Kamala Mills Fire and the Perilous Gentrification of Mumbai

Looking at the larger history of deindustrialisation, gentrification, and change in patterns of land use in what was known as Mumbai’s Girangaon area, the article seeks to explain the recent tragic fire accident in the Kamala Mills compound as an example of the multiple risks in a chaotic and perilous landscape. 

The outbreak of fire at two upscale restaurants in the Kamala Mills compound in Mumbai's erstwhile textile mill area claimed 14 lives on 28 December 2017. Based on post-accident investigations, the Mumbai fire brigade ascribed a variety of causes for the fire, including faulty safety measures, presence of combustible materials, blocked emergency exits, and non-functional fire extinguishers. As the investigation progressed, various issues related to the piecemeal sale and lease of property, arbitrary structural alterations, and illegal use of space in the Kamala Mills building came to the fore.

Owners of the Kamala Mills compound and its buildings, as well as owners and lessees of individual properties in the buildings appear to have been solely interested in profitably operating their businesses and catering to demands for conspicuous consumption. They showed little concern for issues of safety and structural stability while modifying the building plan and adding or demolishing structures to suit new kinds of use. 

Such arbitrary structural transformations to buildings are not exclusive to the Kamala Mills, but can also be seen in several other mill compounds in the area formerly known as Girangaon (mill village) in Mumbai, where the city’s textile mills operated for several decades before their decline in the mid-1980s. This article argues that the history of the Kamala Mills and the mill area in general, the decline of the textile industry, and broader structural economic changes that entailed the shift from industrial to post-industrial sectors provide the context for such incidents.

In the aftermath of the Kamala Mills tragedy, several questions have been posed regarding the permissions for and construction of restaurants, night clubs, pubs and bars, art galleries, and high-end boutiques in the erstwhile mills or within the mill compounds. Given that these were earlier spaces for blue-collar workers, concerns have also been raised regarding the transformation of the mill lands, their spatial meaning and relationship for the displaced working class, the in-situ gentrification that has created a juxtaposition of diverse structures and multiple economies in the mill compounds, as well as the changed class dynamics that operate inside (Chatterjee and Parthasarathy 2015). The structural changes in the economy associated with the new consumption-oriented accumulation processes that determine spatial changes and placemaking, are to be blamed equallyfor the kinds of risks and hazards they generate. 


Gentrification in Mumbai


Gentrification creates new spaces of capital accumulation that are directly linked to bourgeois modes of consumption disguised by ideologies of heritage, conservation, and elite placemaking.

Gentrification literature has extensively documented the negative effects and risks of the process for the displaced. We argue that the effects themselves must be situated and studied against a broader landscape. Rather than focus solely on the displaced classes, it is important that in the context of a risk society (Beck 2004), we identify and expose the risks of gentrification for the gentrifying class as well, and for the urban population as a whole. 

In Mumbai, displacement is not necessarily a defining feature of gentrification (Chatterjee and Parthasarathy 2015), at least not in the conventional sense.[1] Hence, the research question should address risks and negative effects for both the gentrifier and the gentrified, as well as for urban populations in other parts of the city who may be affected by the process indirectly. While gentrification may be promoted by ideologies sympathetic to “civilising the city,” even as they are a part of a larger “revanchist urbanism” project (Uitermark and Duyvendak 2008),[2] we argue that the bourgeois consumerist culture of the urban middle class, in fact, determines the path of gentrification in ways that lead towards “uncivilised” forms of urban neighbourhood transformation.

Mumbai was once the city of 58 textile mills (Ghag 2006). The process of deindustrialisation led to the gradual and eventual closure of the mills from the mid-1980s onwards, giving scope for a new landscape to emerge in the mill district. Service sector firms, information technology industries, media and advertising, finance, and the creative sector occupied the mill compounds and factory buildings, emerging as the fulcrum of new growth in these localities. Shopping malls, restaurants, pubs, night clubs, art galleries, high-end furniture stores, designer shops, and other entertainment hotspots stood cheek by jowl and became the main mantra of the city branding process. Simultaneously, the area also witnessed the growth of several gated residential complexes, as real estate players moved in to construct luxury housing in the newly available spaces close to the city’s old and new central business districts and elite residential areas.


The existing mill structures began to be converted without being completely demolished and rebuilt. Art galleries, loft-based stores in warehouses, fashion houses, and media companies have sprouted in the erstwhile mill compounds, leading to exorbitant land values and making for an altered landscape of contrast and contestation. These transformations occurred, even as the erstwhile mill workers continued to live in chawls in the same areas, now unemployed or in conditions of precarious employment. The interiors of the old mill structures and mill lands in their new avatar have become a palimpsest where vistas of the old negotiate with the new architecture and culture, resulting in a spatial as well as symbolic transformation (Zukin 1987:131; 1995:1–47).

Role of Policies and the State 

This transformation was carefully crafted through a (re)formulation of various policies. The heavy contestation and judicial pronouncements on the use of the erstwhile mill land meant that the Development Control Regulations (DCRs), 1958 and its amendments would not permit a complete takeover of the mill lands (Kanga 2006; Adarkar 2006; D'Monte 2006). The policies, inadequate and contested as they were, would have required both state and capital to invest in public housing and urban transformation that would have been more inclusive. Instead, real estate players in collusion with the state transformed the built environment through subterfuge. Initially, the state, through public–private partnerships, built new roads, constructed high-rises (towers in local parlance), brought in corporate offices, allowed malls to come up, and shifted some government offices to the area. As more and more corporate offices came in with large investments in the financial sector, luxury housing for highly paid corporate executives began to be added.


Owners of the mills, together with real estate developers, began to invest in shopping malls, entertainments avenues, and leisure spaces. Together with the “transnational elite” and capital, the local state facilitated new placemaking processes (Rofe 2003: 2512). The old, defunct mill compounds in prime locations in the middle of the city, constituting 600 acres of partly vacant land, became a lucrative opportunity for capital accumulation and expansion of bourgeois lifestyles.

In the late 1980s, the state appointed a committee to examine the issue of land sale by mill owners. The proposal was a part of the Board for Industrial Finance and Reconstruction (BIFR) rehabilitation package for sick mills (Anubhai 1988). In 1991, the state put in place a set of new DCR. Rule 58 of the DCR states that one-third of the mill lands should be reserved for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to be used for public purposes such as parks, maidans, schools, and hospitals. Another third of the land should be used for affordable housing to be constructed either by the Maharashtra Housing And Area Development Authority (MHADA) or through housing cooperatives. The last one-third would be released into the open market with a floor space index (FSI)[3] that would be based on the amount of land surrendered to the city by the mill owners (Correa 2007; Whiteheads and More 2007; D’Monte 2002). As a rule, the mill owners would get two thirds of the FSI[4] right on the site. Hence, two thirds of FSI would work out to be 0.89, which is almost double the FSI of the mills. In this way, the city was to obtain more land ostensibly for affordable housing. A portion of the land for affordable housing would be made available for the displaced mill workers (D’Monte 2002; Correa 2007). As a result, seven mills—Matulya, Raghuvanshi, Modern, New Vinod, Shri Ram, Khatau, and Kamala were given permission for land sale (EPW Research Foundation 1997). 

The nexus between politicians, industrialists, and a section of trade union leaders ensured that the underworld became involved in restructuring the mill areas. A number of murders related to land deals took place. There were protests by mill workers and concerned citizens over how the redevelopment of mill areas was being envisaged and implemented, and the failure of the state to ensure affordable housing and open spaces for the working-class citizens. As a result, the state government decided not to sell mill land for further redevelopment (D’Monte 2002). This came as a big blow for the mill owners and also for the banks and financial institutions that were looking forward to recovering their loans advanced to the now defunct textile mills. A committee was formed in February 1996, headed by the architect Charles Correa, to make recommendations for the planned development of the mill areas. The Correa committee was not allowed to deliberate on private mills and was only to prepare a report on the mills owned by the state-run National Textile Corporation.[5] The committee decided to make a second report separately for the private mills (EPW Research Foundation 1997). The state then appointed a ministerial subcommittee to come up with a new policy for the re-development of the mill lands. Subsequently, certain changes were made in Rule 58 of the DCRs, so that the mills could sell a small portion (up to 15%) of their land in order to finance themselves without surrendering any land to the city. According to some mill owners, this amendment became counterproductive because FSI in the form of Transfer of Development Rights[6] was of little use to them. Some started selling their land just 15% at a time so that they did not have to surrender anything to the city, and there were others who did not sell their lands, but gave the existing structure to new occupants (Correa 2007; D’Monte 1998; Kanga 2006; Phatak 2006). 

Soon, the mill compounds turned into elite spaces of consumption. Small portions of old mill structures that are preserved as heritage, mainly indicate symbolic transformations. Owners of mill lands began to find ways of circumventing the laws by renting, constructing, renovating, and modifying existing structures, and leasing or selling pieces of property for new uses, even as the local economy shifted from industrial to post-industrial sectors. 


Symbolic and Spatial Transformation

In cities of the global North, such as London or Amsterdam, gentrification made it fashionable to stay in the old mill structures that were converted into residential spaces with the process of deindustrialisation. In many cases, the mill structure underwent modifications such as conversion of factory lofts into living spaces (Zukin 1989). In cities like New York, artists would initially occupy lofts and use them as workshops. Later, when some large mill structures were converted into living spaces, the middle class started coming into the core city, renovating and occupying such spaces. Initially these houses were preferred by only a certain class of people (artists who were looking for inexpensive living and working spaces), but gradually as more of the houses were occupied and demand for loft living increased, with rising rents these became a middle- and upper-class aspiration (Zukin 1987; 1989). Mumbai’s gentrification shares similarities with the “commercial gentrification” in Shanghai that Wang (2011) critiques. The entrepreneurial local government and urban development authority facilitated the transformation of mill heritage structures for conspicuous consumption and for inflating land values, even as the new spaces of work, consumption, and culture excluded the erstwhile working class. In effect, the gentrified spaces of what was known as the Girangaon area became “elite enclaves” (Wang and Yu Lau 2009), in which the rising new professional middle class, as well as the old and new rich could fulfil their consumerist fantasies, which could previously be experienced only in global cities such as London, Paris, New York, and Singapore. Commercial gentrification, however, is not simply about catering to aspirational lifestyles, nor can it be understood purely in terms of capital accumulation processes, where capital flows through circuits that are more profitable. Power plays a key role, because those connected to political and bureaucratic authority are able to acquire, modify, and use spaces almost at will, ignoring issues of risk and safety.

This kind of gentrification transforms working-class spaces symbolically and spatially, marginalising the gentrified population by robbing them of the production, consumption, living spaces, and ways of life, as “lifestyle” becomes the raison d'être of the gentrification logic. Reflecting a symbolic shift, the label of “high street,” which historically referred to working class consumption spaces and was in fact at the heart of working-class communities, (Hubbard 2017) has been appropriated to name a luxury mall that has come up in another mill compound nearby, the High Street Phoenix. Other than the displacement of the working-class with the middle and upper classes, this kind of “retail gentrification” significantly affects placemaking. It is well known that as urban blight[7] strikes precincts and buildings in areas that are ripe for gentrification, municipal agencies and building owners withdraw maintenance services, and allow dilapidation, resulting in fires, building collapses, and uninhabitable structures, so that residents are forced to move out. Such processes are seen in Mumbai as much as in London or New York. However, piecemeal and arbitrary gentrification, facilitated by capital accumulation, an entrepreneurial urban governance regime (Harvey 1989), and an inefficient and uncaring municipal government can lead to tragic and disastrous outcomes for the rich and elite as well, as seen in the Kamala Mills incident. 


Bourgeois consumption in architectural spaces, whose styles are borrowed from global cities, and superimposed on dilapidated textile factory structures, creates a deadly cocktail resulting in high levels of risk and vulnerability for all sections of the urban population. Even as we fix blame and responsibility on the owners of these premises and on state officials who, through acts of omission and commission, generated conditions of risk, this outcome owes much to the unique trajectory of gentrification in Mumbai. The configurations of power and capital flows in gentrifying areas of Girangaon connect state actors, bureaucracy, real estate players, and owners of the mill compounds, all united by ties of class, consumption, kinship, and aspirations. This configuration ensures that, despite the significant risks and dangers to themselves and to the city as a whole, the middle class and elites do not address issues of safety and security. Instead, they use their power and networks to violate urban planning and safety norms, sometimes with disastrous rebounding effects on themselves, as in the Kamala Mills tragedy.

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