MUMBAI: East Indian families that reside in the city’s over 150 gaothans have been fighting to save their pristine hamlets from land sharks for years. “Families are growing in gaothans. We have been requesting the government to grant extra floor space index (FSI) to accommodate our families to protect the identity and culture of gaothans’ inhabitants,’’ said activist Godfrey Pimenta of Watchdog Foundation.
As they successfully staved off a state attempt to declare these ancient enclaves as slum clusters, the Bombay East Indian Association and Watchdog Foundation moved the high court to fight for the rights of the residents and preserve the gaothans. In an interim order in 2019, the court directed the authorities not to carry out demolitions without following the due process of law.
Clusters of charming cottages and Portuguese-style homes, some dating back to the 19th century, are the last remaining vestiges of Mumbai’s urban gaothans or villages, now surrounded by high-rise structures.
Over the decades, redevelopment has shrunk the gaothans, once believed to total as many as 250 in the city, Thane and Raigad. While many of these homes have heritage facades with their Mangalore tiles, roomy verandas, stained-glass panels, high ceilings, and doors and windows of original Burma teak, the upkeep does not come cheap.
Advocate Karen D’Souza, a Kurla resident, said, “In some villages, residents have extended their home boundaries for constructing a ladder, thereby making the lanes narrow,” she said.
“In Bandra’s Ranwar village, the narrow lanes are a disadvantage,’’ said resident Timmy Remedios, whose family has lived here for over seven decades.
With families growing, the need for more living space and privacy forces them to sell off their ancestral homes. Professor Linda Dhakul, resident of the Vile Parle West gaothan, said repair permissions are difficult to procure. “Many gaothan residents also complain of low water pressure. These impediments force them to move out,’’ she added.
In the gaothans of Malad (West) such as Kharodi, Rathodi and Marve, former nominated municipal corporator Noella Varela said, “Redevelopment is rampant in many of these villages. Many families have sold their cottages and moved abroad.”
“Encroachments and the land mafia are two of the biggest issues these villagers face. It is a struggle to protect what you own. The easy way out is to sell out,” she said.
Bamanwada near Sahar is another gaothan that boasts residents who have lived here for over 100 years. Lindsay Fernandes is one of them. He said the reason many sell out is because of expanding families and the tenants who come with no property rights but end up getting a large chunk, thanks to the age-old tenancy laws. “The older generation does not have proper records, which is now important. Maintaining the old homes is expensive, you need specialised labour and they don’t come cheap,” he said.
East Indians are indigenous to the heartland of what might be said to comprise the former Salsette Island, including Bandra, Kurla, Thane and Bhayandar. “They are the earliest Christians, Marathi speaking and very much sons of the soil of Mumbai. The community is largely based on a variety of sub-communities, or rather the amalgamation of five basic cultural groups–Samvedi Christians, Koli Christians, Vadval Christians, Sutars and Salsette Christians,’’ said Pimenta.
East Indians with large and small holdings lived in Cavel, Kothachiwadi, Dadar, Wadala, Bandra, Chimbai, Kalina, Sahar, Marol, Amboli, Versova, Aldea Mar (Madh) Poinsur and Mount Poinsur. Some of the original pockets where the community is concentrated are still in evidence at Manori, Culvem, Gorai, Uttan, Dongri, Bhayander and Vasai.
“East Indians still own their 18th century houses in the heart of the city. Many, though, have moved to the suburbs and many have lost their ancestral lands and homes as the city developed,’’ said a community member. Huge tracts of ancestral lands belonging to East Indians at places such as Sahar airport and its environs have been acquired by the government at paltry compensation,’’ alleged another.
In the eastern suburbs of Bhandup, Kanjurmarg and Vikhroli, whole village land holdings were swallowed by industrial complexes, he said.
“The East Indians largely contributed to the development of Mumbai in terms of giving huge land holdings for public purposes of airports, both at Santacruz and Juhu, Aarey Colony, suburban police training school, suburban fire brigade headquarters, salt pan lands, MIDC Industrial Estate at Andheri (East) and Mumbai University land at Kalina,’’ said community members who wish to retain the unique character of the gaothans.
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