In 1555 Garcia da Orta, a Portuguese physician, was gifted the island of Bombay by the King of Portugal on a lifelong lease. The transfer carried one obligation, that the physician improved the condition of the fishing island. So da Orta set about building a manor on the eastern shore. Resting on the harbour, the Casa da Orta catalysed the development of a warehouse, a friary, a fort and a ship-building yard. Outside its walls a modern Bombay began taking shape. The Casa da Orta underwent transformations with the handover of Bombay from the Portuguese to the British and later from the Crown to John Company. The manor was fortified and rechristened Bombay Castle. It housed the island city’s first governor and became the centrepiece of India’s maritime trade.

By 1668, the Company made its policy clear in a note recorded by the Council at Surat, “to contrive the best way for making Bombay a port for the exportation and importation of goods and persons from Persia, Mokha and other parts.” The ultimate objective was to encourage settlers to expand trade. Bombay was thus a port first and a city second. With the colonial transfer from Surat to Bombay, the area under the port expanded. In present-day Mumbai it extends from the Gateway of India along the 28-kilometre waterfront into the heart of old Bombay. Known as Bombay Port, its 1,800 acres fall under the jurisdiction of the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), the city’s largest landlord. This chunk of land is valued at about ₹1.25 lakh crore or ₹125 billion.

Years of neglect and the rise of Jawaharlal Nehru Port across the harbour saw a decline in Bombay Port’s fortunes. Slums sprang up in abandoned spots, sharing space with the ruins of the city’s heritage. Today, when you drive to the eastern waterfront, Bombay Port is barricaded while glimpses of the waterfront can be had from obscure spots like a crumbling colonial mansion overlooking Sewri harbour. It is a forgotten piece of land where trees are reclaiming  buildings but scores of structures remain, the inhabitants clinging on to a way of life that is poised to undergo “redevelopment”.

The docklands have been largely ignored by previous governments despite attempts to bring them to the centre of conversation in 2002. It was only in 2014 that Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways set about changing that. He promised the city that he wouldn’t give a “single piece of land to builders.” Gadkari entrusted MbPT to develop a masterplan to revive the eastern shore. Since then tenants have been evicted, slums razed and colonial-era warehouses shuttered. Meanwhile, intense debates on a proposed marina, a park bigger than London’s Hyde Park, and a tower higher than Burj al Arab have gained traction around town.

This land is gold in a city starved of space, a system where the real-estate-politician nexus is a well-oiled machine designed to cut through any barrier. The MbPT masterplan envisions a new locality in Mumbai, an odd mix of Singapore, Hong Kong, Miami, Manhattan. According to the plan, 60 per cent or 1,080 acres will be released to decongest the city and the cluttered cityscape will be dotted with fresh green lungs. Half of this is for parks and playgrounds, and half for roads and social amenities.The rest is for mixed-use development to promote fishing, entrepreneurship, and a financial centre. Save a few heritage structures and cemeteries, the whole area will be remade. Plans for redevelopment have become a key election issue for both Congress and Shiv Sena in the battle for South Bombay.

Mumbai (South) is one of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2014 election,  Arvind Sawant from Shiv Sena stunned South Bombay by defeating Milind Deora when he got 48 per cent of the votes. Deora had won the two previous elections in 2004 and 2009. The constituency was long considered a Congress bastion with Milind’s late father Murli Deora serving as MP from 1984 to 1991.  Mumbai (South) has 15 lakh voters and turnout in 2014 was 52.54 per cent. Historically, it records low voter participation compared to New Delhi’s 65 per cent or Maharasthra’s 60.4 per cent, the fourth lowest amongst states.

Milind Deora was running late for high-tea and the hostess, his sister-in-law, was fretting. She worked her way around the room, hobnobbing with high society’s who’s who attempting to explain the delay. To make matters worse, there weren’t enough chairs and despite the chandeliers, the tasselled upholstery and the Art Deco residence, she knew that a lack of chairs was bad form. A noted Parsi columnist took a seat on what looked like a vintage trunk and stared out at the Victorian Gothic Bombay High Court in Churchgate. 

Deora glanced at his watch as he walked out of now-defunct Eros Theatre after concluding a meeting with youngsters above South Bombay’s most prestigious gym. Determined to reach out to as many people as possible, he rushed about and was beginning to feel an itch in his throat. Losing his voice would be a real downer. 

By the time he reached the party, his blue shirt was crumpled and he was directed to an armchair next to a giant golden Buddha.

“How many of you have heard of Arvind Sawant?” he asked. Save a few nods from a room with more than fifty people, he drew blanks.

“Do you know your MP has a criminal record,” he stated drawing gasps from the crowd.

Someone from the back of the room hollered. “What can we do to unseat him?”

Deora smiled. “Vote,” he said.

This wasn’t the most political group he would be addressing, he admitted. Many questions posed were more appropriate for a municipal election but he humoured them. “There are three types of elections,” Deora said. A few in attendance had never voted before.

A woman with a Prada handbag asked about the wealth tax and inheritance tax, another in a Chanel medallion mentioned the nuisance caused by the metro while another grumbled at the rise of hutments. When someone asked what he would do for the city, he hesitated. “I’d be paying you lip service, if I promised everything but your concerns are my concerns, from the pot-holed roads to the air pollution. I am one of you,” he said.

His agenda was different, he explained. He was appalled at South Bombay’s muted voice in Delhi and the ill-thought projects under way. Time and again he returned to mismanaged plans to develop Bombay Port comparing them to the dismal failure with Parel’s mill lands. “This is something I plan to take up if I’m elected,” he said as the meeting came to a close.

Just then the co-host swept in offering him a hot beverage in a china cup. Milind tried to refuse, he was running late again. About a hundred people waited in the Shivshakti Nagar chawl less than a ten-minute walk away. They were more likely to vote than the denizens of this drawing room. A few minutes later he emerged behind two men in a slum who led a procession banging on drums.

Once referred to as the Gateway to India, MbPT lands are undergoing a delicate process of deindustrialisation. As the city’s biggest landlord, the estate department of the MbPT is reclaiming old commercial buildings where leases have run out, halting the renewal of warehouse leases and slapping eviction notices on residential tenants who live and run businesses that have been in operation for generations. There are about 2,500 lessees and their sub-tenants are estimated at about 2.5 lakh. In a David-and-Goliath legal struggle over control and development, MbPT is turning years of talk into action. The 1,800 acres of prime seafront will be transformed into a waterfront promenade, with themed streets such as a Bollywood dock. High-end hotels, luxury condos and commercial properties will illuminate part of the skyline while a mere 10 per cent will be set aside for affordable housing. In order to facilitate the process, the state government has appointed MbPT as a special planning authority. Though a master plan is ready, the proposal faces a long road before ground can be broken.

A dilapidated mansion near the eastern seafront, Mumbai.
Title image: A cotton trader’s office inside the Cotton Green building.  Photo: Shivaji Storm Sen

The rationale for rejuvenation is the claim that many port activities have shifted to the new Jawaharlal Nehru Port Terminal (JNPT). MbPT has roped in HCP Design, which has undertaken a controversial redevelopment project in Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor, PM Narendra Modi’s “dream project.” The HCP Design blueprint for the Bombay Port looks like a mix of Manhattan and Doha in a desolate expanse of rusting fences and crumbling brick with stunning unobstructed views of the sea.

The plan for a mini-city is up for clearance by the state government and the Ministry of Shipping, which controls most of the port lands through MbPT. A project of this scale needs detailed environmental impact studies, especially since HCP Design’s proposed park, “as big as Hyde Park,” will be by reclaiming land using earth excavated from Metro Line 3 that has no viable dump sites—a move environmentalists firmly oppose. 

The plan foresees “huge employment generation, a luxury model in a ‘decaying’ business sector with the aim of developing the area into a world class tourism port.”  It proposes“recreational activities on the seafront… a London-type Mumbai Eye, amphitheatre, seafront, floating restaurants and a marina.”

This land is gold in a city starved of space, a system where the real-estate-politician nexus is a well-oiled machine designed to cut through any barrier. The MbPT masterplan envisions a new locality in Mumbai, an odd mix of Singapore, Hong Kong, Miami, Manhattan. 

What this plan overlooks is the mammoth task for the estate department, of regaining control over land leased out. Of the port’s 1,860 acres, 486 are used for operations while 868 acres is leased. A small percentage of properties are on long-term lease, but over 40 per cent of land leases have expired and the port is attempting to wrest them back through litigation. So the estate department is groaning under a load of files and case histories, hundred-year-old cases on yellowed paper with fading print that are yet to be resolved.

Sandwiched between Pheonix Mills and Century Peninsula Land Towers lies Khimji Nagji chawl. It’s a small  alley with thatched roofs in the shadow of high rises. A slice of land that reveals a rare streak of honesty in an area that developed too fast: outside Lower Parel’s gated colonies are streets so narrow that fire brigade tenders struggle to get through. Below the glass towers with bath tubs is an acute water shortage.

“Cover it up,” yelled a local Shiv Sainik. He was pointing to a heap of trash with rats scampering on it. That’s the last thing the residents of the chawl, slotted for redevelopment, wanted Arvind Sawant to see. Instead, they wanted to create an orange wonderland and young men on imperfectly balanced staircases wedged little orange flags in exposed pipes. Women buried flags in plant pots and some secured them on the clotheslines with pegs. A group of boys whose game of cricket had been interrupted were unfolding yards of orange fabric to drape over the one-storey that had been built in 1936.

Nobody was paying attention the trash except for maybe the rats.

Children plucked petals of marigold, its orange and yellow  looked like confetti. The shakha pramukh, local in-charge, in an orange Adidas baseball hat authorised three women to perform the aarti. An ardent supporter in black and orange trainers who claimed nobody in the chawl had felt the impact of  demonetisation had organised  three garlands and had high hopes.

“He will put up a tower here,” he says.

“An emblem of a better life,” said another pointing to the skyline.

Despite the pace of development in Parel, Sawant has spoken resolutely against the proposed development of Bombay port and got a commitment from Gadkari that all tenants from MbPT land will be rehabilitated. But he was under pressure from Uddhav Thackeray who claimed the city needed more “green lungs, a business hub and an area that will attract tourism.” Despite conflicting aims, in meetings around the city, he assured MbPT tenants that he would take up issues concering them. 

By the time the idea of an orange marquee was abandoned, a group of men had gathered around a carrom table. They seemed determined to distance themselves from the hysteria around them. So much had gone wrong, they said, from demonetisation to GST but their real grouse was an older issue.

A row of run down warehouses on land owned by Mumbai Port Trust. Photo: Shivaji Storm Sen

Panchu Ram, was a young man who grew up knowing life as a cotton mill worker. His father had worked at Piramal and his mother at Phoenix and he had got a job at 18 at Century Mills. Despite meagre pay, the family eked out an honest living until the Datta Samant-led strike of 1982. It was after Samant’s death, said Ram, the goons, Shiv Sena thugs got in the mills and changed the mill workers fate.

“Tall towers will not fill your stomach,” he said. He would vote Congress.

Arvind Sawant’s arrival was first announced by the distant banging of drums, the accompanying melody from a keyboard, both mounted on an autorickshaw. While women chanted, the real attention grabbers were the crackers that exploded next to a fire engine. Soon after, the women started chanting.

We are with you. We are with you.

A man on a mic roused the crowd. The protector of Hindutva is here and Arvind Sawant appeared, hands up, punching the air and flashing a thumb’s up and a grin. He was a people’s man, moving from one crowd to another, accepting one garland and then another and another, unbothered by the weight, preoccupied with feeding little children jaggery.

“Your tower will come,” he said when a woman put a tikka on his forehead while children showered him with marigold petals that sat on his black hair.

“He is one of us,” said a woman trying to catch all his rallies. “I’ll be here behind him, today, tomorrow and until he reaches Parliament.” 


Your tower will come.


Lower Parel has become the symbol of unchecked development. After the mills closed and manufacturing and informal trading shifted to the periphery of the city, 600 acres were up for grabs. Rather than considering public welfare, Lower Parel turned into a centre for high-end entertainment, commercial complexes, hotels, malls and multiplexes that cater only to the rich. The mill lands occupy prime central property in the city and have been redeveloped for commercial and residential uses. The manner of development became urban policy issues and raised questions about the future of Mumbai and the powerful builder-developer lobby.

Charles Correa, the urban architect asked to create a plan for the “open land”, was the voice of the naysayers. His was a living, breathing document, developed along transit lines, integrating commerce, culture and ease of living. But the politician-builder nexus ensured the 166 acres of “open land” was redefined to cover a mere 32 acres and mill-owners and developers made a killing with commercial exploitation over affordable housing. Nothing illustrates the power of this nexus better than the National Textile Corporation mill deals in 2005: NTC sold its land parcel to realty majors such as DLF, India Bulls, Lodha and the Kohinoor group at a vast premium, triggering a ripple effect that struck at the very base of housing affordability. Most of the affected by Parel redevelopment were inadequately compensated. Bombay Port looks set to head down the same road. An earlier masterplan by the Rani Jadhav Committee that allowed for big public spaces never saw light of day.

Developers see acres of weeds growing from the cracks in colonial-era godowns where generations of cotton merchants, ship breakers, labourers once toiled. There is little reference to the 1,10,450 residents in the port lands and despite the decrease in activities the area continues to employ a floating population of 45,000 a day. Allied activities include a further 1,72,552 persons. On any given that 3.28 lakh people eat, sleep and work in this area. MbPT itself employs around 8,000 people and has pension overheads of around ₹2,500 crore. To balance this “sinking” capital while developing the eastern waterfront, MbPT is planning to lease some land to PSUs like Mazgaon Docks, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. In the process, it expects to raise ₹3,000 crore to fund activities.

Owners of small scrap businesses in Darukhana got frantic phone calls from their workers. Notices in English had been plastered on their doors. Abdul Hamid, a labourer in ship breaking could just about read English and told the gathered people that the port intended to use by-law number nine that allows MbPT to act within 12 hours to “clear obstructions and… to sell the material so removed at the cost of the trespassers.” Hamid called his employer, a prominent steel merchant in Darukhana.“Help us,” he pleaded, but his boss was helpless. The following morning 150 houses were demolished as the Sewri police, BEST representatives, fire brigade and port officials watched.

I don’t think we will see 2020.

“They’re next,” said Abdul Hamid watching men in pants and shirts, in kurta pyjamas walk inside a meeting in the grounds of Shiv Aum Steels Pvt Ltd called by Darukhana Iron and Steel Merchants Association (DISMA). 

Darukhana was among the first areas to spring up after the port was established. The British used it to manufacture gun powder and locals ran allied services from ship breaking to scrap. In the 1990s, when the decline of manufacturing hit South Bombay, port-allied services were slowly forced out. Ship breaking moved to Alang, steelwarehousing moved to Kalamboli. By the 1990s, firms in Darukhana struggled to adapt to the new environment. The demographics changed too and as businesses were forced out, slum dwellers moved in.

Despite the gloom, Darukhana hums with activity in a counter-narrative to the story of industrial decline. The area has managed to stay afloat by sheer determination and a connection to Bombay’s history.

Apna time ayega (Our time will come),” says Ashok Garg, ex-president of DISMA tasked with entertaining the crowd while Deora is stuck in traffic. He tries to sound upbeat despite the bleak outlook.“Did you hear of the notice on a business in this very area to get out in 35 days?” he bellows. Men from the Engineer Building hooted, their date for eviction was three days away. About five lakh people would be affected with the removal of commercial and residential establishments.

“I don’t think we will see 2020,” he screeched.

“We need the public to wake up, we need a strong MP for protection.” Minutes later, Deora arrived and took his place on the stage that was dwarfed by a 20-feet high, metal warehouse.

Plans to redevelop the port had landed on his desk, too, he said when he was in the Shipping Ministry but he had refused to play ball. But Gadkari is different, he said. “Gadkari doesn’t mind the houses and businesses going, they can be shifted to Badlapur.” From rally to rally, Deora honed the message: You have been lied to, you may have voted with your eyes shut but what good days have you seen? Today I speak to the businessmen and women, do you want a state to protect industrialists or a government that looks after small and medium businesses?

In conclusion, he offers a promise that electrifies the businessmen: “I will resign if they touch you. Take my signature on an undated paper. I will not let you go.” 

The masterplan glosses over the areas cultural heritage, a source of pride for many residents. Port authorities state “strong community resistance but orders from the top simply viewed them as illegal or encroachers.”

The plan for Elphinstone Estate “is covered under sanctioned Town Planning scheme. It is the most congested area. This area includes commercial uses and warehouses, leased out by MbPT on short tenure. Most footpaths within the estate have been encroached upon by slums.”

On Darukhana it reads, “The Bunders were built in the nineteenth century for maritime trade in wood and coal from neighbouring states but have lost their relevance in the present economy. Parts of these areas have been replaced by wholesale iron and steel storage and large chunks of the bunders have been encroached upon. In spite of the steel markets having officially shifted to Kalamboli in Navi Mumbai, retail units continue to exist in the district. The area has haphazard development with narrow roads and unauthorized development. The area was earlier used for ship breaking and repairing. Presently the area has multiple economic activities such as steel market, sand transport, and other godowns.”

Mustan Khanbhai walked out energised by the promises of the young politician and made his way down the busy street in Darukhana. He couldn’t bear to think what would happen if he had to vacate the premises. For starters there was a 25-feet gear from a ship he salvaged decades ago. Getting rid of that, his wife said, “would break his heart”.

The premises of Khanbai Esoofbhai has stood where it stands for decades and for what it was worth, it was a true exercise in recycling. Almost everything that could be saved from a ship was used. The staircases leading to his office are from a boat, the windows of his cabin are from the Rizwani, the dining table from the S S France, the tea cups from boats broken for the Shipping Corporation of India. Everything had a history, like Darukhana; the scrap business and history couldn’t just be erased.

“Could it?” he asked.

For the family, the port was not just a source of income, it was a way of life. Before a ship was to be broken, family, friends and extended relatives would have one last party on it. The day would begin as a picnic. In those days, entry to the port was free of cumbersome regulations and the party would go on into the night. After the last goodbye,the ship would be taken to Powder Bunder. Today, the bunder is covered in rubbish.Where people once worked are slums, and where ships were dismantled people defecate.

“If the port had modernised,” he says labouring over an old map, “maybe we wouldn’t have ended up here,” he said.

With trade dating back to Babylonia, Phoenicia and Egypt, a magnificent deep-water harbour and early growth in navigation and shipbuilding, Bombay island was valued as a port first and a city thereafter. But a hundred years after its development, the Port Trust recognised the need for an upgrade: “While the Bombay Port Trust can indeed look back with pride…it is even more necessary to look well ahead of the time and make provisions for development…” By 1962 it was obvious that expansion was urgently neededto accommodate the growth in traffic.

By the 1980s with the rise of container vessels and bigger draught ships, cargo lines were apprehensive over calling at Bombay Port since they were vulnerable while berthing. In some areas the draught dropped to as low as 5.3 metres at some berths compared to the minimum desired level of 9.1 metres at Indira Dock. The task to address this deficiency was entrusted to the Dredging Corporation of India (DCI) but they couldn’t cope. Naturally enough, traffic would move to JNPT as it developed to handle containerswhile Bombay port handled bulk cargo and two undersea pipelines that fed the refineries sent about 70 per cent of their cargo to Bombay Port.

With unaddressed challenges and a decline in port activity, the demographics began to change. An MbPT report reads, “The shift of major port activities to JNPT has led to disuse of many land parcels. Some of these have been encroached by slums and informal commercial establishments…This increase in informal commercial and industrial activities was accompanied by the growth of slums on vacant plots. As per the 2014 assessment the number of huts within the Planning Area are 15915.”

The three women on the charpoy watched as a group of people walked towards them. The eldest of the three knocked on the back of a truck to wake her husband. They had been sleeping in the small pickup truck since their hutment on Surat Street was demolished and despite the assurances, they hadn’t been given a house elsewhere but others had.

Surat Street opposite Ghadiyal Godi, one of the first structures to come up in the port, was the largest food market in Bombay until it shifted to Vashi. There was almost no hint at a previous life except for a street sign that read Dana Bunder. This was the first stop for the unloading of grains before they were sent out in trucks across India.

Swapnil Koli led the Sena door-to-door team to the beginning of Surat street. They knocked on people’s doors with pamphlets encouraging voters to come out in numbers.

Swpanil was determined to spread the party’s word but his vision was greater than this election. As a ambitious young man, he viewed this as the first step to greater political power for himself.

Arvind Sawant, sitting MP and Shiv Sena canddiate from Mumbai (South) at a rally in Lower Parel. Photo: Shivaji Storm Sen. 

Walking closely behind Swapnil was Ranjana Ekawade, a shaka pramukh. A strong female presence would send the right message and Ekawade had personally made calls and relied on the power of WhatsApp from where her message that a large number of women in orange come out was broadcast. Many of them had rushed through their jobs and were handing out leaflets to friendly people.

As the campaigners edged closer, Nafisa, whose house had been demolished heckled them. She had been moved to Mahulgaon from her unit on Surat Street, on the 5th floor of a tower next to a power plant. Nobody could breathe there, she said. There was no network and she didn’t know her aunt had died until two days later. “They took us out of our home and put us in a village,” she said. She waves a pamphlet asking what Arvind Sawant could do.

The two shaka pramukhs tried to calm the angry woman. “He has raised this as an issue in Parliament,” said a member of the rally who had an image of the masterplan. The residents of Dana Bunder knew exactly what would happen. Once the election was concluded, once the BJP came to power, said many residents on Surat Street, their houses would be bulldozed. It was a matter of time.

According to the 2013 World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, Mumbai Port’s real estate is valued at about ₹1.25 lakh crore and is a tenth the area of South Bombay. Despite the location and the potential, a senior source at Port Bhavan claims, “not a fraction of profit is being realised”.

The 269th report on Cargo Handling at Major Ports (2018) notes that Bombay Port handles: “A total of 62.38 MMT of break bulk, dry bulk, liquid bulk cargo. Liquid cargo has the highest share at 66 per cent of the total cargo handled by the Port. Containers are entirely handled by Jawaharlal Nehru Port (JNPT). Mumbai Port has a workforce of 8,567. Pilotage and other allied activities are conducted entirely by employees of the Port. In 2017-2018, the operating income is ₹1,526 crore; operating expenditure is ₹1,169 crore and thereby, the operating profit is around ₹300 odd crore. But because the Port is giving ₹707 crore for pension funds, overall the Port is making a loss of ₹418 crore. The actuarial value is around ₹12,000 crores. The Port has invested approximately ₹8,000 crores there. So they are making efforts now to fill it up so that it reaches ₹12,000 crore after which they can begin to register profits.

A quest for profits has resulted in a litany of miscalculations. Prince’s and Victoria docks, built in 1885 and 1891, were filled up starting 2007 to make way for a new offshore terminal at a cost of ₹1,228 crore in a joint venture between Gammon India and Spain’s leading port group Dragados SPL. Eight years later, Mumbai Port Trust is set to scrap the contract. It is alleged that Gammon and Dragadis owe about ₹812.53 crore to a clutch of five banks led by Canara Bank. Soon after, the  terminal’s cargo profile was changed to accommodate handling of automobiles and steel in 2015. From the get-go, however, there was pressure to direct port activities towards a marina by Mukesh Ambani-backed Jai Corp, says a senior employee at MbPT, a project currently underway. Earth will be dug up to restore Princess Dock to allow private yachts to berth.

“There is so much mud, a marina will never work,” says the owner of one of Mumbai’s largest catamarans.  But work is underway under the masterplan as planners at Port Bhavan look to Sydney, Barcelona, New York and Boston as inspiration.


“What really started off Bombay Port with a bang was the sudden spurt in the cotton trade with China in 1770,” reads the Port of Bombay, a Brief History.

When Ganesh came to work, cotton was called “a king’s business”. There were 35 people working under him, cotton sellers from across India jockeyed for buyers’ attention. The days were busy with orders from mills across Parel, what the Piramal wanted the Century Mills would be after and competition between the mills meant the Cotton Exchange was always heaving with activity.

Today inside the cool of his office which has hardly changed over the past six decades, Ganesh has time to marvel over the cool breeze that blew in front the sea. “Did you know the British built everything on right angles? All they wanted was to feel the sea breeze.” At the Cotton Exchange, it is almost as though time has been suspended. But Cotton Green, tucked away in a part of Bombay, is a mirage-like estate, where old colonial warehouses returning to nature offer a glimpseof the past. Not a soul stirs in the corridors and most rooms are as they were, carry the scent of your grandfather’s library. What makes this place exceptional is its aura of being undiscovered and will soon be forgotten. Down the road from the Cotton Exchange are the warehouses from where gunnies of cotton would ply. The MbPT stopped renewing leases and ten years ago, bulldozers came in and started breaking a few. When a godown owner built a toilet, he was ordered to demolish it and lessees were too afraid even to put a nail into the wall. Then the structures started becoming weak and soon, godown after godown shut and the legacy of cotton in Bombay began to be unwritten. According to the new masterplan, Cotton Green will be at the heart of the new commercial development.

“Nobody wants us here anymore,” he said. Back then he would supply Mafatlal mills and once they sold the mill in 1995, the orders decreased and soon Bhivandi popped up. In the corner of his room, almost touching the fifteen feet ceiling is cotton from different parts of the country with different quality but nothing remains as it was.

The empty corridors of the Cotton Green building in Mumbai. Photo: Shivaji Storm Sen

“When we were young, 100 meters would slide through a ring on your finger but today,” he said shaking his head. If it wasn’t Dutta Samant, it would have been the government fixing the price of cotton, if not that then Bhivandi but the end would have come.

 “See there are two cities, Mumbai and Bombay. One has already been built and the other will come up on the ashes of our past.”

They called the two buildings Titanic.

A woman in an abaya said it was because of their size since they stretched across two streets. A local Congress volunteer said it was because people believed that buildings like the Titanic were unsinkable. Despite the lack of consensus on why the two buildings on Arab Street were named after a ship that went down on its first voyage, there was one thing everyone agreed upon. In Grant Road, an area undergoing rapid development, with towers coming up on every street, the two Titanic buildings would never fall. To the volunteers it seemed like an apt place to wait and watch as Deora’s rally made its way past men frying jalebi, two men with long white beards selling Unani medicine and goats being butchered next to a falooda store.

The garlands were kept on a white plastic chair and three boys went next to the men selling the medicine and lit the crackers. The men started and following them was a group of students with Congress flags. The narrow lane was taken over by the procession.

Messages blared about communalism and demonetisation, a story no one needed reminding of here. When Deora’s flotilla finally appeared it coincided with the azaan and everything stopped including the rally. There was no sound and Deora stood, looking dead ahead at the people who looked at him back waiting to see if he would react, waiting to see if the mic would go on again. It didn’t. In that moment, for the woman in the abaya, one thing was clear, that in Modi’s India Congress had their back.

Nobody and nothing could come between Liladhar and the sea. When the port first shut the bunders, when the warehouses were boarded, when the new terminal for Goa changed the makeup of the port, the sea remained and Liladhar would ride his cycle from his house in Sewrikoliwada to the Ghaslet Bunder, like his forefathers. The police, MbPT staff, workers from the Trans Harbour Link highway didn’t intimidate him.

With the excitement of an eighteen-year-old, Liladhar in his 70s, took me to Ghaslet Bunder and in front of me was a city, my city, in a way I had never seen before. It was a different perspective to Bombay, from where Elephanta Island stood tall, a new way to look at the sea. To the right were mangroves, an easily forgettable fact of nature in concrete Bombay and on the other side landfills and the skeletons of boats lying on their side. Behind me was a giant pillar structure for the bridge that would be used to build the Trans Harbour Link highway and behind that was the passenger jetty for Goa.

Milind Deora, former MP and Congress candidate from Mumbai (South) campaigning in Grant Road. Photo: Shivaji Storm Sen

“The water would go higher than us,” he said, raising his hand to the sky. I stood out looking at my city from a spot I had never been to before. To see your city with the eyes of a tourist is a curious form of perception.

Liladhar never turned his back on the sea and when his son was old enough, took him out to a different world from when his father had taken him. A new world with longer fishing hours and less fish. 

Many in the Port Trust claimed the fishermen no longer fished. “Instead it would be nice to have a flamingo viewing sanctuary,” said a planner in MbPT. The fisherman laughed bitterly. “We don’t fish because they’ve killed them all off,” he said.

In the area around Liladhar’s main fishing site there are discussions about a flamingo viewing sanctuary and a mangrove park.

Much to his dismay future plans will lead to 200 acres of reclamation that will take place at Haji Bunder near Sewri to build a park “bigger than London’s Hyde Park” on 100 hectares.. Work will start as soon as the Ministry of Environment gives its clearance. Part of the reasoning, explains D. Stalin, an environmentalist, is so that they can create a large garden to show that they have complied with the required percentage of open space.

But linked to this is an infrastructure mess from another project, Mumbai Metro. From as early as 2015, discussions were underway for disposal of construction debris and mud from the excavations for Metro Line 3. The first  plan was to dispose the waste at the Aarey Milk Colony but this met with public uproar. When the matter reached the court new sites were sought.

Already they’d begun dumping to build the bridge, explained a senior at Port Bhavan, so they started adding a bit more. By the time the plan is put into practice the world’s longest ropeway will connect Sewri to Elephanta, another tourist attraction as per the masterplan. Liladhar’s eyes turn dark, perhaps it’s the reflective glasses, perhaps it’s something else.

He’s seen dock after dock shut. Powder Bunder. Reti bunder. Coal bunder. One after the other, he bore silent witness to the decline of the eastern waterfront and when he went out to the sea and looked at Bombay, he saw empty lots and the plans of men to create a new city fit for tourism but he asks, “what about the residents?”