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Mumbai terror attack: Congestion, richness and mix of religions make Zaveri Bazaar a tempting target

Posted by on July 14, 2011 0 Comment

A third bomb blast in Zaveri Bazaar may have left its inhabitants wondering why their locality always seems to be attacked. But a quick walk through its crowded streets shows why it presents such a tempting target for terrorists.

Other parts of Mumbai are as cramped and crowded, presenting the prospect of maximum casualties and chaos. Other areas combine different religions and communities in close proximity. And other areas are rich, or richer, but Zaveri Bazaar is all three.

As it happens, the reasons for this go back to another disaster – the great Bombay Fire of 1803. On February 17 of that year, a devastating fire broke out in the city, then largely still within the old Fort walls, and destroyed around a third of the houses. After this, the British decided the city needed to spread out, with the native merchants in particular having to move to the area to the north.

Part of this was an area just called the Market, along what is now Mohammed Ali Road, but the rest became the new neighbourhoods like Bhuleshwar and Kalbadevi. As Sharada Dwivedi, Mumbai’s historian, notes, thanks to the tendency of people to settle with their communities, a segmentation took place.

“The Gujaratis and Marwaris settled around Kalbadevi, the Muslims around what became Mohammed Ali Road, the Maharashtrians around Girgaum.” Zaveri Bazaar – where mostly Gujarati merchants opened their jewellery and metalware shops – is, in a sense, at a point where all these areas meet.

“All the religions come together in that area,” says Dwivedi, and this can be seen in the number of notable religious structures, be it of Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Parsis and even Christian churches nearby. (Oddly enough, the Mumbadevi temple, which is now a marker of the neighbourhood, is something of a newcomer, being shifted there by the British in the mid-19th century, after they started rebuilding its original location at Boribunder).

Even more striking than the religious structures though, is the congestion, with crowded streets, buildings propping each other up, overflowing gutters and what looks like a bewildering lack of any sense of planning. In ‘Alice in Bhuleshwar’, Kaiwan Mehta’s excellent introduction to the area, he pays full tribute to its surprising architectural gems (the Dwarakadeesh temple), hidden surprises (the pinjrapol, or animal sanctuary inside Madhav Bagh) and the real sense of community.

But in a stomach-churning chapter on the inadequacies of the sewerage system, which still requires manual cleaning by municipal sweepers, he points to the way in which planning seems to have bypassed the area. Professor Miriam Dossal , who has written definitive accounts of urban development schemes in the city, points out that this wasn’t for lack of trying by the authorities.

Henry Coneybeare , the civic engineer who first developed Bombay’s modern water supply and sewer systems, tried to bring New Town , as the area was called, within the plans, “but there was resistance from the inhabitants who feared they would have to pay a lot more for the pipes and other development,” she says.

In some cases, the municipal authorities were later able to push through changes, most notably after the Bombay plague that started in 1896, which did lead to areas like Princess Street being redeveloped. But Zaveri Bazaar was mostly left alone, and one can speculate if this was due to the fact that its inhabitants were relatively wealthy and able to influence the authorities to leave them alone.

The result is what can be seen today – an area that hardly reflects the relative prosperity of many of the property owners. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people actually staying in Zaveri Bazaar are very rich. Many old families from that area have moved out, to better-planned neighbourhoods in the city.

Yet they retain their footholds in that area, partly from sentiment, partly because it remains a centre for commerce and religion, but also partly because of the promise of even more riches to be gained from it, as the area gets redeveloped. One of the surprises of walking there now is to see, right next to crumbling buildings, a flashy new block of shops or residential tower.

They make no attempt to fit in with the area, and are probably straining the already stretched infrastructure of the area, but they are consistent with the way it has developed – with no planning, but plenty of profit and now, it seems, with bombs. Economic Times

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