Bombay/Mumbai: Formalizing the Informal?

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s account of a hot night in Delhi embodies a sense of oppression felt only in Indian cities: “People eating, people washing, people arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People. People. People.”[1]

Bombay faces a variety of urban challenges, including a fast-growing housing deficit and spatial informality — the academic term for slums and other non-permanent constructions in the city. These problems have been caused by rapid population growth — Bombay has been in a state of constant demographic explosion since India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947. Originally at four million in the 1950s, the city’s population has grown exponentially to twelve million in the 2000s. Internal migration is the primary driver of this exponential growth. [2]

Public debate regarding these topics is extremely bounded by the geography of the city (formerly seven islands, now transformed into a peninsula through continuous reclamation of land) and the difficulties of stemming migration, preventing a meaningful policy solution to these issues. [3,4]

Even though these processes are pertinent and influential in reshaping the urban landscape, their effects are overemphasized to a fault in public debate. Contrary to common opinion, spatial informality and the housing deficit are not random aberrations that suddenly appeared on the urban horizon but rather results of very particular social and historical processes. The deficit in housing is deeply related to the genesis of spatial informality. Furthermore, formality and informality are symbiotic. Without slums, the elite’s towering apartment blocks would not be able to sustain themselves. Formalizing the informal is only possible if this symbiosis is first recognized.

First, an overview of the housing deficit’s historical trajectory: an overflow of soldiers during World War II caused Bombay’s housing prices to soar to unaffordable levels for Indians migrating into the city. When the war ended, a catastrophic Rent Act of 1947 froze rents on all buildings leased at that time to their 1940 levels. Most importantly, it allowed tenants to transfer the right to lease the property to their legal heirs. As long as the tenant was paying the 1940 or ‘standard’ rent, he could not be evicted, and lease renewal was not required. [1]

An informal market for the right to lease properties developed. Tenants became pseudo-owners of the properties. Since then, the Act has proved politically impossible to repeal. With 2.5 million tenants in Bombay, the tenant lobby group has emerged as one of the most powerful political mechanisms in the city. All the political parties are unified in their support for tenancy rights — the Rent Act has been extended more than 20 times — historically locking housing legislation and the deficit in formal housing. [1]

The proposed solution to the problem of rent by the tenants to the landlords is this: sell en masse to their residents for one hundred times the fixed rent on each property. This will end disputes once and for all — but it will also mean that thousands of properties in the most posh areas of the city would exchange hands for a pittance. The landlords do nothing except refuse to repair each property — they know that selling under the plan suggested by the tenant lobby is a raw deal of the highest order.  Expanding the housing stock of the city has become expensive, and more of the city falls into decay every year.   [1]

Meanwhile, migration has not stopped. However, migrants have nowhere to live because of the massive formal housing deficit, so they must resort to informal constructions. In this way antiquated rent laws have not only created the housing deficit but also factored into the creation of the slums — spatial informality. I am left to conjecture what might have happened had the pre-independence British civic authorities allowed an unregulated housing market to develop in Bombay. [1]

Formal power structures — civic and municipal authorities in Bombay — have systematically denied that informality of all types is produced by similar patterns in the city’s history, and also that informality plays an important role in sustaining the city. For example, state initiated demolition drives and relocation projects are common, and stringent anti-hawker (street vendor) laws are also currently in place.  [1,3,5-8]

Bombay cannot sustain itself without the informal.  Fifty percent of its population, by the most conservative estimates, lives in informal dwellings. From the fruit vendor to the vegetable seller to the taxi driver to the domestic helper – it is impossible to conceive of an urban reality without informal social structures. [2,4,6]

The need to be a part of a formal social fabric to stake a claim on urbanity excludes a large section of the population from the rubric of urban planning. For example – a residential claim is constituted by formalization. Convincing civic authorities to save a basti (slum) from demolishment is only possible if the resident has formal title deeds and proofs of residence. An economic claim is similarly constituted. To get a loan from a local bank the applicant must have formal documentation like salary slips and proofs of income tax payments. Unless informal actors can stake a formal claim on the city it is difficult for them to benefit from state policy. [1,4]

Policy is meaningless if it ignores these actors – there are too many of them for that to happen. The state must take upon itself the task of formalization, but for this, as a first step, the state must stop denying the importance of informality, and recognize that formality and informality are two sides of the coin that is modern urban life. The cost in terms of state resources of this recognition is great, but it must be done. The great statesman and the first prime minister of free India Jawaharlal Nehru famously said that India lives in her villages. If he had lived in Bombay today, he would have said that she lives in her slums. It is now time for us to accept this.


  1. Mehta S Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mumbai: Penguin; 2004.
  2. Naipaul VS India: A Million Mutinies Now. London: Heinemann;1990.
  3. Prakash G Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2010.
  4. Appadurai A, Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics. Public Culture 2002; 14(1): 21-47.
  5. Hansen TB, Veerkaik O. Introduction–Urban Charisma: On Everyday Mythologies In The City. Critique of Anthropology 2009; 29(1):5-26.
  6. Appadurai A, Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing:Notes on Millenial Mumbai. Public Culture 2000; 12(3):627-651.
  7. Appadurai A, Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing:Notes on Millenial Mumbai. Public Culture 2000; 12(3):627-651.
  8. Anand N, Towards an Anthropology of Water in Mumbai’s Settlements. The Blackwell Companion to the Anthropology of India 2011; 1(1).
  9. Guha R India After Gandhi: A History of The World’s Largest Democracy. New Delhi: Harper Collins; 2007.
  10. Mumbai Downtown. (Wikimedia Commons). 2007 Mar 2 [cited 2011 Aug 12]. Available from:

Akshat Goel is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in economics and sociology. Join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.