For a nativist whose party champions the superiority of Maharashtrian culture, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray made a startling campaign promise this week. Ahead of the Mumbai municipal corporation elections on Tuesday, he told the Hindustan Times that he wants “to create a Mumbai as envisaged by the British”.

He elaborated: “Just see the town-planning of Mumbai till Mahim causeway [which marked the boundaries of the colonial city]. At the time when the population of Mumbai was hardly anything, they built the CST station, which can bear the load even today. See the Oval Maidan, Azad Maidan or Shivaji Park…The areas like Parel, Lalbaug and Dadar have many open spaces owing to the town planning done during those days.”

The odds on Thackeray’s outfit winning the house this week are about as high as Mumbai experiencing a snowstorm this February. Even more tenuous than Thackeray’s hold over the electorate, though, is his comprehension of the city’s colonial history, which he seems to believe was as an age of order and glory.

Nothing disproves his sepia-tinted vision better than the hundreds of crosses dating back to the end of the 19th century strewn by the city’s streets. They’re commonly known as Plague Crosses, and are reminder of the epidemic that claimed nearly 55,460 lives in the four years from 1896 to 1900 and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the city. These crosses were hastily erected by people seeking divine protection against the disease.

They had good reason to be fearful. In the year that the bubonic plague first struck the city, it killed approximately 1,900 people a week. It spread rapidly because of the cramped, unhygienic conditions in which the city’s working classes lived. Despite Raj Thackeray’s belief that the colonial-era city was well planned and salubrious, the high toll from the plague proved otherwise.

A scene from the Illustrated London News showing colonial administrators forcibly taking suspected plague patients to hospital.

Ineffective improvements

The efforts of colonial administrators to improve the situation weren’t very effective. The Bombay Improvement Trust was established in 1898, ostensibly to heal the diseased city by “opening out crowded localities”, “constructing sanitary dwellings for the poor” and building wide streets. The epidemic had caused the city’s population to drop by 6% in the decade up to 1901.

The Trust set about demolishing tenements so that they could be replaced by chawls for mill workers, and began to construct such arteries as Sydenham Road (later renamed Mohammed Ali Road) and Princess Street. It didn’t take long for the Trust to run into opposition. Landowners, as was to be expected, protested that they had been inadequately compensated. But the residents of shantytowns were not happy either. They were not given alternative accommodation when their homes were torn down and when the new chawls came up, the rents proved unaffordable. Then, as now, the dispossessed slipped back into slums on the edges of the areas that were being improved, exacerbating the problem the Trust had set out to solve.

Proof of the failure of the “pseudo-sanitarians”, as the Bombay Improvement Trust’s supporters had been labelled by critics, came in 1919, when the government dissolved the organisation. Though it had been at work for 21 years, 74% of the city’s residents still lived in one-room tenements.

The fatal flaw in Bombay Improvement Trust was identified by the urban planner Patrick Geddes in the 1920s. “Bombay,” said Geddes when he visited the tenements of the Bombay Improvement Trust, “is not housing its workers – it’s warehousing them.”

It’s a challenge that has never been resolved, neither by the colonial administrators Thackeray so admires nor by politicians in the decades since 1947. Like in so many other parts of the country, the Raj constructed impressive buildings in Mumbai to shock and awe the natives into submission, but did little to improve the lives of ordinary people. Thackeray’s promise to take Mumbai back to the colonial era would be a terrible leap into a murky past.