Figure 1: Scene from a Chawl

Source: K. Govilkar, Ad for Goli Vada Pav

It was in the early years of the 19th century that the city of Mumbai started gaining fame as a leading cotton producer in the world. Although the cotton mills were owned and operated by Indians the United Kingdom (under whose rule India was at the time) remained the leading importer; with excessive demand during the period of the American Civil War. This demand created a huge scope of investment in Mumbai resulting in a large number of cotton mills occupying a significant amount of landscape in the dense city. These mills required workers and migrants flooded into the city from different states including Gujarat, Bihar and as far south as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The boom of the cotton industry in Mumbai thus proved to be a significant landmark in the history of urbanisation of the city as it caused a sudden population explosion that came alongside the demand for labour.


Figure 2: Location of Chawls in Mumbai

Source: Learning from Mumbai, Maipin Publishing, 2013

As the number of residents in the city increased, there was a huge demand for cheap housing in the island city area where most mills were located. The government decided to intervene and build multi-storied structures that would accommodate large numbers of people in tiny single-roomed tenements that were known as “Chawls”. A typical chawl consisted of a large courtyard that was surrounded on three sides with built space. The tenements had a common balcony overlooking the courtyard. Although the units had their own kitchens and bathing spaces, toilets were common and were placed at one end of the corridor since chawls were intended to be used by single male migrant workers and not families. Corridors slowly became an extension of the tenements, where some residents would sleep, and courtyards became a community space where various activities took place. Not only did children play and adults gossip in these common spaces, but the confluence of various religious groups within chawls created a vibrant celebratory environment during different festivals. The physical structure of the chawls knowingly or unknowingly replicated basic elements of a typical Indian rural household (wadi) thus receiving acceptance from the intended end-users. This, when combined with the reduced rental rates made possible through the Rent Control Act, created a perfect living environment for low-income migrant workers.

Figure 3: Typical layout of a Chawl

Source: Author

As migrant workers became more settled in Mumbai, they slowly started inviting their families to join them. The affordability of chawl tenements and the space constrictions in the city lead to large families living in tenements as small as 15 sq.m. Overcrowding became a common site in chawls but families refused to leave due to the following three reasons:

  1. Affordable rent (Rent Control Act)
  2. Strategic location (in the island city)
  3. Cultural sense of community living

Soon mill owners started following the example of the government and started constructing chawls for their workers that were located in close proximity to the mills thus increasing the efficiency of workers by reducing the distances to be travelled. The ownership of these chawls remained with the mill owners, thus creating a model of private investment in affordable housing wherein all profits from rents went to the owners.

It was in the middle of the 20th century that the cotton industry in Mumbai started to decline. Thousands of mill workers became unemployed overnight and had to suddenly start looking for other work. Although a small percentage of migrants decided to return home most people (especially the ones who had migrated with families) decided to stay back in the city and look for other sources of income. The affordability and strategic location of chawls created stable living environments for the blue collar community during such periods of uncertainty.

It was towards the end of the 20th century that real estate values in urban Mumbai started shooting up. As chawls were located in the island city where the land value was maximum, private developers slowly started taking over these parcels of land. Chawl owners saw this as the perfect opportunity to sell off their properties as the lack of revision of the Rent Control Act ensured that the rental rates remained as low as Rs. 15-250 that are still prevalent today. This amount remained insufficient for even proper maintenance of the building. Chawl residents, in particular, were offered incentives such as monetary compensation and larger apartments that were to be constructed in place of the existing dilapidated structures. However, residents refused to move because of various reasons which included the following:

  1. Apartments that could be purchased with the monetary compensation were located on urban peripheries, thus increasing travel time for work. Chawls were located centrally hence reducing the time and expenses involved.
  2. The apartments that were provided as compensation were high rise ones that had services such as parking, elevators and landscaped garden. These services required monthly maintenance for which all residents would have to contribute equally. However, the lower income sections of society were unable to afford this extra cost.
  3. Residents of chawls lived like families, and the balconies and courtyards were common spaces for interaction. The openness of the balconies allowed parents to keep a constant eye on children playing outside, thus creating a sense of security. The newly constructed apartments lacked the sense of community living and security incurred through the built spaces that existed in chawls.

Figure 4: Typical layout of newly constructed apartment


India is a rapidly urbanising country that has an increasing demand for affordable housing and a decreasing availability of space. Chawls are an indigenous example of housing that incorporates concepts of affordability, space constrictions and community living to create an accepted form of housing. Although many factors of chawls may not be socially accepted by end users today (eg: common toilets), the hierarchy of spaces in a chawl from private to semi-private to the public could provide a strong framework to base the designs of newly constructed social housing on. Moreover, the success stories of this typology of housing have proved the necessity for affordable rental housing as an option for low-income urban migrants and is a topic that needs to be further delved into.

Figure 5: Ratios of common spaces in a chawl depicted through a section

Source: Author


By Meghna Mohandas

About the author: Meghna was the recipient of the second runner-up award at the Berkeley essay writing competition, 2015. This provided her with an opportunity to attend a certification course in Urban Planning at Aalto University, Finland. Her undergraduate thesis at School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal, “Redevelopment of BDD Chawls, Mumbai”, was presented and published at the World Town Planning Day 2015. Currently working at SELCO Foundation, she is developing ecosystems for the holistic approach of housing in various low-income communities.



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