What’s in a name anyway? – I.

With place names in Mumbai/Bombay having changed so radically and completely in recent years, the etymologies and histories of those that do survive – often only in popular memory and usage – become that much more fascinating. As a result, I’ll attempt, periodically, to highlight some of these stories here.

Let’s start with Nariman Point. Ever wondered how South Mumbai’s premier business district got its name? Obviously its been named after someone called Nariman, but who was he? What did he do? Was it even a he?

Ok, yes it was a he, and an interesting one at that – a Khurshed F. Nariman, best known for his actions in holding the Bombay government up to public scrutiny for its controversial and hugely unsuccessful Back Bay Reclamation scheme in the early 1920’s.

The Back Bay Reclamation or Lloyd’s folly

Under Sir George Lloyd (governor of Bombay from December 1918 – December 1923), the Bombay government instituted a scheme to reclaim land along Bombay’s ‘Back Bay’, from Marine Lines southward to Colaba. This scheme was proposed to create land for upper class housing along the city’s western shore, which was intended, ostensibly, to relieve the overcrowding in the working-class neighbourhoods of the inner city. Hmmm….?

The reclamation project was placed under the jurisdiction of a newly formed Development Directorate, intentionally situated outside public scrutiny and accountability. Sir George Buchanan was hired as the consulting engineer – not quite the best decision as Buchanan would ridiculously under calculate costs and approve equipment woefully ill suited to the project requirements. In a rush to begin, and without considering Buchanan’s report too closely, the government introduced a bill in the Bombay Legislative Council in August 1920 and work began in 1921.

The plan for the reclaimed area, drafted by British town planner W.R. Davidge, deserves detailed description – picture in your mind a grand, seaside complex of public and office buildings set around shaded quadrangles and a mall lined with palm trees running the length of the reclamation with the Rajabai Tower in the north and an equally monumental public building in the south. The remaining area would have residential quarters in neat rectangular plots.

Clearly, this was a plan with no space for the poor – ironic given its stated intent of solving the city’s housing and congestion problems. And, by the mid-1920’s, it was a plan that appeared increasingly impossible to realise, given the extent of problems that already plagued its execution. Within a year of the project’s commencement Buchanan had been forced to revise his estimate and did so with an 89% increase! With equipment ill suited to its requirements, the project’s timeline was also shifted forward by decades.

The Development Scandal Monger

Finally, in steps our protagonist Nariman, as leader of a campaign that channelled public ire against the scheme. A lawyer and Congressman, Nariman used the nationalist newspaper the Bombay Chronicle for fierce and sustained criticism of the Development Directorate under the name, the Development Scandal Monger. As a member of the Legislative Council, he denounced both department and project (‘Back Bay Bungle’, ‘Back Bay Muddle’ and so on), going a step further with strong accusations of graft and misuse of funds. In return the Directorate would accuse him of seeing corruption where it did not exist, probably because it existed in his own environment! In addition to writing in the Bombay Chronicle, Nariman would also address public meetings, openly combative and provocative as he spread the dirt he had unearthed on the Directorate.

Finally, the Bombay government was forced to institute an enquiry committee, whose proceedings the Chronicle would broadcast daily. When Nariman gave testimony before this committee, revealing one abuse after another, the Chronicle dedicated five sensational pages to his performance titled, ‘Mr. Nariman Speaks Out.’

The drama continued with Nariman then being charged with defamation as the Governor and his Directorate attempted to absolve themselves of any blame by placing it squarely on the shoulders of the ‘expert’ Buchanan. If anything, defamation charges served only to enhance Nariman’s popularity and he was re-elected to the Legislative Council a few days later with overwhelming support. In court, Nariman was masterful in his own defence, putting on quite the show as he negated the prosecution’s case against him, and added further revelations of official misconduct and failure. On January 27, 1928, Nariman was cleared of all charges, a public hero for his many supporters.

The Back Bay reclamation scheme would never be completed, with only four block of 439.6 acres being developed by 1929, as compared to the initial plan to reclaim and develop 1145 acres.

One author has said that the real significance of Nariman’s contribution was that he placed colonialism itself – with its arbitrary exercise of British power – on trial, through his expose of corruption and failure in the Back Bay project. It is exceedingly  ironic and unfortunate then, that in Independent India so many years later, the flaws against which Nariman fought continue to remain depressingly familiar.


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