi D’Souza, Sarpanch of Mobai Gaothan Panchayat.

In memoranda sent to the Chief Minister and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the panchayat has demanded a concrete gaothan policy, permission for construction of ground-plus-two storeys, fund allocation, simplification of the repair permissions process and an East Indian Bhavan. The preservation of the villages as the city’s heritage is one of the common demands among residents.

A looming sense of disquiet and of being under siege is palpable across the villages. Caught between a fight to preserve their roots and the pressures of redevelopment, they stare at an uncertain future.