International Badri Mahal, the nerve centre of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, is an oasis of order and calm discipline.
Mumbai Muslims give chaotic city centre a $300m makeover
When you enter Badri Mahal, the nerve centre of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, you leave the chaos of Mumbai's streets for an oasis of order and calm discipline. Community officials, bearded and identically dressed in white tunics and gold-embroidered caps, breeze up and down immaculate wood-panelled corridors, organising bar-coded ID cards for each of the 1 million community members, finding new coffee-growing methods for impoverished Yemeni Bohras, or seeking ways to encourage the community to emigrate to New Zealand. Each has undergone 11 years of specialised training combining administrative and religious elements. The atmosphere is like that of a government department, but not one in India. A closer comparison is perhaps the Vatican. But in the next month, the community's 97-year-old spiritual leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, will take his organisation, the Dawat-e-Hadiyah, to another level. The trust is becoming one of Mumbai's biggest property developers. The community will soon award Mumbai's SMB Architects the contract to design a new US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) city for the Bohras in the teeming commercial heart of old Mumbai. The aim is to have the project finished in time for Syedna's 100th birthday in 2011. They have the money. Unlike other Muslims who give to various charities, Bohras give most of their alms directly to the Syedna, bringing him an annual income which runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. A charitable trust is buying all 270 buildings in Bhendi Bazaar, a 7.2 hectare part of South Mumbai's Muslim heartland. Once they are demolished, its 25,000 inhabitants, 80 per cent of whom are Bohras, will be rehoused in 20 gleaming modern towers. "The importance of this project is that what the head of the community is doing isn't redevelopment, it's upliftment," says Juzer Shakir, the head of the community's legal department. "The social standing, the spiritual standing, everything has to be uplifted by this development. "We have been speaking to the government offices and even they have been saying that this is going to be the only project of its kind in the whole of India." Gulam Zia, the director at the property consultancy Knight Frank, agrees: "It's very ambitious. There are huge challenges in it. It's not the sort of development project which a commercial developer would want to go into." In a country where redevelopment projects are plagued by protests, Mr Shakir's team has already made extraordinary progress. Since the charitable trust was set up in January, they have already bought 65 of the 250 buildings and have held meetings on the scheme with Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party leader, and Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, as well as the Mumbai Municipality. "Sonia Gandhi was very positive," Mr Shakir says. "This isn't something that we are doing for ourselves. His holiness's vision is very clear. He wants to do it for his community and he wants to do it for India at large." Last month, Mr Shakir spent a week in London ironing out details of the scheme with other Bohras. This is not unusual for such an international community. He speaks with a slight American accent and, like his leader, he has a house in Notting Hill. Once the land is bought and the architect's plans are ready, the tender for the builder will be put out internationally, Mr Shakir says. On the narrow streets of Bhendi Bazaar, adjacent to the marble tomb of Taher Saiffuddin, the Syedna's father, it is clear how the Bohras' respect for their religious leader helps to make such an ambitious project feasible. The 20 planned towers will never be able to provide ground-floor, street-facing premises for all of the thousands of tiny shops and merchants who cram Bhendi Bazaar's streets today. But that does not matter to Ibrahim, 21, who is manning the family travel shop. "This will give us something to come together and that's more important than a shop. Everybody's going to be together. It's going to be a whole city." Even Muslims who are not Bohras see the scheme as positive. "It's good for the future, I think, because they want to build a new community," says Farhan Sheikh, who runs a mobile phone shop on the edge of the bazaar. "I don't think anybody's against that, because they are receiving good money for their places. They're offering double the amount." The razing of one of Mumbai's most historic areas has brought no visible opposition. The preliminary design circling Badri Mahal looks more like Dubai than Mumbai. Each tower will have two levels of underground parking, a ground-floor commercial zone, a first-floor recreation zone, with gym and swimming pool, and between five and 18 floors of residential apartments. Each family will be given an apartment of at least 350 square feet, even though many Bhendi Bazaar residents today are packed into 150 sq ft rooms. Roads will be 18 metres wide and 50 per cent of the area will be open space. Not all Bohras are convinced that the redevelopment can be completed by the deadline. Sheikh Abdi Ali, who runs a stall outside the tomb, said he did not think it could even be done in 20 years. But the record of the Dawat-e-Hadiyah is certainly impressive. Muslims are on average poorer, less literate, less likely to be employed and less healthy than the average Indian. The Bohras, perhaps because they are mostly converts from Hindu merchant castes, have one of India's wealthiest communities. The Syedna argues that a self-made businessman or industrialist is in a better position than someone in "service". But Bohras support each other more than other Muslims, who are much more divided than outsiders might suppose. The launch of a Sharia-compliant mutual fund in March illustrated how divisions in the Muslim community can spill over into finance. The Taurus Mutual Fund raised less than $1m, and half of that came from non-Muslims, leaving Waqar Naqvi, the chief executive, sceptical over whether there is a genuine demand for Sharia-compliant funds in India. Those Muslims who want to enter the market have already put their scruples about interest aside, he believes, whereas as those who do not will not be convinced by a Sharia fund. Compare this with the Bohras, who launched a business counselling centre in Mumbai in 2007. The centre's chief executive, Zoeb Nuruddin, says he helps more than 400 businessmen a year, giving advice and arranging interest-free loans of between 40,000 Indian rupees (Dh3,072) and 2m rupees. "If some Bohras are getting something outside, then they can realise they can get it from within our community also," he says. "If you are a buyer and you can get your stuff at a reasonable price from a Bohra, you get it from them because it's good for the community." For the people of Bhendi Bazaar, that could soon extend to their brand-new flats. firstname.lastname@example.org