Disabling environments: The impact of disability in India

By Anastasia Abrams
Bachelor of Arts (Political Economy) & Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Politics & International Relations)

Our time studying at the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) was intersected with outings to unique sites across Mumbai city including the Gateway of India, Navi Mumbai and the M-East Ward Slums. Navigating the bustling streets, the uneven footpaths and noise pollution was very overwhelming while attempting to stick together as a group.

View of the tea plantations from DARE

Very quickly, the impassable characteristics of this chaotic city, struck me as being the impossible reality for those with physical and mental disabilities. Bound by noise and space constraints and inaccessibility to basic facilities, it came as no surprise that I didn’t see many disabled people around Mumbai.

Of the total Indian population however 2.1% are disabled, with 70% of these people residing in rural areas. This becomes a considerable problem due to the limited availability and utilisation of rehabilitation and disability services within rural communities.

In part due to the stigma of disabilities being associated with sin. The consequences for disabled people can be devastating as families either keep them hidden at home, or refer to their disabilities as ‘treatable’ conditions to preserve their social status.

This social marginalisation and neglect is only heightened as prospects of marriage for the family members are significantly decreased, due to the assumption they carry this illness. When poverty and discrimination towards disabilities intersect, people with disability are subject to worsened health problems, limited opportunities of gaining employment or education and reduced access to social welfare services and support.

Discrimination against people with disability can manifest in the attitudes of family members and in government policy, or lack of it. Currently there is no ministry responsible for meeting the holistic needs of disabled people in India.

In this environment, it was extremely refreshing to see the work being done at the Srishti Trust centre in Munnar to empower specially-abled children and young adults. Established in 1990 under the Tata Global Beverages Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, Srishti runs several projects aimed at securing a positive future for the differently-abled. This was set up when Tata noted the high rate of people with disability in the area, later found to be the result of inbreeding within the villages.

Srishti’s projects include DARE (development activities in rehabilitative education), a school for the children of the tea plantation workers, whose minimum incomes are not able to support the complex needs of their disabled children. Walking around this centre, it was obvious to see the compassion and pride these educators have towards the children and their work, despite the attached societal stigma. Once graduating the now young adults are assimilated into Srishti’s vocational projects, dependent on their capabilities.

Posters on the wall at DARE school

These include Athulya an upcycling paper unit based on the ideology ‘wealth from waste’ Aranaya which creates eco-friendly natural dyes and fabrics, Nisarga a fruit preserve making unit and the Deli where an assortment of desserts is made. These workers were proud to explain the various production processes and show off their work. We left with the undeniable understanding that these are independent and self-sufficient people.

In the present context suitable disability services and their implementation remain an immense challenge. When provided support and valued as productive members within the community however people with disability, like the ones at Srishti Trust, become empowered individuals.

The first step to improve the holistic experience of differently-abled people in India is by disabling the current environment.

When red becomes green: Transitioning to reusable menstrual products in Muhamma, Kerala

By Cara Stone
Bachelor of Science (Environmental Studies) / Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Marketing)

It’s late in the evening when we receive a knock at the door. Two women, posters bundled in their arms, stand in the doorway of our hostel room at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. They need to go into our restroom. After some time shuffling about, they thank us and leave. There, freshly laminated and demanding attention, is something I never expected to see taped to the door of an Indian bathroom. A flyer about menstrual cups.

Gradually mounting in popularity, menstrual cups offer an eco-conscious, reusable alternative to period hygiene products. They function much in the same way as a tampon but can be reused for ten years. The idea behind the cup is that alongside saving thousands of single use period products from contributing to the world’s waste crisis, it reduces both long term costs and health risks. Cotton based cloth pads likewise offer an alternative to single-use sanitary pads but require a set of four to see you through the days of your cycle.

Cloth pads and menstrual cups provided by ATREE, a local NGO (SOURCE: The Week, 2019)

With 26% of the global population menstruating and experiencing 450 cycles in their lifetime, it’s hard to fathom just how many menstrual products are thrown away. Especially so for Australians; these products are conveniently disposed of in one of many sanitary bins, collected, and forgotten. Within Muhamma, a locality near Vembanad Lake in Kerala, the sheer amount of waste is blatant. Of Muhamma’s 8000 menstruating people,75% use synthetic sanitary pads, translating to 100,000 soiled pads a month. Lacking proper disposal facilities, soiled pads have one of five paths: be collected with regular waste, sent through the toilet, buried, burnt, or tossed in public spaces like lakes. Because pads are a cocktail of plastic and harmful chemicals, not only are there significant environmental ramifications, there are alarming health risks like reproductive harm, hormone disruption, and cancer. Such risk is exacerbated by wearing synthetic pads longer than the recommended 4-6 hours, unsanitary collection of pads by waste pickers, and the leaching of pads into water supplies.

With this in mind, why would people not transition to reusables? Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) is collaborating with Muhamma Panchayat to establish the first synthetic pad-free panchayat, touting the benefits of reusable products through seminars, workshops, and door-to-door campaigns. I’ve been a user of cloth pads for a year now; when transitioning, my mother grimaced, questioning how hygienic these would be. India has a different sanitary concern. Menstrual cups should be disinfected, but poor water quality means cups could be dirtier after ‘cleaning’. Social stigma presents further barriers to Muhamma’s goals. Just talking about menstruation is rare. Women are averse to menstrual cups, despite their cost-benefit and subsidies, largely due to fear surrounding their safety and virginity. Tampons are hardly used for similar reasons.

As we discussed this initiative with ATREE, it seemed that despite their success – 2500 women have jumped onboard – this change may be too fast. Synthetic pads have only just become widely used. Asking people to change yet again risks isolating those still uncomfortable with menstrual products. Women need to have a choice of disposable or reusable, rather than having that decision made for them if disposables eventually go off the market. Change is needed, but we must be careful of the way in which we generate it.

Is organic farming the answer to India’s food insecurity?

By Ida Altenkamp
Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations)

Parshuran stands proudly in front of his crops

In what seems a landscape of dry brush and dusty colours, an oasis of textured greenery sits behind dense walls of woven wood. This is Parshuran’s organic farm. Parshuran has been working on his organic farm since 2014 with the help of a small NGO called Anubhav.

Anubhav facilitates education about modern farming tools and techniques aimed at women’s livelihoods in agriculture. Their programs have been tailored to landowners’ specific lifestyles and involve technologies such as resource mapping. Support in smoothing the harvest to market processes has been provided in order to improve the preservation process of crops and teaching of methods to capitalise on yields in local settings has been implemented.

The work of Anubhav has been crucial in improving Parshuran’s livelihood and social interactions and the education provided has spread quickly throughout the local village through Parshuran’s own teaching.

Parshuran’s narrative exists within an Indian context of mass rural poverty and diminishing agricultural output. Although still predominantly rural, India is seeing a major population transition from rural to urban with the UN predicting that by 2050 urban populations will overtake rural populations in size. Simultaneously, India is estimated to surpass China’s population in 2027 adding around 273 million people between 2019 and 2050.

Therefore, as India’s population grows rapidly and more people migrate out of rural settings in search for a better life, a huge void will develop between the need for food in the cities and the capacity of the rural economy to produce enough agricultural output.

Parshuran’s and other organic farmers in rural India have a unique opportunity to contribute to the development of a sustainable agricultural revolution. Organic practices can contribute, by tackling three core issues: water security, financial security and decentralisation.

For Parshuran, water scarcity is one of his biggest challenges, as water has been limited in access since March last year for drinking and land usage. However, organic farming has considerably reduced his water needs as his organic soil is much more water absorbent than his previous traditional farm.

Parshuran has been able to sustain his income from the farm and even increase his profits, reducing the need to take up other non-farm work as a source of secondary income. Finally, Anubhav’s collaboration with Parshuran illustrates a bottom-up approach to agricultural empowerment and recognises the Indian government’s inability to alone address and enhance the rural economy’s agricultural productivity.

In this way, organic farming begins the process of climate proofing India’s agricultural sector and places power in local organisation’s hands to enhance their lives.

Although its clear that organic farming alone cannot provide this diverse country with food security, it can however provide a part of the solution, such which simply needs to be recognised through education and empowerment.

More than meets the eye: Ecological conflicts in the Vembanad

By Elly Williams
Bachelor of Engineering / Bachelor of Science (Environmental Studies)

The Backwater Canals of Kerala

Drifting down the Backwaters by houseboat, it’s easy to appreciate the lure of the Kerala region – picturesque canals lined with coconut trees, the reflection of the sky in the waters’ surface interrupted only by beautiful floating aquatic plants and quaint wooden boats.

However, there is more to this scene than meets the eye.

This network of lakes and canals known as the Vembanad is in fact a complex ecosystem dependent on environmental intervention and conflicting stakeholder relations.

The Vembanad is the largest tropical ecosystem of the Indian south-west coast. Transformed by human activity, it is estimated that two-thirds of the original lake area has been converted into rice paddy, and the installation of the saltwater barrage Thanneermukkom Bund in 1974 has permanently altered coastal processes in the region. The coastal ecosystem naturally alternates between a freshwater system during the monsoon and a brackish environment during the dry season. The barrage extends the freshwater period to April through December to prolong the rice-growing season, while restricting the brackish period to just four months.

Thanneermukkom Bund saltwater barrage

An estimated 1.6 million people depend on the Vembanad for food, drinking water and income. The fishing, clam collecting, agricultural and tourism industries all depend directly on the lake, but demand different conditions to thrive.

For example, closing the barrage from April to December provides freshwater for multiple rice-growing seasons. However, clam populations require saltwater inflows to facilitate reproduction. Restricting the saltwater period shortens the clam breeding season, resulting in depleted clam populations south of the barrage. Both industries contribute substantially to India’s food supply, with the Vembanad supplying 16% of rice grown in the Kerala region and over 60% of clams in India.

Furthermore, the barrage was intended to be opened for a full year once every four years to hydrologically balance the ecosystem. However, the barrage has never remained open for more than a few months, leading to a build-up of toxins, nutrients and pollution from agriculture, urban development and tourism. This has contributed to lake deterioration, stakeholder stress, biodiversity loss and exacerbated growth of the water hyacinth weed resulting in hypoxia. Where over 150 species of fish have been seen in the Vembanad in the past, only 117 have been recorded recently.

With these tradeoffs and stakeholder conflicts at play, environmental management in the region is highly complex. This is where grassroots organisations such as the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) and the Lake Protection Forum come in.

ATREE engages in a number of campaigns and activities that promote conservation in the Vembanad. One successful initiative involves the construction of fish sanctuaries (Matsyathavalam) in designated no-fishing zones to provide a protected breeding space for fish.

Our group had the opportunity to construct fish sanctuaries with ATREE and the Lake Protection Forum. We drove bamboo stakes into the lake floor, tying fresh bamboo stalks to the base. As the fresh leaves decay, nutrients are released that attract a variety of species, including the popular Pearl Spot, as well as providing protection from predators.

This exciting experience provided insight into how organisations like ATREE and the Lake Protection Forum implement low cost conservation solutions to combat ecological conflicts in the Vembanad.

Conflicts between the rice, fishing and clam collecting industries continue and the future of the management of Thanneermukkom Bund is uncertain. I hope someday to see the stakeholder interests and ecology of the Vembanad reach a balance that reflects the serenity of the beautiful Backwaters.

Fish sanctuary making with ATREE and the Lake Protection Forum

What a waste: India’s unconventional waste management systems

By Laura Choo
Bachelor of Arts (Government & International Relations and Political Economy)

Upon arriving at our student accommodation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences campus, we were handed two 500ml bottles of water each. The next day, we were advised not to drink tap water. I was prepared for this as I had been advised countless times before coming to India that I should avoid drinking water from any unknown sources. However, it caught me by surprise when we were also advised not to drink the filtered water provided on campus or in restaurants.

Although where we get our water from is up to our own discretion, as a first timer in India, I wasn’t about to risk contracting any kind of waterborne diseases. This left me with only one option, which was to depend on drinking bottled water for the duration of my stay. As someone who needs to drink at least two litres of water every day to stay hydrated, the amount of waste I was producing was a big concern, let alone the waste created by the 20 million people living in Mumbai.

It is estimated that in 2016, Mumbai generated about 11,000 tonnes of  solid waste per day, more than  any other metropolitan city in India. Despite the government’s efforts to implement a plastic ban, single-use plastics are still seen scattered around the city. Indeed, one glance at Mumbai’s rivers and you’d be able to see a layer of trash covering a part of the surface. During our bus rides, we were also able to see mountains of trash peeking out from the dumping grounds located right next to slums.

Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, has played a major role in Mumbai’s waste management as the people there reportedly sort and recycle 60 percent of the city’s plastic waste.  This is ironic given the shabby living conditions of the slum’s residents who are usually only paid a pittance for the amount of work that they do. The slum dwellers have managed to transform Mumbai’s trash problem into more employment opportunities for themselves, albeit informal and insecure.

In Kochi, on the other hand, one of our first observations was that the roads were a lot cleaner than they were in Mumbai, and it seemed to be the case throughout the other towns that we visited while travelling around the state of Kerala as well. This could perhaps be a testament to the better distribution of resources in the ideologically socialist state as well as the better organisation of the communities around urban and rural Kerala.

The Kumily Panchayat Waste Management Plant in Kerala was particularly impressive in its ability to generate revenue through the collection of waste from households and sale of compost to farmers while also providing permanent employment for locals. The plant’s employees collect segregated waste from households that pay 40 rupees per month for their services, which include the recycling of plastics, controlled burning of unrecyclable waste and production of vermicompost.

These unorganised and organised methods of waste management highlight the plight amongst India’s less advantaged social groups in finding work to the extent that they are forced into odd jobs such as sorting and processing waste, which may have health implications in the long term.

India has managed to innovate unconventional solutions to a global dilemma. As tourists and scholars alike, we must be mindful not to waste the opportunity to learn from them.

Environmental remodelling for economic gains: The Vembanad example

By Georgia Locke
Bachelor of Economics/Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Political Economy)

This week, we are spending time in Vembanad, a Ramsar-listed wetland system in Kerala. Today we worked in Vembanda Lake with the NGO Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) to help reinstate what was once a naturally occurring fish sanctuary, simulating the roots and shade of mangroves with bamboo poles and bamboo palms.

The fish sanctuaries are designed to provide a place where fish can breed, with the intention of increasing their dwindling population in Vembanad. To protect the breeding fish, the sanctuaries are designated non-fishing zones, with close spacing between poles providing a bulwark against boats and canoes. 

The fish sanctuary work is an effort to renew natural capital and build new economic models. ATREE are using human and physical capital (bamboo and other materials) to reinstate a naturally occurring phenomenon, mangroves, which were removed for economic purposes.

Standing on the edge of Vembanad Lake, it’s hard to imagine that these concrete-reinforced banks were once thick with mangroves. Sanju Soman, a representative for ATREE, painted this vivid picture for us, describing how the mangrove forests that used to line the river banks have faced considerable deforestation in the last fifty years. The majority of this deforestation was done to provide solid foundations for real estate.

This history of environmental remodelling for economic gains resounds throughout the Vembanad ecosystem.

The Vembanad Lake itself was remodelled through the commission of the Thanneermukkom Barrage in 1975. The barrage creates a physical barrier between the Arabian sea and the lake. It is located at the narrowest portion of the lake and divides it into two halves: a brackish northern side and a freshwater southern side.

The barrage was constructed with the economic aim of limiting the damage caused by salt intrusion to rice-paddies and hence increasing the harvest. Previously, plantations would flood with saltwater during the monsoon and undermine the zero-salinity required for rice growth. This meant that rice could only be farmed once a year; during the dry season. By facilitating regulation of the lake’s salinity, the barrage allows for an additional rice harvest.

However, like the removal of mangroves for real estate, the Thanneermukkom Barrage has had significant environmental consequences for the Keralan backwaters. We heard stories of this firsthand through our discussion with the Muhamma Panchayat’s leaders and fishermen. Among other impacts, they spoke about the invasion of water hyacinths and the reduction in aquatic animal populations. The latter has been particularly problematic for Vembanad resident’s due to their economic dependence on fishing and clam mining.

The Vembanad Lake is a microcosm for the tensions that play out perennially between economic and environmental interests and stakeholders. It highlights the tendency for policies or projects that artificially alter natural ecosystems and landscapes to be implemented for economic purposes, with negligible consideration for environmental consequences.

The question remains: can these environmental consequences be negated or fixed with man-made solutions? The Vembanad fish sanctuary demonstrates that this may indeed be possible.

Panchayat above its weight – local government in India

By Ellie Stephenson
Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies III (Political Economy, Environmental Studies)

Like Australia, India has a three-tiered system of administration, with central, state and local level governments sharing responsibility for lawmaking and service provision. In India, the local level, made up of gram panchayats, is extremely important. Gandhi’s vision of post-Independence India was a nation fundamentally comprised of village councils. In the 1990s, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act enshrined the decentralisation of government, compelling states to empower local self-government. Gram panchayats collect tax, provide local services,  and politically represent their localities. Ward members are elected every five years to make up the council, which in turn votes to elect a President.

Travelling through India has illustrated to me how instrumental gram panchayats can be in citizens’ everyday lives. Yesterday, we visited the Kumily Grama Panchayat and heard from the President, Sheeba Suresh. She discussed the importance of consultation with local wards in expressing communities’ issues and priorities, explaining that waste management and tourism are particularly pressing for the people living here.

These issues seemed particularly visceral when we went to the Thekkady waste management facility, which is run by the panchayat to manage local rubbish collection and processing. It is an award-winning approach to cleaning up the area which is now presented to other Panchayats around Kerala. We saw a number of ways of recycling different types of waste, from soft plastic which was shredded to add to road asphalt, to high quality compost which is sold to local farmers. Households and businesses sort their rubbish, which is then collected and taken to the facility. Even E-waste is accounted for, with the local government collecting it and a state government initiative, Clean Kerala, disposing of it. There is also a research unit which studies and refines the model. This program was a great example of the resourcefulness and progress which can occur through grassroots action complemented by state government initiatives.

The panchayat also has affirmative action provisions for women and scheduled castes and tribes. While earlier in our trip we learned about gender marginalisation in rural India, it was heartening to see that the President of Kumily Panchayat was female. Given the role of the panchayat in local life, this kind of representation provides a potentially very powerful role model.

All of this encouraged me to reflect on the role of municipality in development. One clear advantage of local self-government was the fact that initiatives could be tailored to a community’s needs, with research undertaken to adapt programs to local concerns. The proximity of the panchayat to its electors means that encouraging the community to participate in the waste management program has been successful. However, it also seems that such a system has its limitations. Two days ago, speaking with tea plantation workers, we heard about the hostilities between the Panchayat and the plantation company. Poor living conditions had persisted despite advocacy on behalf of workers by the Panchayat. This highlighted a limitation of decentralisation, whereby local political forces do not always have the strength to contest large-scale corporate power. It seems local governments can play an important role in innovating and providing direct representation of citizens’ everyday needs. However, this is most powerful when complemented by support from effective higher-level governance.

Get schooled

By Katrina Conn
Bachelor of Education (Secondary: Science)/ Bachelor of Science

Women are the foundation of Indian society. They run their households, are the primary carers of their children and often work as well to support their family. This can often create a vicious cycles of gender-based disadvantage, as many girls drop out of school to take care of their younger siblings, so their mother can go back to work. Often girls also drop out when menstruation begins because of social stigma and insufficient facilities, which means being at school on your period can become very uncomfortable. Education plays an extremely significant role in shaping the future of individuals, allowing them greater opportunity for jobs in the formal sector with better wages to support their family. As education is such an important step towards eliminating global inequality, limited education means that women suffer disproportionately from these inequalities. As someone studying to become a secondary teacher, I am extremely passionate about this issue.

Yesterday, we went to a village where the women worked their lives away plucking tea leaves. They are trapped and exploited in this field of work, as this is their only skill after having dropped out of school early. There is hope though with the creation of the women’s empowerment union to fight for the rights of women and for fair wages. The thing that made me smile the most yesterday was seeing the young girls in their school uniforms, still dreaming so big and studying so hard. The most inspiring of them all was Sowndarya, who showed us around her village with an incredible amount of energy, passion and knowledge. Her English was amazing, and her smile was radiant. She was in the equivalent of year 12 in India, and yet she still took the time out of her busy day to show us around even though she had an exam the following day. She has dreams of going into journalism and one day moving to another country. She looked after her neighbour’s child, who is in year 3, as if she was her own sister. She was such a huge role model for the girls in the village.

There is hope that the education she is so keenly undertaking is going to open so many doors for her in the future and lead to so many more opportunities for her to work in a formal sector job. This will then hopefully lead to her being able to support herself more fully than was the case for her mother.

Education has the potential to empower women allowing them greater freedom and agency. It leads to greater employment opportunities, better wages and a more secure future. Seeing the difference education makes for even one individual makes me even more inspired to teach and perhaps even teach internationally in countries such as India.

Unions without unity: Workers’ movements and gender in the Munnar tea fields

By Joey Reinhard
B Arts (Political Economy)/B Economics

Gliding through the rolling hills of TATA’s Munnar tea plantations in Kerala, cars casting fluid shadows over the valley as it falls away below, it’s easy to become intoxicated with the sheer beauty of the region. Each gentle concrete bend reveals another blanket of vivid green, its smooth surface broken only by the hypnotic geometry of rows upon rows ebbing and flowing in parallel, running through the countryside like quilted seams.

But to romanticise and get lost in the aesthetic charm of the tea plantations, is to neglect the presence of a dark underbelly of exploitation that props up the most consumed beverage in the world. Tucked away deep in the enclaves of these hills, women, who form the backbone of the world’s tea industry, are fighting a lop-sided political battle on multiple fronts.

The deep-seated power structures they find themselves pitted against have their roots in a historically embedded patriarchal notion of femininity: women were identified as having delicate, gentle hands, suitable for picking the finest tea leaves. This is a baseless logic informed by normative gendered dichotomy that infuses through the class/caste structure of the region and broader India.

In reality, tea-picking is some of the most labour-intensive work one could undertake. Workers in Munnar’s tea plantations are fourth and fifth generation Tamil, descendent indentured workers brought to the region by British colonisers. Tea plantation pickers are predominantly women, who tough out long days of navigating steep hills, hauling kilograms of tea leaves, all while being subjected to the harsh heat and monsoonal rains of Southern India. This group are core of the workforce, yet women have continually been forgotten by the prominent union movement in Kerala, a state where socialist oriented governments have wielded significant power over the years.

The raison d’être of these well established and party-affiliated unions is to resist the exploitative tendencies of large corporations such as TATA which operate the tea-plantations. However, overrepresentation of men (who primarily work in other sections of the tea production process such as in factories) in these unions has led to lacklustre outcomes for the women pickers.

This overrepresentation of men in union institutional structures reflects longstanding gender inequalities in social, cultural and economic life of India. The rise of autonomous women’s labour organising is the ultimate subversion of this socio-economic structure.  The women of the tea fields have taken mobilisation into their own hands.

Our field school was fortunate enough to have an interaction with several of these women. Having organised under the banner of Pembilai Orumai (Women’s Unity, in Tamil), they’ve leveraged their position as the backbone of the industry and initiated ongoing strikes to secure a living wage (having moderate success), and are currently engaged in 20 court cases disputing matters of basic worker’s rights.

The success of these movements, despite being up against both the economic might of the plantation owners and the masculine political culture of the union establishment, and an avalanche of sensationalist rhetoric in the public sphere, speaks volumes for the ability for grassroots mobilisation to bring about significant change. It also highlights just how important it is that the voice of women, and other marginalised groups, are at the forefront of worker organisation if this change is to be truly progressive.

Cabinets of curiosity: The British influence on Mumbai architecture

By Claire Sharp
Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Economics and Political Economy

Today we visited the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Mumbai City Museum, Mumbai’s oldest museum. The opening exhibition engaged a quote by Italo Calvino that I found very relevant to the experience of Mumbai,

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. Even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, 1972, “Invisible Cities”

Calvino and the museum exhibition entice you to look beyond the appearance of the city into its language and history, and further how it is portrayed in the urban architecture.

Mumbai, like many cities around the world, has a deep history entrenched in British colonial history. Colonial aesthetics are infused in much of the architecture throughout the city. This was illustrated by the structure and design of the BDL Museum.

The Main Hall of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Mumbai City Museum.

During our museum tour, we learned an important aspect of Mumbai’s environmental history, that is concealed beneath the very ground this museum stood.

The booming city of Mumbai was not always the appealing, fast paced and progressive city that it is today. The British called the municipality of Bombay after its Portuguese name “Bom Bahia” or “Good Bay”, which was then renamed again in the 20th century to Mumbai in honour of the earliest inhabitants of the land.

Originally seven small islands, Mumbai was gifted to King Charles II of England in 1661 as a part of the dowry for his marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. It is hard to believe after our experiences in Mumbai over the last week that in its earliest days the area was extremely unattractive to the British due to their belief in the areas incapability to develop.

Our guide Tamara explained to us that after Charles was gifted the islands, they were rented out to the East India Company at an annual rent of ten pounds. Put in perspective, ten pounds at the time could also get you a pound of tea!

The opening of Mumbai’s main port as well as the outbreak of the American civil war allowing for a competitive cotton trade market and increased opium trade with China triggered Mumbai’s economic growth expanding the island city. In 1947 India gained independence from the British transitioning Mumbai in to one of India’s largest metropolises.

Description: A group of people standing in front of a building

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The BDL Museum with its neoclassical architectural style.

Fast forward to today, the British colonial legacy remains visible in the architecture of the city. During the period of British rule these public buildings served two ideological purposes:  to establish India as a subject of European power, and to construct the cultural superiority of the British.

The juxtaposition between the neoclassical buildings to traditional Indian structures are a constant reminder of the great differences between the two nations emphasising the cultural dominance of the British.

The BDL building while housing predominately Indian historical items is rich with European influence.

As discussed on the tour, the building was only recently, in 2008, restored to its original structure in which the museum retained the British influenced architecture of the building.

In the course of our tour, we also peered into curious cabinets containing figurines and miniature village settings. The figurines were detailed archetypes, or more rightly stereotypes, of men and women from different castes and regions across India. We learned that these displays were used to educate the colonial officials in Mumbai about the types of people they may encounter, and their place in the social and economic order according to the British.

These cabinets invite us to reflect on the colonial desires they served.

We saw colonial aesthetic influence in a number of other places across southern Mumbai, for instance, in design at the Gateway of India and many other buildings in Colaba built in the neoclassical style. Many of these buildings are public institutions and museums, and others are commercial with restaurants and high end retail.

Mumbai exemplifies the dichotomy of the British legacy and the growing modern cities of India. Italo Calvino describes that “the city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand”.

The architecture that is a constant remainder of colonisation also embodies the city’s history that makes it so unique.