Extending South Asian Urbanism Through Housing Practices: Slum clearance, squatter resettlement and redevelopment schemes in Bombay and Singapore, 1920-1940

Michael Sugarman

With the outbreak and subsequent spread of the third plague pandemic radiating from Hong Kong in 1894, sanitary engineers across Asia quickly turned to urban redevelopment schemes and public housing projects as remedies to remake the conditions seen as harboring disease. Though these projects and schemes were intended to raise living conditions of the state’s poorest inhabitants, they were also consequential in reshaping and forming the quotidian practices of those living in this ‘improved’ environment.

Using material from the National Archives of India, the Maharashtra State Archives, the National Archives of Singapore, the British Library and the National Archives of the United Kingdom, this paper will examine the similarities and connections between local conditions and schemes of the Bombay Improvement Trust (founded in 1899), Bombay Development Directorate (founded in 1920) and Singapore Improvement Trust (founded in 1927) from 1920 to 1940. While Bombay’s improvement efforts and co-operative housing societies in the early twentieth century have been explored by Prashant Kidambi, Nikhil Rao, Sandip Hazareesingh and others, Singapore’s pre-war housing environment for its poorest residents and subsequent improvement schemes have received relatively little scholarly attention. By addressing this gap in the literature on Singapore and connecting the city’s development of public housing projects to Bombay, this paper will argue that Bombay’s improvement efforts were a model for cities across South and Southeast Asia, suggesting a wide reach of South Asian urbanism.

Though this paper will focus on the relationships between policies and practices of slum clearance and squatter resettlement in Bombay and Singapore, it will examine these early twentieth century development projects in the context of a wider research project comparing and connecting urban redevelopment projects, public housing projects, slum clearance and squatter resettlement policies in Bombay, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon. In this way, both the paper and the larger project challenge existing geographic frameworks of studying urbanism in the broadly taken Indian Ocean region. While Su Lin Lewis has recently expanded traditional frameworks and connected littoral Asia through print cultures, this paper will bring together themes in social, economic and urban history to connect a quotidian experience of poverty and improvement in Bombay to a wider network of urban centers across South Asia and the Indian Ocean.