On Friday, three days before New Year, Mumbai woke up to the horrifying news that 14 people had died in a fire that broke out in a popular rooftop bar in Lower Parel. The blaze started in 1Above and spread to a restaurant named Mojo Bistro on the floor below in it in a four-storey building in the Kamala Mills complex.

Kamala Mills is a location with which many middle-class Mumbai residents have more than a passing familiarity. Since 2015, the 37-acre complex has become a vibrant entertainment hub, with more than 35 hospitality establishments on its premises.

“Some of Mumbai’s hottest restaurants, secret bars, popular pubs, dance spots are located here,” declares the What’s Happening at Kamala Mills website. “Apart from the numerous offices available here, this is a place for a food and games fanatic.”

The complex is the latest venue in the central Mumbai neighbourhood of Lower Parel to be enfolded into the entertainment boom that has spread across on plots that until the mid-2000s housed textile mills. Over the last 15 years, entertainment and food venues have mushroomed across Lower Parel, catering not just to the lakhs of office workers in skyscrapers in the area, but also to other Mumbai white-collar residents.

‘It’s unbelievable’

The transformation hasn’t come without a cost. As the What’s Happening at Kamala Mills admits, thevarious varieties in dining restaurants, cafes, pubs and gaming zones” make “the weekends chaotic [and] traffic jams are a given”. But as Friday’s blaze demonstrated, the dangers aren’t limited to just traffic jams.

“The very fact you can have restaurants there is unbelievable,” said Srila Chatterjee, film producer and co-owner of the Blue Frog music club, which opened in Todi Mills in Lower Parel in 2007 and shut down in 2016. “Todi Mills was a fire hazard before any restaurant came there. But the concept of fire safety did not exist.”

Though the Blue Frog owners had to apply for 72 licences, the municipal corporation did not actively ensure that they complied with fire safety regulations, Chatterjee said. However, she said that the owners ensured that standard protocols were in place to keep their venue safe.

The situation has changed a little since then, said a person who runs a café in Kamala Mills, who asked not to be identified. “You can’t open a restaurant without having these licences,” he said. “These incidents are without comprehension. All restaurants have to have a board which says this premises complies with fire safety norms.”

How did it start?

The transformation of Lower Parel into an entertainment district has been underway since 1999, when an establishment called The Bowling Company opened in Phoenix Mills. For several decades until the 1990s, this section of central Mumbai – over 600 acres in the heart of the island city – housed 54 textile mills. In 1991, when the owners of the mills claimed that their units were unviable, the Maharashtra government introduced the Development Control Rules that allowed them to sell the land on which the units stood if they used the proceeds to restart their operations.

Factories cashing in would have to surrender one-third of their plots for public housing and another third for open space and civic amenities. The noted architect Charles Correa was appointed to draw up an integrated plan for the neighbourhood, knitting together the individual plots of mill land, most of which were larger than ten acres, by creating new thoroughfares and widening existing roads.

A section of the Charles Correa plan for the development of Mumbai's mill land.
A section of the Charles Correa plan for the development of Mumbai's mill land.

But in 2001, without any public discussion, the rule relating to mill land sales was amended, clarifying that the two-thirds rule did not apply to the entire plot on which their factories stood, but only to the open spaces between structures, such as the courtyards and passageways. The original formulation had given the city 400 acres of land on which to re-imagine itself. The revised version would free up only about 50 acres – and shattered any prospect of implementing a holistic plan for the neighbourhood.

Though citizens’ groups challenged this amendment, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.

Workers’ amenities

But even before the court decision, the transformation had started with the authorities granting permission to Bowling Company, which, the owners of Phoenix Mills claimed, was part of a recreation facility for workers. The establishment opened in May, 1999.

In a report written in 2000, researcher Shekhar Krishnan quoted a letter the management of Phoenix Mills wrote to the municipal corporation in 1998 stating that the facility would also include other indoor sports facilities such as carrom, billiards, table tennis as well as a health club, spa and sauna.

Krishnan wrote:

“The letter further stated ‘our mill workers are continuously demanding for the aforesaid facilities and they went on agitation in the month of January 1998,’ and that if the permission is not granted ‘we may have to face critical situation in the mode of agitation or we shall be put in great loss of goodwill which cannot be compensated in terms of money.’”

As Krishnan pointed out, the bowling alley, which charged an entry fee of Rs 50 and Rs 125 per session when it opened, was hardly accessible to the mill’s workers.

Bending the rules for one bowling alley cleared the way for other restaurants and entertainment to come up in the area, from the popular Fire N Ice nightclub in the early 2000s to the towering Palladium complex that now houses the five-star St Regis hotel.

The past decade has seen an acceleration of this pattern of development, converting land meant to benefit mill workers and earmarked for public spaces into enclaves accessible only to the wealthy, which is reflected in the large number of restaurants and high-end retail establishments.

An area transformed

Restaurant owners were initially attracted to the area for both its accessibility and the relative ease of doing business there.

“One of the big issues for restaurants in India and Bombay is licencing,” said Antoine Lewis, a food writer based in Mumbai. “Places like [the mills in Lower Parel] usually have a cleaner system of licencing.” The managers of these complexes help new restaurants negotiate the licensing process, Lewis said.

Lower Parel has another advantage, Srila Chatterjee pointed out. It is equidistant for people on the north and south of Mumbai and, unlike Bandra-Kurla Complex, another popular restaurant area, is not difficult to access.

“If one person has guts to start something in a non-conventional area, if it’s a success everyone wants to piggyback on it,” Chatterjee said. “Kamala Mills is another place like this. For a long time, Kamala Mills only had offices. But now it has become a hub.”