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25 August 2016,

How Mumbai became a magnet for migrants

Mumbai presents a melting pot scenario, one to which different communities lend its own distinct flavour, and to which three different sets of laws have contributed. This article assesses how the city’s migratory patterns are reflected in its housing laws, company and industrial laws, and those related to organised crime.

Former Senior Researcher

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Mumbai, a city where everyone believes dreams come true, was once made up of seven marshy islands off the west coast of the subcontinent of India, and was originally inhabited by fishermen, known as kolis. The islands were ruled by the Silahara Hindu rulers of Puri (810-1260 CE), who also built the city’s medieval Walkeshwar temple complex. It appears the islands became part of the maritime trading network of the north Konkan ports that the Silaharas controlled. This overseas trade brought in a floating population of traders and seafarers, including Hindus, Muslims, Arabs, Persians and Jews.

Prosperity came, and since then, Bombay has been a magnet for migrants, from the arrival of the Arabs of the Gujarat sultanate in 1348, to the Portuguese in 1534 who became the Roman Catholic converters of large swathes of Mumbai’s population, to the English in 1661.

Everyone came to Bombay — from the Gujarati-speaking trading and artisan communities to the Parsis (weavers, shipbuilders, carpenters, brokers), Bohri, Khoja, and Kutchi Bhatias. By the 18th century other communities, like the Bene-Israel Jews from the mainland Konkan, Baghdadi Jewish and Armenian traders from Surat, West Asia and Armenia respectively, made Bombay their home. These communities were largely seeking Bombay out for work (Bene-Israel), a refuge from persecution (like the Baghdadi Jews from West Asia), and from drought and political instability.

By the mid-19th century, Bombay became a major trading hub and port in India, second only to Calcutta (now Kolkata). By the time India got independence in 1947, Bombay was the financial capital of India and more than 50% of its population was made up of migrants.

The story of Mumbai and migration revolves around three sets of laws: laws related to housing – rent control, slum rehabilitation etc.; Company and Industrial laws; and Criminal laws – anti-trafficking, anti-terrorist and organised crime.


Rent Control was put in place in the city in 1918 to protect tenants from exorbitant rents. But post World War II, rents were frozen to 1940 levels which led to non-profitability of these housing units. This took place across other parts of the western world including New York where rent control was introduced in 1942. The landlords couldn’t afford to maintain their properties, which led to their deterioration.

The Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates (Control) Act, 1947 allowed the landlords to a one-time increase in the rents, with a maximum of 10% increase in rent for residential premises.[1] Providing housing at low cost led to these accommodation units, which were meant for a single person, being used by the entire family of the migrant worker.

In 1960, the state of Maharashtra was created to include Marathi speaking districts of the erstwhile states of Bombay (which included Gujarat), Hyderabad and Central Provinces, with Bombay (now Mumbai) as its capital.

The city’s manufacturing industries boomed – textiles, pharmaceuticals and also the film industry. Mumbai became a major job destination for people not only from other parts of Maharashtra, but also other states. Some of the biggest stars of Bollywood today migrated from other states into the city to seize opportunities. The poor migrant may have many issues, but many of the poor migrants also became enormously rich. One of them was Dhirubhai Ambani, who was from Gujarat and went to Aden at the age of 17. He then came to Mumbai and started a textile trading business and later went on to establish Reliance.

By 1971 census data, almost 57% of the population of Mumbai was born outside the city and almost 50% lived in the slums. This led to the state government bringing in the Slum Rehabilitation Act, 1971, which was intended to facilitate the redevelopment of slums. The government began aggressively clearing the slums of Bombay. In 1976, an official census of slum dwellers was carried out which identified 2.8 million persons in 1680 settlements. This had risen to 4.3 million people in 1980 settlements and included natural increase[2]. Various plans and schemes were carried out but none were fruitful.

In 1981, the government announced evacuation of some slum and pavement dwellers and a plan to send them back to their hometowns or outside the city. This led to a Public Interest Litigation against the state for its action. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court of India which observed that Article 21 of the constitution covers Right to Life and included Right to Livelihood as well. It ordered the government to take the due procedure of law to evict illegal occupants.[3]

This did not change much as the migrants continued to live on the pavements and slums of the city. Some famous stars and successful businessmen started their careers on the streets of Mumbai. Kailash Kher, a renowned singer, slept at a suburban station for a month when he first came to the city. Bollywood has made many a movie on the lives of poor migrants coming to the city and making good. The Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire is also based on the slums of Mumbai!

As per the 2001 census, more than 54% of the population lives in slums and this covers only about 6% of the city’s area. Some slums, such as Dharavi, are home to one million people who occupy an area that is less than one square mile and is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Yet it is one of the most productive places in the city, being home to a billion-dollar industry, covering leather, garments, pottery and plastic, which is a source of livelihood for millions, despite many illegal activities also taking place simultaneously. It has also become the hub of a rather more recent phenomenon, that of slum tourism, and many NGOs find it a useful lab from which to observe India’s urban sociological conditions.


The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of a regional political party, the Shiv Sena, which attracted hordes of unemployed Marathi speaking youth with its emphatic propagation of the ‘Sons of the Soil’ ideology. They targeted south Indians, who, they claimed were taking away the white-collar jobs that the locals deserved. This nativist movement had to be controlled, which the government did by making reservations for locals in the jobs it offered.

The textile industry, which gave jobs to many migrants and local Maharashtrians, started declining in the 1980s as they became uncompetitive. Many lost their jobs when they closed. The National Textile Mill, empowered under the central legislation, Sick Textile Undertakings (Nationalisation) Act, 1974, took over more than a dozen mills in Mumbai. This made life very difficult for both migrants and the sons of the soil, who worked in these mills. With no income nor job prospects on the horizon, many returned to their villages. Others refuse to vacate the chawls – or one-room tenements, provided by the mills.

In the first half of the 20th century, structures called chawls were built by industrial units to accommodate labour coming into the city at nominal rents. Because of the collapse of the textile mills, and the extensions to the Rent Act, real estate became scarce, prices sky-rocketed, there was no affordable housing, and Mumbai became the slum capital of India. First-time migrants no longer had access to chawls, so illegal slums became the de facto choice of housing.


Mumbai now became a crime capital, with builders and greedy politicians at the centre of mafia gangs. Crimes were committed when land was the bone of contention. A series of real estate magnates and mill owners were killed by underground gangs. The famous supari — or contract killing — is often conducted by a poor migrant from U.P. or Bihar with a knife or a country-made pistol. Slums are therefore often considered the dark under-bellies of the city that become havens for criminals and their activities. During the 1980s and 90s when the Bombay underworld had an unapologetic presence in the city, many of the gangs’ henchmen were migrants living in the poor parts of the city, including slums. Detecting them in such a densely populated area would therefore be quite a task for the city police, which has been described as being second only to Scotland Yard. There have been numerous occasions when politicians, scholars, elites and also the middle-class have either demanded or agreed to the need for some kind of restriction on those entering the city.

The density of the city, the nativist movement, the crime, and the changing idea of India, also brought to Mumbai religious conflict – a first ever in its annals. It was in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya by Hindus in 1992 that communal riots took place in Mumbai. The Hindus in Mumbai retaliated, with full support from the local party, the Shiv Sena, whose partymen stood guard on the streets of Mumbai twenty four seven. In March 1993, the Muslim underworld responded with serial bomb blasts across the city, including prominent locations, such as the Bombay Stock Exchange, the jewellery district and even on the suburban local trains – the city’s very lifeline.

Those arrested in connection with the blasts were charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985 which was the first anti-terror law in the country. This Act lapsed in 1995, but the underworld, which continued with its contract killings and extortions and gang wars, became a menace for the police to control.

In 1999, to tackle organized crime in the city, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act was passed. This Act allows tapping of phones and confessions before a police officer as evidence in court, which are not otherwise admissible. The police’s crackdown on underworld gang members whose leaders had fled the country led to a decline in their criminal activities. They aligned their capital flow within the real estate market and the Bollywood film industry, which makes an average of one movie every single day.

The proliferation of slums and the rise and rise of Bollywood, has made Mumbai a major destination for human trafficking. People from across the country and also beyond the borders are being traded, forced, coerced either into forced labour or prostitution, with promises of entry into the film industry or dreams of making it rich like Dhirubhai Ambani. Most trafficking victims come from poor and rural backgrounds and are lured to the city by the promise of work, and in some cases, marriage. In terms of geography, many trafficking victims come from West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India along with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime jointly undertook a project to strengthen law enforcement against trafficking through training and capacity building.[4] In 2008, Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) were set up under the police department and officers were trained to deal with offences related to human trafficking with assistance from civil society to provide a multi-disciplinary victim-centric approach. However, the working of these units has been less than satisfactory. It has been generally observed that the AHTUs as well as the police are not interested in addressing the problems in their respective jurisdictions. Much of the working of these units is contingent upon whether the police officer in charge initiates proper action, including raiding of brothels and arresting traffickers.

In 2013, based on the Justice J. S. Verma Committee Report[5], Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code was amended and the definition of trafficking was inserted. However, the definition left out trafficking for forced labour which is included in the ‘Palermo Protocol’. Incidentally, the SAARC Convention on preventing and combating trafficking in women and children for prostitution also has a narrow definition of the term ‘trafficking’, limiting it to prostitution.[6]

Meanwhile, those migrants who had come with stars in their eyes, had to find work till they got their break in the movies. Being extras in Bollywood films was one way, but so was the marvellous new concept of dance bars. Here, young girls would dance in bars at night, and earn a decent living, so they could audition during the day in Bollywood. This was a good livelihood for a migrant girl. But in 2005, the government banned dance bars by introducing an amendment to the Bombay Police Act. Almost 75,000 bar dancers lost their jobs overnight. Many of them were then forced into prostitution to survive. The government claimed to have rehabilitation programmes in place, but no one applied for them. In 2013, the Supreme Court held that the legislation was in contravention to Article 19 of the constitution which guarantees the right to carry on one’s profession. The dance bars, which became a major tourist attraction of Mumbai, are now slowly returning to life.

The same provision, that is, Article 19, also allows free movement of citizens across the country, but Mumbai was witness to something quite contrary in 2007. The regional political party, the Shiv Sena, broke in two, and one of its leaders, Raj Thackeray, formed a separate party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (or the Maharashtra Renaissance Army). The party gained national fame when it attacked youth from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar coming into the city for railway jobs. It was the return of the ‘Sons of the Soil’ movement, and once again, being a migrant in the city was not something one wore on one’s sleeve. There were cases registered against the leaders, but no strict action was taken.

In 2008, the city witnessed one of its darkest episodes when 10 terrorists from Pakistan entered Mumbai via the sea and held the entire city hostage for three days. They were able to make ingress into the city through the densely populated fishing villages on Mumbai’s coast. The entire nation held its breadth as the police and army carried out counter-terrorist operations for three long days. We all know what happened then – the Mumbai attacks are now considered a landmark event in the annals of global terrorism, sparking many similar attacks subsequently in different parts of the world.

Clearly, Mumbai has holes in its security system — both maritime and land. The 2008 attack was a wakeup call for not only the city, but the entire country. The central government immediately introduced security measures, such as the creation of a multi-agency centre, introducing stringent money laundering laws to choke terrorist financing and also declaring counterfeiting of currency as a terrorist act. On the maritime security front, the coast guard was placed under the control of the Indian Navy and it was also given the responsibility of overall maritime security. Fast receptor boats were acquired to strengthen coastal surveillance. In the city too, measures, such as the creation of Force One — a specialized unit of the state police with trained commandos — and installation of more than 4,500 security cameras in the city was done. The establishment of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), an intelligence gathering mechanism which could be accessed by the central security agencies of the government to track terror suspects, was proposed after the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.

Looking at the ever increasing size and number, it is necessary to improve the governance of the city and a step towards this is the involvement of citizens in this effort and giving them the power to effect change. The Maharashtra Municipal Corporation and Municipal Council (Amendment) Act, 2009 implemented the Model Nagar Raj Bill in Maharashtra, but did not include many of the features recommended by civil society. Some of the recommendations were: election of ‘area sabha representatives’ for every 1500 citizens who would instead be nominated by the municipal corporation; formation of ward committees with representatives as their members whose functions and duties would be laid down. The exclusion of some crucial provisions has diluted the effect of the Model Bill and will not help the overall objective.

Over the last century, the city has grappled with many issues, but it is still the number one migration magnet for India. While Delhi gets migrants in large numbers from the populous states of the north, Mumbai gets them from everywhere, because Mumbai attracts the country’s best talent – in media, in finance, in film, in advertising, in music, in technology. Mumbai is still, as Suketu Mehta says, a “sone ki chidiya” or golden bird. The city gives a nobody a chance to become somebody. It’s the story that Bollywood tells the world from the city of India’s migrant dreams, Mumbai, every day, one film at a time.

This paper was delivered by Kunal Kulkarni, Senior Researcher, Gateway House at a regional conference of the Consortium of South Asian Think-Tanks (COSATT) on ‘Migration and IDPs in South Asia’.

©Copyright 2016 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1]Bombay High Court, The Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act, 1947, <>

[2] Patel, Sujata and Alice Thorner, Bombay: Metaphor for Modern India, Oxford India Paperbacks, 1996

[3] Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation & Ors. 1986 AIR 180

[4]Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Comprehensive Scheme for Establishment of Integrated AHTUs and ToT, (New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs), <>

[5]Verma, Justice J.S., Justice Leila Seth, and Gopal Subramanium, Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law, 23 January 2013, <>

[6]South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, <>